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Ninja Turtles Movies


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#1 Tim Partridge

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Posted 12 January 2008 - 09:02 AM

I saw the first two again recently for nostalgiac purposes (you have to be of a certain generation) and while I still think the first movie is a genuinely good film in it's own right, the quality of the productions on a technical front I felt really stuck out. It is pretty amazing how well made these movies were on such tight budgets. Cinematography wise there's lots of inspired stuff for this kind of genre. All of the NINJA TURTLES movies I believe were shot non-Union in North Carolina.

The first NINJA TURTLES was directed by Steve Barron, famous for his A-ha music videos, and overall the film seems to have the mark of a director's movie, in that scenes are realised with all visual/audio possibilities explored. Alot happens in shadow, and there are even moments when sound effects and music take over, with nothing happening onscreen (the Turtles first entrance for example).

Barron also seems to add a stylistic texture to the cinematography of the first NINJA TURTLES, obviously influenced by his music video background, using long lenses and either a strong lens diffusion (like a net) or with lenses that go very soft wide open. It gives it that look you associate with a lot of David Fincher's work at PROPAGANDA during this time (think of his Madonna videos). Very inventively, and possibly the reason for the diffusion, it smears out any creases in the animatronic turtle costumes, adding a very photogenic, flattering look to the protaganists. The effect only lets the production down when there is a lot of unbalanced white or cream in the art direction, or overcast light, creating unbalanced, low contrast hot wash out that reveal the film's low budget roots. Most of this is in the daytime exterior work (always a pain for lens diffusion), but the stuff shot at night or on stages looks very high contrast and dazzling. Much of the film was shot in Wilmington North Carolina, so I am wondering if these were Joe Dunton supplied spherical lenses, as the movie CREEPSHOW 2 also used the same shop and had very similar harsh lens diffusion (but did not seem intentional).

I also noticed that some of the first NINJA TURTLES goes super grainy at times, as though it has been pushed in places. There is a scene in a police chief's office that I clearly remember looking very grainy (almost guerilla style unlit) back in 1990. It actually rather creatively adds a kind of street credibility to the images, and in flash back sequences, where pushing seems to be a number of times, there's a very genuine Hong Kong martial arts vibe (that was no doubt intentional).

The DP of the first NINJA TURTLES was John Fenner BSC, who was formerly Jack Hildyard's gaffer before teaming up with Steve Barron on Jim Henson's THE STORYTELLER. Fenner I believe shoots a lot of commercials these days. His work on NINJA TURTLES is very striking, and he seemed to give the director what he wanted. The movie has a lot of really nice, high contrast, soft sidelit portraiture too, often against black backgrounds. There is also some first rate operating by steadicam operator the late Ted Churchill (such as a really fast 360 around one of the turtles).

NINJA TURTLES 2 on the other hand was not in the hands of a stylist like Steve Barron, so it's a rather flat affair by comparison. However, the movie was this time shot by Shelly Johnson (you wonder if his first name got him the job at the time), and his talent seems very apparent at this early stage of his cinematography career. I am assuming the then relatively unknown director Michael Pressman and DP Johnson got the job because of the film's non union status. Knowing what we know now about Mr. Johnson's abilities, I cannot help but feel obliged to credit him for the staging of the shots, particularly the refreshing lack of coverage, although this could have been Pressman's idea too, given his extensive theatre background. Most of the scenes are played as single medium shots, with performers interacting with each other in both the foreground and the background at one time. Some elaborate all in one shots too (like "The Shredder"'s entrance to the film). Pretty unheard of for these kind of kids films, and it only makes you wish the script, tone, performances and other aspects of the direction were up to the level of Steve Barron's work on the first film. Sadly the film is shot clean this time, so you don't get the creamy halation or any of the flattering lighting of the main title characters (although the Jim Henson Creature Workshop puppets are on par with what we see in part one). As much of the film is lit for medium or wide shots (and on a tight budget/shedule) most of the picture is lit with evenly exposed hard light, but there's enough contrast in there to not be too flat. It is very impressive work given how lousy the overall film is.

I know the third TURTLES movie was shot by David Gurfinkel, who shot lots of movies for the CANNON GROUP, but by 1993 most of us had grown out of that fad, I think. It was all a bit passe. ;)

Anyway, they aren't Kubrick or Fellini, but if anyone has to shoot a kids genre movie on a small budget, then I would highly recommend the first NINJA TURTLES movie for overall direction and photography, the second for blocking action.
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#2 Satsuki Murashige

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Posted 14 January 2008 - 02:35 AM

Wow, you must REALLY be nostalgic, Tim. :)

I haven't seen those films since I was a kid, but I do remember the 1st film being really gritty and dark. I seem to recall Shredder being lit with a lot of hard kickers so that the metal armor would glint with nuclear highlights, but the rest of the costume was very dark. The urban day exteriors were pretty desaturated, grainy and naturalistic, kinda like old "Law and Order" episodes. I really liked the scene where Elias Koteas and company escape the burning building, very high contrast. I think visually it was in the same vein as "The Warriors."

