The Anatomy of a Ninja Turtle

Chris Frechette and Kris Taylor of Red Fly Studio explain the development of this striking new look for the heroes of TMNT: Out of the Shadows.

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Strange. Stylish. Hideous. Awesome. This modern, realistic take on the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles lineup has been called a lot of things. But no matter the verdict, all will agree that it's certainly distinct--and distinction has always been the goal for developers Kris Taylor and Chris Frechette of Red Fly Studio. As Turtles fans themselves, they relished the opportunity to make their mark on Turtles history with a style unlike anything the franchise has seen before. Learn how Red Fly Studio pulled it off.

Before deciding on their designs for the turtles, Frechette and Taylor knew Out of the Shadows was going to feel different. Having experienced the height of Turtles mania in the late '80s and early '90s, both designers decided early on that they wanted their game to have a more mature theme that older audiences would gravitate toward.

The world came first. Their vision of Manhattan was much darker and grittier than what had come before and would therefore need a new breed of turtle. To help find a jumping-off point for this new breed, the pair reached out to veteran character designer Carlos Haunte, who inked the concept art shown above. Frechette and Taylor were floored. Never before had they seen designs quite like this. From the patterns on their skin to the articulate musculature, these turtles could almost be real.

That distinction--that realism--quickly became one of the team's guidelines. They wanted not only for their four heroes to stand apart from the franchise's past, but for each turtle to have his own unique style as well. As Taylor explains, "One of our main goals when we started this project was: if you see one of these turtles alone and without any color identification, you need to know who it is."

"We worked really hard with [Haunte] to develop these shape symbols, which helped define the turtles both mentally and physically. You'll notice Leonardo is a triangle, which is a focused and sharp shape because he's the focused leader of the group. That shape is worked into his physique, his face, and even the angles of his eyes. I think that really helped us get these characters feeling as unique as they do. Now when I see them, I have no question of who's who. They all have their own identities."

Those identities didn't just start and end with Haunte's work; they were just the beginning. Red Fly still had a lifetime of Turtles artwork to draw from. "[In the piece above] I have three versions of Donatello," said Taylor. "The one on the far left is based on the toys and old cartoons, combined with being more realistically defined. The one on the far right was based on [Haunte's] original works. We then tried to meet in the middle with a blend of styles. The piece is all about that transition."

As the designs evolved, the team found its stride in balancing designs old and new, unique and original. The character shapes, skin tones, and sheer grit of Haunte's work was married with the distinct character patterns found in the current Nickelodeon cartoon. In the image below, you can see how Donatello is tall and lanky, while Raphael is a bit shorter and much stockier. Striking this balance was important for the team as a way to honor the franchise's long and colorful history.

"There are fans that cherish the original comics, fans who love the '90s cartoon, and now fans who are into the new generation of Turtles," explained Frechette. "There have been so many incarnations of [the Turtles] that I think everybody has something different they enjoy about a specific look or feel. Having the chance to put our own stamp on these designs--as fans--has been a huge deal for us."

As Turtles fans, the team spent a lot of time sweating the finer details of their designs. Some issues, such as the inclusion of tails, were easier to resolve than others. "We opted to lose the tail," Frechette stated. "Starting out, we said to ourselves, 'Let's go back to the original comics and put the tail back in.' But then, as we were thumbing through some of the older comics, we noticed every time those guys would do the splits, [the tail] stopped looking like a tail…and started looking like something else!"

Eyes were another animal altogether. Some team members favored having irises and pupils, while others preferred the all-white style. "My stance was: it has been established both ways, so there's really no wrong answer here," said Taylor. "But we also wanted to have a lot of story-driven scenes, and eyes are a subtle thing we connect with as viewers. If we went all white all the time, it would make that emotional connection very difficult."

Even so, Frechette was a diehard advocate of the imposing, all-white eyes. Eventually, as Frechette explains, a compromise was reached. "In the Nickelodeon show, [the turtles] have irises and pupils until they get into combat, and then BAM they have all-white eyes. We adopted that style for our game as well, and it really pops. A lot of our environments are pretty dark, so when you draw your weapons and see those eyes pop, it feels really good."

Redesigning such beloved characters is always a tall order, and the only guarantee is that you won't please everyone. Still, the team insists that the challenge is worthwhile. "I think it's a little lazy to just fall back on what's already been done and what has already been seen," said Frechette. "But I think it is important to respect the franchise and find that sweet spot between meeting the fans' expectations and giving them something they eventually grow to appreciate and are glad it happened."

"It was a long process to get to the end," Taylor added, "but we put a lot of work into it, and everyone here is really proud of what we've come up with. We think we got a really good feel for these characters, and we're excited to hear what the fans think about them." You can see these new Turtles in action when Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Out of the Shadows is released on Xbox Live Arcade, PlayStation Network, and PC this summer.

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