Moderated by Entertainment Weekly’s Ray Rahman on Friday evening, the packed panel for Nickelodeon’s new Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles animated series was an energized and festive affair.
After a clip of the series opening was played and costumed Ninja Turtles took the stage to great applause, Rahman introduced a very full panel: executive producers Ciro Nieli (Super Robot Monkey Team HyperForce Go!, Teen Titans) and Peter Hastings (Animaniacs, Pinky and the Brain, Kung Fu Panda: Legends of Awesomeness) as well as voice actors Sean Astin (Raphael), Rob Paulsen (Donatello), Greg Cipes (Michelangelo), and Hoon Lee (Splinter). Rahman introduced each person individually and had the audience applaud as they took the stage after which those leading stars who couldn’t make it were also acknowledged: Jason Biggs (Leonardo), Mae Whitman (April), and Kevin Michael Richardson (the Shredder). With the panel seated, Hoon Lee was asked to treat the audience with an outburst of Splinter’s Japanese “STOP!” line that he says to end a training session for the Turtles. An acknowledgment and round of applause was also given to voice director Andrea Romano, who was attending in the audience.
The panel was soon turned over to Nieli, who presented the audience with a special preview of upcoming villains on the show while the voice actors occasionally threw in humorous quips. First up was Donatello’s pet roach “Chong”, which he outfitted with a spy-cam to do reconnaissance for the turtles – and also to freak out his brother Raphael, who is irrationally terrified of the little creature. However Chong is fated to – of course – have an unfortunate encounter with mutagen, transmogrifying him into the menacing and gadget-using “Cockroach Terminator” (Astin cheerfully remarked that he was “anatomically correct”). Nieli noted that while the transformation has made the roach much bigger, he’s still smaller than the Turtles and thus still feared by Raphael. As if that weren’t enough a second mutation will ultimately create “The Molted Maniac”, Cockroach Terminator 2, a bonafide “techno-mutant freak”.
Other adversaries were also introduced to the great approval of fans: the iconic mouser machines, which the producers wanted to be as close to their original appearance in the Mirage comics as possible; and the brutish mutant alligator Leatherhead. Amid all this Hastings praised Nieli’s “amazing job” on the “visual component” of the series, which Nieli was devoted to as Hastings came onto the show “a little bit late”. To show off Leatherhead the panel ran a short video of the turtles battling this foe, making it extra fun by having the voice actors do an impromptu voice over for this fast-paced scene where the Turtles are constantly getting knocked around.
To the audience’s delight, the panel proceeded to show a long sizzle reel of assorted clips from scenes to come in future episodes, some of which I managed to capture. The video led off with a small group of Foot Clan ninja seemingly trying to track down the Turtles, only to be steathily picked off one by one until their leaders are left standing. After that came a clip of the Turtles moving at top speed through the New York City skyline while engaging in some banter, followed by a fierce battle against long-time TMNT villain Baxter Stockman and a scolding from Splinter afterwards. The reel closed with a long look at this show’s version of Metalhead, a robot resembling the the Turtles. Here he’s another invention of Donatello’s gone wrong, first conceived as a way to protect the city and do the Turtles’ dirty work without them having to risk themselves in a tough situation. Donatello can control it with a remote and successfully tests it against his brothers, clearing the way for him to send it out into the city. Then came what might have been the most well received moment of the panel, when Metalhead is out on lookout duty with April along. Donatello uses his creation to stare at April from the Turtles’ lair and gushes over her, only for April to reveal to an aghast Donatello that Metalhead’s audio was turned on and she heard every word. Finally, things came to an end with Metalhead being used to great effect against the Krang, with Donatello reveling in it as if he were playing a video game. Unfortunately he loses control when one of the aliens leaves his destroyed suit to possess Metalhead instead, at which point the video came to an end.
After this both the audience and the panel voiced its approval of the video, with Cipes commenting that “…it’s like we get to have a feature film-quality show every week” and Astin revealing that this was the first time they had seen this footage. The focus of the panel then shifted to a Q&A session led by Rahman. Nieli was asked about their approach toward what they would keep from past iterations of TMNT and what they would change, to which he answered that he didn’t believe that they’ve ditched very much. At the same time they also want to take their time with the show, and it was suggested that most characters from the past have been and will be considered. Nieli also went out of his way to remark that he was a “big fan” of the original Mirage comics by Kevin Eastman and Peter Laird.