I remember the 2nd turtles movie as being "prettier" - softer light, less grain, more color saturation, less contrast. The one shot I distinctly remember from it is Shredder's entrance - overhead high angle, horizontally composed across the frame, and lit with a single hard source so that his shadow seems to trail him forever. The rest of the movie was pretty dull, and Vanilla Ice rapping "Go ninja, go ninja, go" certainly did not help things.

I wasn't even aware there was a 3rd film. :blink:
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#3 Jonathan Bowerbank

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Posted 14 January 2008 - 04:13 AM

Has anybody seen the new animated feature?
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#4 Alexander Disenhof

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Posted 14 January 2008 - 04:30 PM

This thread just put a big smile on my face! I don't remember much about the cinematography of any of these pictures, as I was only 4 years old when the first one came out, but I do know that they had a pretty big impact on my childhood!
It is too bad movies meant for kids are often overlooked, because movies like these can impact their intended audience (in this case young, impressionable kids) more than any other genre of film. The films I saw as a young child still have lasting impressions on me as a young adult!

As for the new animated feature, I am scared to see it, because I don't want my old memories of the Ninja Turtles to be changed!
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#5 Darryl Richard Humber

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Posted 14 January 2008 - 04:57 PM

I did second unit on the second one, though I don't remember much about it except helping rig big softboxes on a condor for moonlight (and the painful memory of "Go Ninja, Go Ninja, Go.") I do remember the second unit DP was Jon Kranhouse.
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#6 Tim Partridge

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Posted 14 January 2008 - 06:24 PM

Thankyou for the on set recollection! Was it mostly fight sequences shot for TURTLES 2 second unit? There didn't appear to be any visual/optical effects work on these first two movies, everything was done in camera. There is even a scene in the first movie where the turtles meditate around a camp fire at night and summon a spiritual image of their master Splinter, and it appears to have been done original negative as a double exposure! There's also some nice, almost theatrical conventions employed by Steve Barron, such as the turtles commenting on their upbringing with flashbacks to April O'Neil- the ambient light fades down and leaves the characters speaking in pools of light, addressing the camera, against black backgrounds. Again, it is alll pretty thoughtful, resourceful, creative low budget work. Nowadays they would convince you that you could only do gags like that with a greenscreen.

I do remember the 1st film being really gritty and dark. I seem to recall Shredder being lit with a lot of hard kickers so that the metal armor would glint with nuclear highlights, but the rest of the costume was very dark. The urban day exteriors were pretty desaturated, grainy and naturalistic, kinda like old "Law and Order" episodes. I really liked the scene where Elias Koteas and company escape the burning building, very high contrast. I think visually it was in the same vein as "The Warriors."


The "nuclear highlights" were definitely more to do with the flawed, inherently diffused optics of those lenses or use of a net behind the lens as oppose to hard kickers. Very much a Fincher, Propaganda music videos circa 1990 influence there.

THE WARRIORS- of course! Even the subway station interior seems to be the same one used in both TMNT and that film! There's no mistaking that this was a major influence on the production, not just in look but the whole "Foot Clan" concept was filtered through Hill's film, clearly.

I remember the 2nd turtles movie as being "prettier" - softer light, less grain, more color saturation, less contrast. The one shot I distinctly remember from it is Shredder's entrance - overhead high angle, horizontally composed across the frame, and lit with a single hard source so that his shadow seems to trail him forever.


That's actually from the first movie, and it's a knock out, all in one.

Shredder's entrance in the sequel is also an all in one, a quite elaborate louma shot of an island junkyard at night, filmed before a translite backing of Manhattan too perfectly composed to be a location shot. What is quite curious is that later on in the film we see the same location, the same cars and geography, yet it is clearly a daytime exterior shot. A bit of Hitchcock inspired showmanship for a kids movie!!

Hey, if throwaway nonsense like NATIONAL TREASURE and (dare I say it) HARRY POTTER can get big threads on here for their technical merits, there's always room for the Ninja Turtles. ;)
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#7 Darryl Richard Humber

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Posted 14 January 2008 - 06:53 PM

Thankyou for the on set recollection! Was it mostly fight sequences shot for TURTLES 2 second unit? There didn't appear to be any visual/optical effects work on these first two movies, everything was done in camera

My recollections are a little fuzzy, but yes, we did a lot of fight sequences with the big mutant animals as well as inserts and closeups of Splinter. The Turtles were a lot of stuntmen and martial arts experts in costume. I seem to remember that one of the main actors (who played an actual person) was a martial arts expert and also played one of the Turtles in fight sequences. We shot on stage at Screen Gems (then Carolco) studios. My first day, I was going out a door and unexpectedly ran into one of the "mutant animal" bad guys who in costume had to be 7 feet tall. He scared the hell out of me.
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#8 Tim Partridge

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Posted 15 January 2008 - 05:59 PM

:D Thanks for the memories!

It is a bit weird as a viewer trying to understand that the close ups of one of the principals (in this case Splinter) would be relegated to second unit. I guess that just shows how great the Henson shop was at that stuff, allowing the audience to take the characters for granted.
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