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Nobody thought guys in turtle suits would be cool, but the original Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles film kicked ass. After three films with animatronic turtle heads, producer Thom Gray wanted to take the property into the CGI realm. It took about 10 years for it to come together, but now Kevin Munroe is finishing the CGI TMNT film.

If you’ve seen any of the early footage screened, you’ve probably been impressed with the new turtles and their fast, flexible moves. All of this was achieved with the most common software. “It’s basically MIA, but there’s nothing really big and specific,” said Munroe. “400 people in Hong Kong sitting down with MIA.”

Gray added, “They use RenderMan also, and there’s a lot of proprietary stuff they came up with; everyone has their own way of doing it.” Anyone who watches DVDs of animated films has heard those programs mentioned over and over.

The new turtles fight like the greatest martial arts superstars. That’s in part because the Hong Kong animators come from the same studios that made live-action fight films. “Remarkably, we originally thought we’d bring in a fight coordinator, somebody who’d worked on some Crouching Tiger or something,” said Gray. “At the end of the day, we didn’t need it because those people in Hong Kong, having grown up on all that kung-fu, pictures, and I myself, for 18 years at Golden Harvest where we made all those John Woo and Jackie Chan movies. I was astonished that it’s in their DNA; they knew how to do choreographed fights.”

For the CGI version of New York, they had to take some shortcuts. Peter Jackson’s 1930s models were not available. “I wish,” said Munroe. “That would have made things a little bit easier. It’s funny to me, there’s just so many cheats in terms of the environments and stuff. We really wanted to make it feel big. The biggest thing to notice the first teaser trailer that came out that everyone else saw; the camera’s looking down, it’s looking up, it’s swooping around the buildings. But the one we went out with to set the movie up was sort of the lower end version of that because we had to bang it out real quickly and do it for a price. So, it’s the same trailer, but it’s basically all like this [straight ahead], because there’s basically nothing that exists below the roof tops, and it’s the same turtle repeated four times. So for the movie, it’s just like any CG movie, you go in and repeat buildings, and you have generic blocks and you can travel for 20 blocks and not realize you’re looking at the same six buildings cause we set dressed them all differently.”

Live-action movies redress sets all the time, so it shouldn’t make a difference in CGI. “It’s insanely huge, the size of the production of this, of the sets. We’ve got a live-action production designer who came on; he’s worked on The Crow, Judge Dredd, he worked on the last two Matrix movies. He just brought this aesthetic to it that we wanted, and the same thing with scope and scale; we started doing stuff like wet down and reflective services. And there’s all kinds of little touches that you don’t see in a lot of other CG films; and when we got into it, we realized why you don’t see it, because it’s a ton of work. When you start doing it, it looks really cool, you just get addictive to this look and feel, and you say you want more of it.”

Munroe did take on a difficult task when he staged a turtle fight in the rain. Live action can just turn on a rain machine but CGI has to do all the math. “It was hard, yeah. The rain, putting sheets of rain isn’t too hard, because that’s just a rain rig in live-action you’re just hanging from. But the interaction was really specific, we really wanted to have it dripping off the characters and having different reactions to their skin versus their bandanas versus the steel that’s on. If you want to analyze them, it’ll drive you crazy. But yeah, it was a lot of work; the guys, the people in Hong Kong really busted their tails on it, it’s a lot of work.”

TMNT opens in March.