How do you build a better turtle? Or, to be more specific, a better teenage ninja turtle?
Since its dawn as a comic book in 1984, the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles franchise has continually evolved. The latest movie, which opened Friday, has pushed that further, using new digital and computer technology to fuse real-life actors to animated turtles.
“It’s kind of the first time in the 18 years that I’ve been at ILM that a project has grabbed me in such an intense way,” said Pablo Helman, a visual effects supervisor at Industrial Light & Magic, the Lucasfilm company that handles dozens of big spectacle movies. “It’s almost like a future animation movie.”
Helman and his crew worked on the Jonathan Liebesman-directed movie for more than 21/2 years, a time he refers to as a “discovery process” starting with artists’ sketches, moving on to clay models, computer simulations and animation, and ending with the motion-capture versions of the four turtles.
Here are some key points that guided the ILM crew along the way.
Personality drives the franchise.
Producer Michael Bay insisted that even more than the look and movement of the turtles, the filmmakers and animators needed to capture the character and spirit.
“The first thing [Bay] told me he wanted in the movie was to make sure that these characters are charming,” Liebesman recalled. “That, in a way, was an even greater challenge than making the action scenes live up to what one might expect from a Michael Bay production.”
History played its part.
The franchise’s 30-year history was never forgotten. The task was to create something that would please longtime fans while bringing in a new generation raised on computer simulation.
“Everyone has their idea of what these characters look like. Every time you introduce something new, there is going to be some backlash,” said producer Andrew Form, who worked on the remakes of “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre” in 2003 and “A Nightmare on Elm Street” in 2010.
Shape the characters to the actors.
The performances of real-life actors were crucial in getting the look and movement of the turtles. Similar to the reboot of the “Planet of the Apes” franchise, motion-capture technology was used so the performances mix actual movement with computer simulation.
“All of the expressions are truly the actors,” said Form. “I tell people — if you took a picture of the actor and put it next to a picture of the turtle, you’ll truly see the actor through the face of that turtle.”
ILM designed motion-capture suits for the actors to wear, including a relative shell as well as a helmet with an HD camera on each side. Each actor had around 138 sensors on his face.
They’re talking reptiles — and they’re funny.
Unlike most other action franchises, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles is at heart a comedy, which means that there’s extensive comic dialogue. This presents particular challenges for animators. It pushes the demand for detail — the ILM artists had to be acutely aware of how the actors playing the turtles pronounce words and use vocal inflections. The trick was to capture this seamlessly without distracting the audience. That was crucial to the whole process, say the filmmakers: Don’t let the look overwhelm the movie.
“There are so many tools that if not used properly will alienate an audience,” Liebesman said. “They’ll just give up on the movie.”