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Letting Turtle Kids Be Kids in ‘Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Mutant Mayhem’

With a heap of festival wins, a BAFTA longlist spot, and a Critics Choice nomination, the hit animated film its director Jeff Rowe calls ‘punk rock anarchy hanging together by duct tape’ tells the funny, colorful, and unique origin story of how four brothers become humanoid turtle mutants, get taken in by a mutant rat karate master, and become New York City’s unorthodox crime-fighting heroes.

In a normal day, at least five new film or TV show trailers come across my desk. I handle each the same way – a quick click to view with a sideways glance as I continue whatever work is at hand. For the most part, I have no idea what gem they portray, so fleeting is my attention. But I distinctly remember the day the first trailer for Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Mutant Mayhem hit my inbox. My half-hearted glance ended abruptly; intrigued, I hit pause, restart, and began laughing out loud.

That’s because this is not your father’s Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. Or odd cousin’s. It’s your kids’ Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. Bless their bratty hearts. Directed by Jeff Rowe, produced by Seth Rogen, Evan Goldberg, and James Weaver, and animated at Mikros Animation (Montreal and Paris) and Cinesite (Vancouver and Montreal), Mutant Mayhem deftly continues the animation industry’s recent trend of breaking the 3DCG family-friendly feature film mold and replacing it with risky, visually innovative, and artfully produced films, such as the two recent Spider-Verse films, Puss in Boots: The Last Wish, and Trolls Band Together, among others. The film, released by Paramount Pictures, is now streaming on Paramount+.

And this one is overflowing with the mellifluous, obnoxious cacophony of teenage boys. In all their glorious annoyance. In the film, Splinter (Jackie Chan) is an unextraordinary rat who comes upon four little turtles in neon green slime. Transformed into a mutant after coming in contact with the substance, Splinter takes in the turtles and raises them as his children, learning martial arts to help teach and equip his adoptive sons – Donnie, Mikey, Raph, and Leo – for the cruel world of humans. As the four boys age, they become desperate for approval from human teens their age and to live a fuller life outside of their sewer home. After a chance encounter with aspiring teen reporter April O’Neil (Ayo Edebiri), the turtles learn about a feared crime boss, Superfly, and decide to take down his operation. But they are blindsided when Superfly turns out to be a mutant as well.

Keys to the film’s success are the performances of our shelled crime-fighting youngsters: Micah Abbey as Donatello/Donnie, Shamon Brown Jr. as Michelangelo/Mikey, Nicolas Cantu as Leonardo/Leo, and Brady Noon as Raphael/Raph. They steal the show, as they say.

Mutant Mayhem has garnered a slew of film festival wins, been selected for the BAFTA animated feature longlist, and received a Critics Choice nomination. We had a chance to speak to Rowe once again to talk about the production of the film he previously referred to as “punk rock anarchy hanging together by duct tape.”

Dan Sarto: There's incredible humor in the physicality of the four brothers, both in the animation and the voice acting ensemble performance. You'd spoken to us previously about your “Movie Club,” where you pulled together film references of teenage physicality to study. Tell us how you dialed in that aspect of the characters in the story, because I know, as you've said, it's central to the very essence of the film.

Jeff Rowe: Yeah, we were really focused on the acting. The animation performance, first and foremost, before any technical accomplishments. We were like, “We just want to focus on acting,” and that means uncommon posing, uncommon expressions, things that capture nuance of emotion and feeling, and just trying to maintain a teenage energy. It meant looking at skater videos, then it was looking at [2011 film] Attack the Block, and then looking at the way teenagers mess with each other, touch each other, and jump up and down. I was at [production studio] Mikros in Montreal, and we looked at the scene when the turtles are talking to April. We got four animators, went into a room, and blocked it out. We filmed it on iPhones. We just ran the scene a bunch of times like you would with actors, and we figured out this really organic marriage of camera blocking and animation performance where it's driven by the performance. It really came from these animators embodying these characters.

Most of our animation reviews were me pushing my iMac as far away from me as possible, so through Zoom, it could capture my entire body, and just us talking about, “This is happening. How's the character going to react to that? If you're saying something mean to someone, do you make eye contact with them or do you look away? Are you scared to make eye contact?” Really getting into the weeds of what makes a performance feel honest. Especially as a teenager, because teenagers wear their emotions differently than adults. We put so much effort into that, and the type of jokes and comedy we were doing required this really naturalistic acting style underneath it.

DS: This easily could have been a film made based on more superficial ideas of how you thought teenagers approached their world, which would have been a very different film. Your approach made all the difference.

JR: Thank you. There was a moment when one of our French animators did this thing as one of the turtles when they were excited, and they were like, “Oh!” The way they gestured with their hands was so real! It just felt like so many videos I had seen of teenagers. I was like, “That's it. We need to do more of that.” And then every once in a while, one of the animators would stumble on a new piece of technology or a new observation about teen behavior that we would be like, “That's great, put that in the dictionary for the film. That's a thing we’ll go back to and have all the turtles do and use across the film.”

DS: It's rare for both obvious and not-obvious reasons to record cast ensembles in animation. Everyone's recorded individually. Was it always the plan to record the four turtle actors together? Because that's central to the success of their dynamic as brothers.