In regard to the decision to make April younger, Nieli believes this that a detail like this is “…secondary to the dynamic of how you want to show to play”. He remarked that he did not want April to be a “damsel in distress” every week, a comment that evoked particularly boisterous approval from the crowd. Hastings chipped in by emphasizing the need to keep a “party vibe” to the show, remarking that the Turtles are “…goofy, funny, they kick ass, they are heroes. That’s the kind of spirit you have to keep alive.” Hastings also believes the action is stronger in this series than in any other iteration of the TMNT, except maybe in the original comics.
Rahman then asked Rob Paulsen about his experience and what he had passed on to his colleagues, to which Paulsen joked that “I taught them everything they know, but not everything I know!” He reflected on the privilege he’s had knowing Peter Hastings and Andrea Romano for 25 years and as well as the opportunity to work with this talent on an “iconic” show. Paulsen asserted that a key difference between this series and the original TMNT cartoon is that it is “…made by fans, for fans.” Whereas in the early days only Eastman and Laird “got it”, now things have changed where there is a generation old enough to “get the ethos” of TMNT.
Regarding fan reception, Greg Cipes was asked to explain why Michelangelo’s “Booyahkasha!” outcry had replaced the classic “Cowabunga!” that some fans were adamant about keeping. Cipes recounted how once there was an empty moment in the script early on, so he was asked to try something. At that he used “Booyahkasha!” on impulse, and it stuck. He asked fans to not be mad at him for this, and on “Cowabunga!” he said “…I hear it might come back at some point.” Cipes believes the new saying is an awesome one that is “…calling on all the positive energy in the universe”, at which point he had the audience shout it. At that Astin jumped in to remark that Cipes was perfectly cast and he and the panel echoed approval for the phrase, after which Cipes jumped in again to inform the audience about “Booyahkasha!”, saying that it started in Ireland and then went to Jamaica and meant “all glory to the most high”. Cipes concluded with the notion that “It’s like the turtles saying ‘love’ in a cool, hip way.”
Hoon Lee was asked how he saw Splinter, to which he answered that there was a clear father-son relationship between him and the turtles. He has a 3-year-old son himself, so their connection is something that feels very strong to him. Lee went on to reflect on Splinter’s paternal instinct to protect his sons and the impulse to let the Turtles explore and experience the world for themselves. “You are constantly battling this tension between expanding their understanding and preparing them, but not wanting them them to go at all, and that shows up in the script.” Lee thinks that such things as design work and writing tend to not be talked about, but if they are done well then the characters are there to be discovered by actors and they don’t have to “fabricate something” to add something more to a show on their own. For Lee, the bond between the Turtles and Splinter is one of those “eternal themes” that is a “lynchpin for storytelling”. Right on cue Cipes got in-character and asked “Can I go out tonight, pop?”, prompting Lee to do the same with a stern “NO!”
As the event came to a close, Rahman addressed the panel with some questions submitted by fans. The first asked about the degree to which the creators drew from the Japanese for action scenes, leading to Nieli divulging how they consult with an actual ninja master and reference his footage. Yet all his “cool stuff” you can’t see, and by the same token depicting “true ninjutsu” doesn’t make for good battle choreography. For Nieli it’s about having a certain mindset: ninjas are “sneaky” and embrace a “side door, backdoor kind of fighting”. Regarding how many “obscure villains” would be seen, Hastings answered that they have considered every villain and that viewers will see “a bunch” of them. Regarding the action in the series itself, Hastings compared it to “puppet warfare” and asserted that the series’ CG animation was “great for battle” and allowed for more detail than 2D, as well as making it much easier to do slow-motion movements. Sound design was also singled out as important, with the panel observing that when integrated well that can elevate the vitality and excitement of a scene. Cipes cut in with a comment that they have a “dream team” of people bringing everything together for the show.
On a final and particularly uplifting note, Rob Paulsen was asked who was more fun to perform as: Donatello or Raphael from the original TMNT cartoon. For Paulsen “My favorite job is always by next one”, but he went out of his way to express how thankful he was to be involved with TMNT. “If you’re lucky, you get TMNT, if you’re really, really really lucky you get it twice. With due respect to Lou Gehrig, I am the luckiest man on the face of the Earth. It just don’t get no better, folks.”