What is the essence of The Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles?
Their descriptive name provides the basic biographical info, but, apart from Turtle Power, what are the heroes on a half shell really all about?
Since its premiere on Nickelodeon on September 29, the updated animated version of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (TMNT) has averaged 3.4 million total viewers per episode—not bad for sewer-dwelling amphibians that first hatched in the mid-'80s as a self-published graphic novel and have been rebooted various times since.
Now, Nickelodeon has tapped New York-based production company Starlight Runner Entertainment to answer the question of what the Turtles are really made of in order to prep the classic franchise for multi-platform growth—websites, apps, a toy line, and ultimately, a feature film.
"We had to understand the essence of the property," says Starlight Runner cofounder Jeff Gomez. "What are the archetypal elements that resonate deep inside the audience when they are watching and enjoying this property? There is something about it that is unique and rings true because it touches the hearts and the primal minds of people and has transcended decades."
In order to create a cohesive narrative for TMNT, the Starlight Runner team, which specializes in transmedia narratives, studied all existing content for the property, including the various television incarnations of the Turtles, films, games, and merchandise.
At one point during the height of TMNT mania, in addition to the usual action figures, trading cards and video games, there were TMNT Pez dispensers and Ninja Turtles cereal. Hostess even produced Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles Pies (filled with "Vanilla 'Puddin Power!").
"Nickelodeon really wanted to pay homage to the world of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles," says Starlight Runner Entertainment cofounder Mark S. Pensavalle. "We looked at anything that was ever created related to the Ninja Turtles."
The result was a "Mythology," a 450-page document that includes profiles for all of the characters, locations, prominent artifacts, vehicles, and weapons. "It contains the totality of the story world," says Gomez.
The essence of TMNT ultimately came down to "notions of brotherhood and unifying in the face of challenges as opposed to constantly attempting to go it alone," said Gomez.
But it was clear that to stay fresh for a new generation, the property had to change and adapt.
"The old-school Ninja Turtles had a bit of brooding moroseness," says Gomez. "They were outsiders. It wasn’t cool to be green and live in sewers. But that has shifted. Now being an outside or kind of a nerd or weird dude is cool. That’s a very positive and very Nickelodeon spin on the property."
One key design change that reflects this larger shift: In the old version of TMNT, the characters all looked exactly alike except for the color of their masks.
"Now they have four different skin tones, four different shells, four different heights. They have different freckles and warts and facial expressions that reflect four very different personalities," says Gomez. "Nickelodeon was smart to individuate their characters so they each have separate storylines."
Starlight Runner (which Fast Company listed as one of "The 10 Most Innovative Companies in Media" in 2011) has done similar transmedia work for large multiplatform projects such as Avatar, Tron Legacy, Pirates of the Caribbean, and Transformers.
"We see transmedia as an art form and communication methodology that is going to be vital in the next decade," says Gomez. "It’s a new way of thinking that enables holders of intellectual properties or brands to design a new way of storytelling."