Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Mutant Mayhem brings back the iconic reptilian quadruplets for another wild adventure in the animated world of New York City.
The film follows the four Turtle brothers on a journey to win the hearts of New York in the hope that they will be accepted as normal teenagers. With the help of their new friend April O’Neil, they go after a crime syndicate, but things become increasingly dangerous when a mutant army is sent after them. Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Mutant Mayhem sets itself apart from all other movies by applying a unique spin on the current trend of stylized & exaggerated MPR visuals & casting teenagers to voice the Turtles for the first time in the franchise’s nearly 40-year history. Brady Noon, Shamon Brown Jr., Nicolas Cantu, and Micah Abbey voice Raphael, Michelangelo, Leonardo, and Donatello, respectively.
Mikros Animation in Montreal and Paris was the lead vendor on the film, with Cinesite Vancouver & Montreal supporting them by providing 21.5 minutes of animation across 20 sequences.
The project was the studio’s second animation collaboration with Paramount, following on from its work on Paws of Fury: The Legend of Hank (2022). The film marks Nickelodeon Animation’s first CG-animated theatrical production and also its first time working with Cinesite.
Cinesite’s crew worked on the project for 11 months. The team was led by VFX Supervisor Chris Kazmier & Animation Supervisor Eric Cheung, who both share fascinating insights into Cinesite’s work on the franchise reboot.
Behind the Design
Director Jeff Rowe wanted Mutant Mayhem to look different from what might be expected from an animated film. His aim was to make the film strongly resemble its concept art. Inspired by sketches he had made in school notebooks as a teenager, full of exaggerated strokes and effects lines, he wanted the film’s animation to reflect that original style.
Production Designer Yashar Kassai found working out the sketchy and unfinished style of the film one of the most difficult parts of the production. He, Rowe and Mikros, who developed the look of the film, encouraged Cinesite’s artists to embrace their imperfections and approach the aesthetic and movement in their work like teenagers. Kassai cited the 1987 television series, the original film series and classic toy line as big inspirations for the production team: “We were looking back to the time when sophomoric gross-out humour was the comedic style of the day. So we started there, but then we added the teenage drawing aspect on top of it as a very strong top layer.” He also cited Chungking Express (1994) as a heavy influence on the film’s visuals.
With an origin in the comic book series created by Kevin Eastman and Peter Laird in the early-1980s, The Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles have become an enduring set of characters across comics, toys, animated TV series and feature film versions and variations. Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Mutant Mayhem marks a particularly successful entry in the Turtles’ filmography.
Chris: Careful attention was paid to the colour palette of the toys, the chunkiness of them. Even the colour palette of the original cartoon series was very influential on the film itself. In the TCRI lab sequence, the original toy Technodrone was an influence on the set and reference for the surfacing. The look is like if you took some school notebook drawings and shot them with a high-end film camera using an anamorphic lens and full lighting crew. The idea was that they wanted to make it cinematic and wide scope, but the detail and colours are off and imperfect. Imperfect meaning that there are no perfect profiles and sketchy lines on everything. There is film grain, noise, lens flares, dust on the lens, etc. and also you couldn’t pick any of the colours from a colour wheel. All mixed and smeared, often with grey, with a rough brush feel on the transitions. Which is exactly what a modern renderer does not do, hence the challenge for all departments in the backend. We set up a 2D traditional FX department within Cinesite’s FX department and created a lot of “hybrid” looks, or just pure hand drawn FX that we could leverage in the final shots.
When it came to the design of the Turtles themselves, Jeff Rowe wanted them to look like teenagers, so they pushed for a less bulky version compared with previous versions, creating something new, fresh and more relatable. The result was slightly skinnier Turtles, with builds more resembling teenagers.
Learn more about the original and fresh look of the Ninja Turtles that our team helped bring to audiences
Eric: Mikros provided textures and models for all Cinesite shared assets. The team used that information to recreate shaders and the final look of the characters to match the filmakers’ pre-defined visual style and language. The rigging team also had to rig up all the models we received as well. There were some characters, props and locations which only featured in Cinesite sequences; these assets were created with guidance from the Nickelodeon art team. For the animation department, there was more collaboration at the earlier stages, where Mikros shared a few sequences they’d been working on as reference. They also supplied some style guides. Using these we got some animation tests underway internally to ensure we matched the style, then got the director’s feedback on them. After things kicked off and we were all busy making the film, there were fewer interactions between the two studios in terms of the animation department, but we maintained a good relationship.
For the first time ever, the turtles are voiced by actual teenagers! Watch the filmmakers and Turtles cast discuss why they took this approach.
Animating Like Teenagers
When it came to the animation, Cinesite needed to embrace the overall feeling of adolescence that the filmmakers wanted to convey. This meant that the action choices were more naturalistic, keeping hand gestures and acting clichés to a minimum. One of the live action movies Jeff Rowe referenced was Attack The Block, a movie where a group of armed teens fight an alien invasion. The action and fighting style was influenced by Jackie Chan i.e utilising props to gain advantage and showing convincing effort in moves and choreography.
The Cinesite team was given character models and blend shapes from Mikros, which were then rigged in house and shared with the animators. The team built Cynthia (one of the villains from TCRI) from scratch.
