How ILM Brought ‘Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles’ to Life

Brandon Rhea

This weekend, audiences will be flocking to the theaters to see Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Out of the Shadows, the sequel to the 2014 live-action reboot of the fan-favorite franchise. The film reunites April O’Neil (Megan Fox) and Vern Fenwick (Will Arnett) with the four Ninja Turtles—Raphael, Donatello, Michelangelo, and Leonardo—as they fight to save the world from the likes of Krang, Shredder, and Dr. Baxter Stockman (Tyler Perry). They are joined in this film by the popular character Casey Jones, played by Stephen Amell of Arrow fame.

This movie isn’t going to win any critical acclaim, but I think it’s going to win the praise of fans of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles franchise. It’s funny, engaging, and deals with themes of acceptance and identity that younger audiences can relate to. Part of what made it so compelling for me was how immersed I felt in the world. The story of the four Turtles was certainly a big part of that, but so were the visual effects that brought the four brothers to life.

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Whereas the first film was more about April and her journey as a reporter, Out of the Shadows is about the Ninja Turtles and their journey to find their place and the world and become accepted by society. At the core of their struggle is whether they should reveal themselves to New York and thus risk the scorn of the people—one of the funniest scenes of the film involves Casey thinking the Turtles are aliens and asking them not to eat him—and even whether they should use a serum that transformed the iconic henchmen Bebop and Rocksteady into mutants and reverse-engineer it to allow the Turtles to become human.

Putting the Turtles of the center of this film helped the 550-person visual effects team, which created the effects for a stunning 107 minutes of the 112 minute film (double the effects in the first movie), bring the Turtles to life. The team, led by visual effects supervisor Pablo Helman, used motion capture techniques that built upon the work done in the previous movie in order to film the actors playing the Turtles both on location and in-studio. Because of the motion capture technology, the team was able to capture the emotional nuance of the performance. “For me, the actors have become so synonymous with the characters they play, that when I see a finished shot, I hear and see [the actors],” says producer David Form. “I see each of them coming through in the animated performance. I can’t imagine anyone else playing these Turtles.”

The actors—Alan Ritchson (Raphael), Jeremy Howard (Donatello), Noel Fisher (Michelangelo), and Pete Ploszek (Leonardo)—were filmed using a few different motion capture techniques. One technique, developed by Industrial Light & Magic, is called Imocap and is a form of motion capture technology that allows for on-location filming, rather than having to film in a soundstage in front of a green screen. This has previously been used to great success in films like Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest, where it was used to bring the villainous Davy Jones (Bill Nighy) to life. For Out of the Shadows, it allowed the crew to actually film in locations like New York City with the actors and then digitally replace them with computer-generated models, all while retaining the nuanced performances of the characters. Even the actor’s pupils can be captured using the latest motion capture technology, bringing a greater realism to the Ninja Turtles in a film all about their emotional journey. This was all thanks to ILM’s facial capture technology, Muse, that was pioneered on the previous Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles film.

By the time the turtle actors got to set, motion capture was already second nature to them. “All that Mo-Cap gear has become a second skin,” according to Ploszek. “I don’t think people know that whether [the Turtles] are flipping from a ledge, coming down a slide, or jumping, we have to do the math because ILM pays attention to proportions and space, even when it comes to their features. We’re at such an advantage this time around to do these Turtles justice.” Ritchson agreed, saying that, by now, the motion capture suits they wear are “invisible, like a part of our bodies now.”

For Noel, being able to see his past performance helped immensely this time around, saying that watching his character and his detailed facial and body expressions allowed him to “approach the performance from a much more informed place.” Howard was aided by the ability to “go back and watch how I smiled or frowned here or was slack-jawed there in the first film,” giving him the chance to decide whether he wanted to chance to decide if that’s still the way he wanted the character to translate in this film. It helped him to understand how his movements would look in computer generation, as “There is a fine line between what you’re feeling as an actor and the emotion that’s expressed and transferred onto that CG face.”

Bebop (Gary Anthony Williams) and Rocksteady (Stephen Farrelly) were brought to life using a number of different digital techniques.

Bebop (Gary Anthony Williams) and Rocksteady (Stephen Farrelly) are a different story, since they’re much more non-human than even the Ninja Turtles. When we first meet the characters, they’re still in their human form. After joining up with Shredder, Stockman injects them with a serum that mutates Bebop into a pig and Rocksteady into a rhinoceros. Unlike the Turtles, where the primary actors portrayed them through motion capture in most scenes, Bebop and Rocksteady were generally performed by stunt performers, with Williams and Farrelly providing recorded dialogue for the characters. Williams and Farrelly—both motion capture veterans from video games—still, however, suited up for some sequences. The process to create these characters was a mutation (pun 100% intended) of all of the techniques that went into creating the Ninja Turtles.

Even with the enormous amounts of visual effects, the production team still wanted to make the film feel as real as possible, even in the midst of its fantastical settings and characters. Most of the sets were real, even the iconic garbage truck that the Ninja Turtles drive. Although the arms, which toss sewer covers during battle, were CGI, the outside is an actual truck. The inside, which is bigger than it would realistically be, was its own set. Many of the film’s action-packed stunts were even done by the actors themselves, with stunt coordinator Jonathan Eusebio saying that part of the challenge in making a sequel was to outdo the action from the previous film. Amell, known for doing his own stunts while playing Oliver Queen on Arrow, relished the opportunity to do so in this film, as he told me in my interview with him. Of course, even a seasoned performer like Amell can be a little taken aback by just how real these stunts can be, as evidenced by this video he posted on Facebook. It came with the caption, “I insisted on doing this stunt. Putting my hand on my heart after? Not scripted.”

One of the biggest goals for the production in pursuit of realism was to bring a genuine New York vibe to the film. They didn’t want you to just think that the Ninja Turtles were in New York, they wanted you to feel like the Ninja Turtles were in New York. That meant a lot of the movie was filmed in New York itself, including on-location motion capture with the actors. Even in the more fantastical scenes, like the final battle that involves an alien spaceship, real footage was shot of New York City. That way, even with all of the visual effects added in, you still felt like you were in New York. The location plates for a great river-based action sequence were also filmed in Brazil, including a mid-air jump from one airplane to another. To get that footage, Helman and his team went up in a helicopter higher than Helman had ever flown before, giving the footage the perspective they needed to look like the scenes were taking place at over 30,000 feet.

For director Dave Green, who was a big fan of the franchise as a kid, the chance to make a movie that felt like it was an extension of a childhood full of playing with toys and watching the cartoon was pure magic. “We’re still playing with toys,” he said, “just on a much grander scale.” That fun vibe shines throughout the film, supported by his team’s quest to make the film feel as real as possible, like it was an actual environment kids could imagine themselves playing in. Bringing that to life is no small challenge, but thanks to the incredible work of ILM, they accomplished that mission. The Turtles themselves look realer than ever, the spirit of New York shines through, and the action is bigger and better.

Between ILM and the nuanced performances of the actors, everything combines to help create a really enjoyable hour and a half at the movies.

Brandon Rhea is the Product Marketing Manager at Fandom. He's a huge fan of Star Wars, Star Trek, Game of Thrones, and Marvel. He's a Gryffindor whose Patronus is a cat.
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