JR: That was never the plan. It was a thing that Seth Rogen mentioned multiple times… like, “Oh, it'd be fun to try that.” And we were all like, “Yeah, that'd be cool, but I don't know. That seems hard. That's not going to happen.” Then we recorded the kids individually a few times, and it was fine. It was funny; they're good actors, but it didn’t capture the magic that we were hoping for. So, Seth really, really pushed us to get all four of them in a room together, and we're like, “That's insane. Let's do it. We won't be able to use any of the audio from it, but let's try it.” And then we did it and it was like, “Oh no, this is lightning in a bottle. This is magical. We have to do all records like this, and we have to find a way to solve our audio issues so that we can use this.”

DS: That one move completely changed the dynamic of the performances. Couple that with the visual style of the animation, and it made for a unique film, which is a big part of why it has been so successful. Let's talk a little bit about the design, art direction, production design, and animation. They're all outstanding.

JR: Thank you.

DS: This film is every bit as innovative as some of the more recent, groundbreaking animated films we’ve seen. You previously said that on the film, you'd defer to how a 15-year-old would design things. You broke a lot of visual rules on this film. How early on did you arrive at the idea that you needed the energy, and the “eye,” of how teenage kids would visualize things?

JR: I mean, it wasn't our first idea, but it was something we stumbled on within the first year. Our production designer, Yashar Kassai, did some tests in Blender with these modeled environments where lines extrude off things. There are graphite smudges… the mistakes in the drawings were built into 3D space and would rotate and move. And that just proved to us that it would look really cool. So that was the direction we committed to.

But compared to a lot of films that came out this year, we had a significantly smaller budget, and we needed to find a way to differentiate ourselves and stand out. There are some high-tech solutions in there, but there's also just a lot of low-tech solutions and a lot of things that look great just because we put a lot of labor and love into it. I think, hopefully, we made a lot of smart creative decisions… like color. I'm so proud of the color palette of the film and how vibrant, but also limited, it is. It's only two or three colors per sequence that really dominate. And picking cool colors is essentially free! You just make the right creative choice, and it can really add a lot of tone and dimension to the film for not a lot of money.

DS: You went right into my next question. Talking about the colors, textures, shadows, and some interesting camera action, a 3DCG pipeline doesn't, by default, push itself towards this type of stylized graphic, almost broken style. That must've been difficult to wrangle.

JR: It was also difficult to get the artists to do it at first because their whole job is to make it symmetrical, make it a thing that can be rigged. Anytime they've deviated from that over the course of their careers, they've been told, “No, you can't do that.” And then on this project, it's like, "No, no, no. Yeah, break the rules. Whatever you've been told before this, don't do that.” We were trying to create a different philosophy and approach. And there was a little reticence at first. But once the artists broke the rules a little bit and then got approvals, they were like, “Oh, we can go even further.” And within a short time, Mikros was just running with it, modeling things even more pushed than we could have imagined, and really embracing the design philosophy and breaking what the computer naturally wanted to do. And I think for a lot of artists, it was really freeing and exciting to do something that different.

DS: How long did it take before you were satisfied with the main animation style? And was there any doubt that you were going to successfully achieve that desired look within the time and budget you had?

JR: It was harrowing for a minute. And there were times where we had to look down the production pipeline towards the future and decide what things we were going to compromise on because we weren't going to be able to get it all. But we would have these conversations to determine what really mattered most. As silly as it might be, in the end, a giant mutant fly creature with horses for legs was really important to us, and it was really important that it looked good and was credibly terrifying. So, we decided to put a lot of resources into making that. We just talked a lot and tried to be decisive and make the best decision that we could, over and over.

DS: Looking back, with the benefit of hindsight and a lot of rest, what would you say were the biggest challenges in getting this film finished?

JR: We had a story that wasn't working, so two years into the three-year process, we essentially completely had to redo it from the ground up. We essentially had to write a new script in 48 hours, then reboard it, put it up in reels, and put it through layout. Like 90% of the film changed. From then on, you're just in permanent crunch time until it's done. But again, I think we just really communicated to everyone why it was happening. And thankfully, we had a team of people who really believed in what we were doing and were smart enough and confident enough as filmmakers to recognize that even though it's always unpleasant to throw things away and redo them, what we were doing made a better movie. And at the end of the day, we all really wanted this to be good. So, it was just a year of madness getting it done, but the studio supported us, we supported each other, and we got through it.


DS: Last question. Turtles is obviously a storied franchise, and there have been a number of shows across every medium: live-action, 2D, and 3DCG. Did you feel any added pressure with regards to the huge fan base and overall expectations of how this film would turn out?

JR: A little bit. I know a lot of people really care about it. I would get tweets and messages from friends that were like, “Hey, man, congrats. Don't mess it up.” Which is like, believe me, I will try not to. But at the same time, to make something new, to truly reboot a franchise, and to make something memorable, you have to think about it as a singular piece of film and story and imagine that there was never a Ninja Turtles film before this. Someone from anywhere in the world should be able to sit down in a theater, having never heard of the Ninja Turtles, and be able to enjoy this film. And that's how we tried to approach it as filmmakers. And if you go into this not liking the Ninja Turtles, not being familiar with the Ninja Turtles, or hating the Ninja Turtles, we wanted to make you come out of this loving these characters and their world.

So, we were going to respect the canon as much as we could, but anytime we had to make a change to increase audience engagement and make a better film, we were going to do it. And I think it worked out. Most of the comments weren't, “Hey, why'd you change this backstory?” The comments became, “Oh, I understand why you did that. Oh, it makes sense that you did that. I actually really liked that.” And a lot of fans really got behind it, which was amazing.

Dan Sarto's picture

Dan Sarto is Publisher and Editor-in-Chief of Animation World Network.