As far back as I can remember, the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles didn't wear pants. They darted through the streets of New York, partially nude reptiles on the run from Shredder, the Foot Clan, and social mores. They were free. Or, they were. In 2016, Turtles wear pants.
Over the weekend, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Out of the Shadows, the sequel to 2014's gritty Michael Bay-produced reboot, racked up over $35 million at the box office, earned the mixed reviews one expects for a film about half-shelled critters, and changed fashion forever by putting pants and shorts around each Turtle's waist. This is a big deal. After so many years of pants-less anarchy, why are the Turtles suddenly covering up?
It's a complex question, one Oscar-nominated visual effects supervisor Pablo Helman took very seriously when we rang him up looking for answers. Turns out, when you're producing a giant Hollywood blockbuster, pants unlock true turtle power.
First, a little sartorial history: in the original comic created by Peter Laird and Kevin Eastman in 1984, the Turtles only wore masks, belts, wrist bands, elbow pads, and knee pads. As the series took off, first with a popular animated series and then the original 1990 live-action film, designers tweaked the costumes, like giving the Turtles different-colored masks to make them easily identifiable. But pants were never an essential part of their wardrobe. The Turtles aren't chic. Pants do appear when they occasionally dress like silly pimps, though their favorite disguise is a trench coat sans pants. Even in space, they say no to pants.
As Chandler from Friends will smugly remind you, anthropomorphic characters have odd, tension-filled relationships with their groins. Donald Duck hates pants; Mickey loves them. You could tell the 2014 Turtles movie, which pursued a more realistic, computer-generated look than the Jim Henson puppet-work of the '90s series, had a simmering anxiety about the P-word. Perhaps compensating for something, the turtles tied sweatshirts around their waists, wore sumo-like protective battle-gear, and wrapped tape around their upper thighs to cast their crotches in shadows.
Like the first film, Out of the Shadows uses motion-capture technology to bring Leonardo, Donatello, Raphael, and Michelangelo to sewer-dwelling, pizza-eating, Megan Fox-ogling life. According to Helman, there are several reasons why the Turtles have pants now. "It makes them more appealing," he says. "Also, you have to be careful because they are really athletic and so you want to make sure that to do all the stuff they need to do, we're not worrying about what we're seeing and what we're not seeing."
Pants weren't the only special effects update in the sequel. A new performance-capture program called Muse allowed Helman's effects team to brighten the the characters' eyes, reduce their frowns, and give them dimples. These are some shiny, happy, pants-wearing Ninja Turtles.
"Comedy is really difficult to make," says Helman. "It's not only about timing but about chemistry, and you can see these actors have a lot of chemistry. You can see it in their delivery. Right before they deliver something, there's a little spark in their eyes. If we are able to get that with a computer, then -- Jesus -- we're saved."
As difficult and detail-oriented as this work is, if you're working on a Ninja Turtles movie, it helps to have a sense of humor and thick green skin. Before the release of the first movie, the Onion released a hilarious parody of behind-the-scenes special effects videos with the self-explanatory title "Michael Bay Gives Fans Sneak Peek At Ninja Turtles' Hyper-Realistic CGI Genitals." Animators are shown modifying small details on what one worker in the video calls "veiny, textured genitalia." Bay is skewered. Cronenberg-ian turtle members are shown. Watching the video now, it's tempting to think it helped inspire the pants decision.
Helman insists that's not the case, though he did see the video and thought it was funny. "It underlines some of the problems we have with realistic photography," he says about the Onion clip. "We want them to be as photorealistic as possible, but if they talk, we need articulation on their lips and their jaws. If we don't do that, then they look completely like a cartoon -- in a bad way. So design is a very important thing."
But the Onion video raises a difficult question: do the Turtles have penises now? Obviously, the movie, which is rated PG-13 and meant for kids, doesn't tackle this question head-on, but it does tactfully dance around it. When human goons Bebop and Rocksteady are transformed into a mutant warthog and a rhinoceros, respectively, they each check out their genitals and say, "My man!" This brief, celebratory, gross moment implies that at least some human-animal hybrids have sexual organs in this fictional universe. It's possible that between the first and second movies the turtles... matured.
This issue is compounded by one of the film's primary thematic concerns: the Turtles oft-unspoken desire for humanity. In one of the movie's many wonky sci-fi beats, Donatello realizes the Tyler Perry-concocted ooze that transforms Bebop and Rocksteady from men to mutants could potentially turn the Turtles into humans. It's the most bizarre, poetic moment I've seen in a movie with a Carmelo Anthony cameo.
It's also a classic "what if?" question in hero narratives. Like Superman giving up his powers in Superman II to pursue Lois or Jesus rejecting divinity in The Last Temptation of Christ to be with Mary Magdalene, the turtles yearn for a "normal" life -- including, presumably, sexual pleasure. (There's a reason the turtles inspire so much erotic fan-art and recently spawned a porn parody.) The movie eventually backs away from the question, and rushes along to an Avengers-like battle above a skyscraper, asserting that family, brotherhood, and eternal turtledom are enough. But are they?
When I ask Helman about the exchange between Bebop and Rocksteady, and the larger implications, he artfully dodges my question like Michelangelo ducking the blades of the villainous Shredder. He laughs: "We try not to think about those things." And that's why the Turtles wear pants.
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