Turtles, toys & a whole lot of frames. Learn what goes into making one of the most beloved cartoon series of all time.
By Rebecca Tavernini ‘11 MA
Walking into the Nickelodeon Animation Studio in Burbank, California, on a Saturday morning is like every kid’s dream of jumping into the TV and joining the cartoon. A life-size Lego SpongeBob stands as a goofy sentry into a world instantly recognizable as Nick—with pops of the network’s signature bright orange, slime green and porous yellow. A strip of avant-garde portraits of characters from its 37 animated shows runs like a timeline through childhood and parenthood.
Past the lobby and into the spaces where the magic happens, giant whiteboards serve as walls, most full of drawings—from primitive sketches to intricate murals; many with colored-marker iterations of familiar cartoon faces, like a family welcoming you to its home. Others showcase the whimsy, curiosity and alternate realities apparently required for the job of Nickelodeon producers, writers and artists.
The staff and office areas are grouped by show: “SpongeBob SquarePants,” “Fairly OddParents,” “The Loud House,” “Paw Patrol,” “Harvey Beaks,” etc. Cubicles, with curved tops like fluid waves, may have leaf-like parasols sprouting above them. Some are down to business; others contain miniature universes of Bikini Bottom, Tommy Pickles’ house or a time-warped amalgamation of action figures. Unexplainably, there are giant white horse statues to decorate or dress—one wearing striped toe
Josh Brock, ’09 BFA, character modeler at Nickelodeon, and our guide, explained that the company wants everyone to feel free to express themselves and decorate their work spaces. “Mine is full of toys,” he says of his office, which is actually a few blocks away in another Nick building. That’s where he makes Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles come to life.
On the off-chance that someone is unfamiliar with this phenomenon, the series stars four bi-pedal, masked turtles with attitude, who fight evil-doers with Japanese weapons and ninjutsu skills, love pizza, and of course, learn valuable life lessons (in a non-corny way). They are named after Renaissance artists Leonardo, Raphael, Michelangelo and Donatello, and were transformed by “mutagen” from “real” turtles to turtle humanoids. They fight foes, often trying to take over the Earth, such as Tigerclaw, Fishface, Screwloose and arch-enemy, The Shredder.
Based on a 1984 small-print-run, black and white comic book created by Kevin Eastman and Peter Laird, the crazy quarto has inspired four television series, six blockbuster movies, video games and top-selling merchandise. They have been voiced by the likes of Seth Green, Sean Astin and Roseanne Barr.
Just as the turtles themselves were transformed, the TMNT brand has mutated from its hand-drawn origins to a highly realistic CGI series—thanks to Brock and his teammates. The Nick series has won Daytime Creative Arts Emmy Awards, and been praised by Variety as “handsomely produced.”
While we’re talking about cartoons here, this is not kid’s play. Nickelodeon generated about $862 million in ad revenue in 2015; in 2014 TMNT action figures were the #1 selling toy; and the Turtles licensed products are in the top 5 U.S. licenses, just after Star Wars merchandise.
“Most of us have a specialty, and are assigned to similar characters—like gooey mutants, or humans. I do mutants,” Brock said, naming examples of Zino the huge rhino, Ice Dragon, and Krang. (As for his favorite turtle? It’s Michelangelo: “He’s crazy.”)
“I start by getting characters in a T-pose (also known as a neutral dead pose), then we do facial rigs and every type of expression.” He pointed to a chart depicting around 90 different facial expressions, that on the computer are translated into digital control knobs. “Then we do crazy things with them, just to see what works. But a lot of personality comes from the storyboards.”
All of the work is done on computer (using Photoshop, Maya and ZBrush, for those who speak the language).
At Blue Sky, where Brock worked before joining Nick, he was a production assistant on Epic, Rio 2, Ice Age and Peanuts in the rigging and animation departments. Epic was in production for ten years.
There are eight on the Turtles team. Currently in the series they’re working on, “They’ve left New York City and they’re in space now, so there’s some wild new characters.”
The toughest character the modeling team has worked on involved six other artists as well, focusing solely on that character for an entire month. “The more detail, the more time it takes,” he said. And this one, Lord Dregg, happens to have see-through skin, and his skeleton and organs are each their own galaxies.
Strange for a guy who doesn’t have cable television and has never seen an entire episode of “SpongeBob SquarePants.”
His team will occasionally watch a TMNT episode at work, which is not as much fun as it sounds. “We’re usually criticizing ourselves. Like ‘Oh man, that face is not right. I could have used one more day.’” Though it’s fun and games for the audience, you get the sense that Nickelodeon employees have set their personal expectations very high.
As a kid, growing up in Gladstone, Michigan, he was a huge “Rugrats” fan and watched “Hey Arnold” and those pioneers of unorthodox grotesqueness: “Ren & Stimpy.”
“I wanted to know these people,” Brock said. “I wanted to be part of their world.”
That turning point happened at NMU. “When I took Daric Christian’s electronic imaging class, I switched my major immediately.”
After NMU, Brock attended the prestigious Savannah College of Art and Design. He was recruited to Blue Sky, as production assistant. “I knew someone at Nick and she helped me get a modeler job here. I felt I was following in Neil Helm’s footsteps.” (See story on page 19.)
On Fridays, artists have a chance to create their own artwork, along a theme. And pop-up creative teams can pitch their ideas. Although they do need to follow the same protocol as those from the outside presenting their visions for new shows. “Nick is very good in allowing their employees to share their talents and work together—no matter what show you may be working on,” he said.
“If you look at a lot of artists and writers here, it’s a lot of people who were socially different growing up,” Brock said with an earnestness that made us feel that this may also have been part of his own past circumstance. “But they get here, and they can grow, and the next thing you know, they have a show and we’re working on it.
“We get really excited when they announce new shows.
"Never in my wildest dreams did I think I would be working here. It’s a blast,” he says, and you can nearly see the cartoonish word “BLAST!” exploding in orange and yellow flames above his head.
Now when he goes back home to speak to students at Gladstone Elementary, he says it’s amazing to see them all wearing TMNT gear. “And they know way more about the show than I do!”
Get a peek into all that goes into the TMNT world at nickanimationstudio.com/teenage-mutant-ninja-turtles
Nickelodeon’s 8 Steps of CGI Animation
1. Asset Design
The basic look and concept of a
character is designed.
2. Asset Modeling
Shape, form and “muscles” of characters are made here. This is what Josh does!
3. Asset Rigging
This is basic character movement, where characters start to come to life.
4. Asset Texture
Details, color, texture of skin, material and clothing are added in this phase.
Characters are placed in the environment, and camera angles are decided.
6. Animation Phase
Life-like movements (fingers, eyes, mouths) and environments are animated here.
7. Special Effects
Special effects (explosions, starbursts, blasters) and advanced lighting is created.
All elements are placed, combined and
enhanced to create Nick’s best shows.
Characters and renderings are property of Nickelodeon Animation Studios.