As a director on Teen Titans, Transformers Animated and The Avengers: Earth’s Mightiest Heroes as well as the creator and director of Super Robot Monkey Team Hyperforce Go!, Ciro Nieli is no stranger to bringing heroes to life in animation. But in the role of an Executive Producer on Nickelodeon’s ongoing Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles animated series, Mr. Nieli finds himself in the enviable position of being a key showrunner for a franchise that he adored starting with its genesis as an independent comic book. On Friday October 11th, Toonzone was able to sit down with Mr. Nieli at New York Comic Con to discuss what fans can expect from the new second season of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, his intent and future plans for the show and more.
TOONZONE NEWS: The second season of TMNT is starting soon and at the end of the first, we saw the Kraang dealt a crippling blow by the turtles. Generally speaking, what major story arcs or themes can fans look forward to this time?
CIRO NIELI: Well, there’s a lot happening. A lot of what we left people with at the end of season one was only the beginning for what we really wanted to do with the series. Season one is a foundation for the stories we wanted to tell, which is great. That being said, you have the whole idea of who is April, what are her powers, and is there some connection to the Kraang? We explore that.
I like to think that the fight we saw between Splinter and Shredder, which was their first encounter, really is the beginning of the end of all that, that’s only just begun. Because you know, okay, it’s been going on 30 years and we’ve been hiding underground and it’s this old rivalry, but the idea is they’re very aware of each other and have gotten through that first encounter jitter feeling, like they can throwdown and we can really get down to business with that. That’s really exciting.
There’s the idea that the Turtles are now finally heroes – they’ve been heroic, and they’ve accomplished saving the world. That’s upped their game a little bit. Shredder’s got to react to that, so what’s he going to do to meet these characters that he underestimated in battle? Karai is a huge part of season 2, especially toward the end of the season. We really grew to do a lot of cool things with her. She’s grown on me a lot, she’s a pretty cool character. Her role in the Foot, her role in where she is in the Turtles’ lives, a lot is going to snowball out of Splinter learning that she was his daughter.
As if that’s not enough, you’ve got Casey Jones. He’s just great by himself, but he can bring that much more out of the Turtles. Everybody’s personality changes when they associate with someone else. Seeing him in the group of four and turning it into a group of five and seeing how they do or don’t deal with it well is pretty awesome. It’s really refreshing, it’s helped us write the show. You know, there’s only so much you can do at a certain point after story tropes and things like that have played themselves out.
TZN: You’ve got this third season already greenlit and it seems like there’s been a lot of planning. How far ahead did you plan this out?
CIRO NIELI: From day one? I would have hoped to have had at least five seasons. So now that we know we have three, it becomes about re-strategizing and asking “what if it’s only three?” It gets a little tricky. But we do plan out. There’s the way you do things if you get four, if you get five, and then there’s the way that at some point we can reassess and maybe get it done in three. But the beautiful thing about Ninja Turtles is it’s got this huge history, and with that comes so many characters and so many stories that have been told or ideas that have come out. Knowing that you have three seasons at least gives you the power – it gives you the power of patience, it allows you to do things properly in a way that they’re not just cooler, but easier to digest on an emotional or dramatic level. I remember when the show first came out and I think there was so much disappointment after the first episode that I was getting from the fans: “where’s Rocksteady and Bebop, where’s Casey Jones?” And you think like, wow, after one or two episodes, having all those characters is just overdose, it’s too much of an overload. You really gotta think about this from the standpoint of the potential kid viewer who doesn’t know about any of these characters. Being able to take your time and let them learn about everything slowly is kind of fun.
TZN: You were talking about a beginning for the Turtles. When you started out, did you have an endgame that you’d like to take them to?
CIRO NIELI: A little bit. For them in terms of their character arcs and where they end up, definitely. Physically, where they’re going to be at the end of the series, I’m not so sure about because so much of that is up to the circumstances leading up to it. Those character archetypes all have an evolution built within them, and slowly being able to play that out while serving separate episodes is kind of fun.
TZN: What can you tell us about this meeting with the 80’s Turtles? Is this meeting a Turtles Forever type of crossover, or a callback in some way?