Eric: In my 5 years with Cinesite, it was my first project that included 3D elements with a 2D treatment applied. For the most part, the action lines were drawn in 3D, with a 2D rendering treatment. We also had a dedicated 2D FX department to enhance it in the post process. The biggest challenge here was the amount of time we had to develop tools to match Mikros’ work. TMNT was full steam ahead when we, Cinesite, came aboard the project, so the pipe team had to move quickly to develop a drawing tool for us.
The film was mostly animated on 2s, meaning that every pose is held for an extra frame, with some exceptions. Animation on 2s has a very appealing and traditional feel. Animators can focus a little more on spacing and really think about their breakdowns and smears. Smear frames are used between key frames to indicate the path of motion. Some animators like to block their shots in 8s and 4s then 2s anyway, so for them it was just one less step than would have been needed to finish a shot animated on 1s, so in that respect the process was quicker. With that said, my advice to animators who want to explore this visual style would be to focus on spacing, where you are forced to look at a series of pictures from one pose to another that is held for an extra frame. It really makes you think twice when you see each “drawing” from beginning to end. You can also make changes to spice it up. For example, think to yourself, “In this pose, what is leading the action? Is the spacing too even from one pose to the next? How is the energy resolving at the end? Which picture is best for the smear?” The best way to learn is to scrub through your favourite movies frame by frame, studying the spacing.
Eric: As an animation supervisor, it is very rewarding to help create something that others can enjoy, and especially rewarding to see animators grow and succeed in their craft. Cinesite had completed an NPR sequence for another Paramount Pictures film; Paws of Fury: the Legend of Hank. However, TMNT allowed us to be a creative ally to Mikros and explore this style much further. An example of this would be our Cynthia Utrom, the head of the TCRI (Techno Cosmic Research Institute). The character design of Cynthia came from Nickelodeon creatives, and we took the model to final.
Eric: In creating Superfly’s Lair the surfacing team had more creative freedom, working closely with Paramount Animation’s art team to nail the look. Our use of the digital matte painting (DMP) department on sets to add all the fine line work was a huge efficiency instead of tasking the modelling department to keep adding curves as we saw the sets in lighting.
This was also apparent in the TCRI lab. We could go into tight shots and really change the set if we needed to. This applied to the complex lighting in the TCRI lab where additional painting needed to be supplied by the DMP department. This ultimately added the “hand painted” look to the sets that the art team really responded to.
The turtle brothers Michelangelo, Leonardo, Raphael and Donatello have been raised by their adoptive rat father, Splinter, voiced by Jackie Chan. Later on in the movie at TCRI headquarters, the turtles are painfully “milked” for their mutagen before April arrives with Splinter to rescue them.
Eric: The Splinter rescue sequence was challenging. We needed to find ways to incorporate interesting choreography into the fight scenes. We were provided with storyboards for the action, but were also given some creative control over the choreography. We researched and referenced Jackie Chan movies, taking clips and editing them together to show Jeff and Kyler before implementing them into our shots. For example, Splinter’s very first contact with multiple guards consisted of at least 8 clips from 8 different Jackie Chan movies, with the animators stitching the moves together, tweaking them so they would work for a rat!
Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Mutant Mayhem director Jeff Rowe discusses discusses the animation style, Jackie Chan’s influence, and casting the Turtles with Screen Rant.
The Technical Challenge
The creation of 2D line tools was essential for the look that Cinesite’s team needed to match. Since the development time and schedule of TMNT was so limited, a solution was created which piggybacked on existing Maya Paint Effects tools, adding a user interface and brush preset management controller which made it easy for artists to store presets and choose the surface they wanted to paint on. It allowed artists to export the Maya Paint Effects as USD curves which could be rendered and shaded in Gaffer. The interface also provided controls to keyframe and animate the lines as well as to clean up and export them.
Another challenge faced by Cinesite’s team was to create tools to manage the ingest of data from Mikros. Sharing with us large sets with thousands of curves, our ingest process needed to reverse engineer the brush and colour information from their curves, producing Maya Paint Effects which were compatible with our pipeline.
Chris: In general, matching Mikros’ look, often only using images as reference, was one of the greatest challenges that Cinesite’s team overcame. There were many shader tricks used in a compositing heavy show. The introduction of a full 2D FX team meant bringing the software Toon Boom into the pipeline in our Linux environment. This began as a manual process but became more automated as the compositing artists received all the correct FX layers in the final comp automatically.
We also use a different grooming software to Mikros, so our tech team, along with our CG supervisor, were able to bring in guide curves from one grooming software and replicate the final groom from within Houdini for it to work in Gaffer. They could also simulate the grooms within this process. Once we’d figured out the tools, our process and pipeline, it was just a matter of keeping up with the schedule and delivery.
Eric: On the technical side, we were sometimes dealing with strobing issues caused by moving cameras since this was our first film animating on 2s, whilst the camera movements were on 1s. We adapted our approach, studying extensively films which have used NPR as part of the learning process needed to make it work. Another challenge we needed to overcome was the fact that so many characters are wearing or holding multiple accessories. We needed to constantly manage belts, wristbands, straps etc. which were crashing through the geometry. Having said that, we had an amazing shot finaling/technical animation team. Shout out to those guys and everyone else who did a fantastic job on the show!
In true Turtles style, Cinesite’s delivery of 21 minutes of the film was a team effort. Ultimately, four group locations assisted in the delivery of the production.