CIRO NIELI: It’s too bad – I think that came out really early and everybody got really excited because of Turtles Forever. I think people just assumed there was going to be an episode where they’re all hanging out together. We don’t want to do that, we’re not doing that. It was really one of those things where at the time we came up with what we were doing, it was really great and funny, it was almost a joke. We did it and now all the sudden, once it got to press it got back to us, “I wonder what that special team-up show is going to be?” But it’s really just a big cameo more than anything else. We had the original voices and that was great. I guess I would say it was pretty trippy to have them in the booth with the new actors. Hearing them side by side, they are really different and kind of silly.
TZN: So is it a physical cameo?
CIRO NIELI: It’s a physical cameo. They’re there, we will see them.
TZN: Related to humor, that’s been a big part of the show and it’s included the occasional parody. So, here’s the burning question I’m sure everyone’s dying to know: will there be more Space Heroes? If not, can we expect different targets for the show?
CIRO NIELI: I kinda don’t wanna say anything, because I want all that stuff to be fresh for people when they see it. But where that all came from is that I love 2D animation, and this project was the first one I had to do in CG. I actually did it willingly and I was really excited about it, but I couldn’t let those 2D roots die. So without giving away too much, we really love not just that Star Trek show, but also Filmation in general is just so great. That was one of the last places that had really beautiful layout work done here by Americans. So we definitely wanted to do tribute to them first, but we’re animation fans and we love a lot of different cartoons. So to pay our respects and homages to more than one is more fun than just playing out Space Heroes. For season 2, what I will say is we have a whole different show.
TZN: On another point, there’s the matter of April. At last year’s panel you remarked you definitely didn’t want her to be a “damsel in distress”. Now we’ve got this situation where she’s been mentored by Splinter a bit and she’s butted heads with Karai, who turned out to be his lost daughter. So how do you see April’s role in the Turtle family at this point? She seems set up as an anti-Karai, almost.
CIRO NIELI: Well, she’s not going to be an anti-Karai moving forward. I think that’s easy to ascertain from the episode where they faced off, and you could draw some parallels that she’s the daughter Splinter didn’t have. That will always exist, but I think we do go other places with April that are bigger than that which are more interesting. In a lot of the future episodes she becomes a big part of the Casey story, so that’s a bit of a sidetrack. There’s also a whole crazy new thing that happens at the beginning of season 2, which puts her on a whole different track. You know, she starts to hold her own – my thing with April is, I never wanted her to be this amazing kunoichi. I don’t want to do the thing that happened in the 2007 film where she was fighting side by side and was awesome. I like her being human.
TZN: Would you say there’s some dominant concept or idea that the second season is going to be about?
CIRO NIELI: It’s a bit of a monster scavanger hunt at first, but then it switches gears. I would say it’s equal parts ninja, mutants and Kraang, definitely. It’s also got a big dose of Casey throughout the whole thing. We maybe started off wanting to do mostly monsters, but by the end of it you realize there’s all this canon you want to get out. And at the end of the day, it’s always about that family core. Finally, we do a big nod to the Leo one shot in issue #10 in volume 1 of the original Mirage comics, which was always my dream. When I first started working on the show, one of the few things I wanted to do was some service toward that Leo one shot. It was such a good story.
TZN: You’re a major Turtle fan turned creator and producer. Looking back on that experience, is there a story or set of stories that you look back on and think “OK, this defines the TMNT for me”?
CIRO NIELI: Honestly, it was always that first twelve issue run. But within those issues, issue #1 was seminal and I really loved issue #10. After all that, the one thing that kept it going for me, I thought that 1990 movie was really fantastic. I thought the tone of it was really great. The fight choreography was a little silly but the drama, the Henson puppetwork — I love that movie. It was just fantastic and we’re always drawing on that in terms of inspiration. Kevin Eastman, the guy’s like the new Stan Lee. He’s the greatest.
Toonzone News extends its gratitude to Mr. Ciro Nieli for his time and to Nickelodeon for its efforts in arranging this interview. New episodes of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles season 2 are premiering Saturdays at 11 AM on Nickelodeon. Click here for more Toonzone coverage of New York Comic Con.
Bonus material: That same Friday afternoon, Toonzone’s Ed Liu had the chance to shoot exclusive photographs of TMNT voice actors Hoon Lee (Splinter) and Greg Cipes (Michelangelo) in addition to the shots of Mr. Nieli above. Check out day one of his Batsui project for photos of all three and many more doing the Batsui!