Emily S. Whitten: TMNT & Ciro Nieli & Greg Cipes
As promised in my New York Comic Con round-up last week, this week I bring to you the awesome chats I had there with executive producer Ciro Nieli and Michelangelo voice actor Greg Cipes of the current Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles animated series on Nickelodeon (and if you missed it before, I’ve previously interviewed the spectacular Rob Paulsen, voice of Donatello). Ciro and Greg were both absolutely delightful to speak with, and shared some great insights on the show.
If you haven’t given the current TMNT a shot yet (maybe because you were loyal to the original; or you’ve never watched TMNT before; or you’re an adult so why would you be watching a kids’ show…) you are totally missing out. I’m a fan of the original series (having watched from the very first episode at the age of maybe six or seven), and until this series, haven’t really been interested in any of the ones following that, because they just didn’t grab my attention (and, honestly, the live-action versions just plain freaked me out). But when I learned that Rob Paulsen, voice of the original Raphael, was going to be voicing Donatello, I knew I had to give this show a try.
The first couple of minutes of watching were spent getting used to the unique animation style; and then the rest of the time was spent completely falling in love with the new visual style, the storyline and humor, and the new voices and quirks of the characters. The current show is full of humor, warmth, action, and adventure, and pays homage to the original animated and comic book series’ without being in the least bit stale or unoriginal. It’s also grown over the course of the first season along with the Turtles, who have begun exploring the world outside of the sewers and encountering serious problems and responsibilities. By the end of Season 1 and first episode of Season 2, the show has entered some pretty dark and serious territory; but happily, appears to be holding on to the humor and sense of fun that made the show so appealing in the first place. I can’t wait to see where they go with it from here.
So without further ado, let’s see what a couple of the folks involved had to say about that and the show in general! Read on for the interview transcripts, or head on over to YouTube and watch the video interviews there!
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Greg Cipes (voice of Michelangelo)
(YouTube video: Click here.)
Greg, you are known as the voice of Michelangelo on the current Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles show, which is fantastic.
Yes, I am Mikey.
I know that, like me, you were a fan of the original show, because I’ve heard you talk about it on Rob’s Talkin’ Toons podcast. When you were a kid, what else did you watch?
Only the Turtles. Do you mean now, or back then?
Really back then, it was all about the Turtles; and back then I didn’t watch too much TV other than the Turtles because I wanted to go outside and play. I wanted to go outside and skateboard like the Turtles. I wanted to go to karate class and learn martial arts like the Turtles. So it really influenced me a lot.
That’s really cool. How old were you when you first started watching it?
Eight years old.
And was Michelangelo always your favorite?
Yeah, Mikey was always my favorite. Although I probably dressed up as a Turtle for Halloween many, many times; and I’ve probably been all the Turtles.
Have you ever been Splinter?
No, not yet! This Halloween.
Yeah, maybe this Halloween! It’s coming up. So of course you’ve done a lot of voiceover; but as a huge Turtles fan, what was it like getting the role of Michelangelo?
Oh my gosh, when Ciro Nieli told me he was making the new show; I’ve worked with Ciro on Teen Titans, and his show called Super Robot Monkey Team Hyperforce Go! that he created. It’s a great show. So he said, I’m doing Turtles, and I want you to be a Turtle, and I was like, “What?” It just seemed like a dream, right? I was like, “Really?” And of course I had to go through the casting process, which took like, a year. And then when I got the phone call, and the contract, the deal came through, it was really maybe one of the best days of my life.
That’s really cool. Did you call everybody you knew, like, “Guess what??”
Yeah: “I’m a Turtle!!”
And did they all say, “We knew it would happen someday?”
I guess so, yeah. It just made sense. You know, Nickelodeon hired me because they felt like I really am the real life Mikey.
It sounds like it, from your hobbies and everything. Now of course Rob Paulsen was on the original (1987) series, and is on the new one. What’s it like working with someone who was in the original franchise?
Well, it’s cool. I honestly don’t remember what any of the Turtles sound like from the original show at all; nor did I listen to them – so what I brought to Mikey was just me.
Did you do that on purpose, so you could bring your own spin?
Yeah; well I don’t watch much of anything these days, because I’m still very active. I like to be doing things rather than watching TV; unless the Turtles are on! But I didn’t do any kind of research to go back and listen to anything; I just brought myself to it, and what I felt Mikey would be; which is ultimately me; a dimension of myself.
With the new Turtles, what do you think about the direction of the show, and the look of the show, which is so different?
Oh, it’s so cool. So cool. I think it’s the hottest thing on TV right now; better than any live-action show. It’s set a new standard in the animation world, as far as TV animation goes. Every episode’s a stand-alone movie. Like, a feature film quality animated CG thing; but it’s not just CG, it’s this new mix of…Ciro’s notorious for creating new, groundbreaking styles of animation like he did with Teen Titans. It’s got the anime thing mixed with the comic book thing and the CG thing; and there’s all kinds of…
It looks a little bit like a video game sometimes.
Yes, and that too! It’s just got everything going on. It’s like candy for your eyes.
It is! I actually went into it unsure if I’d like it because I really loved the old one; but then I started watching it and I was like, “This is the best thing!” So with the storylines, do you like where that’s going? Do you know anything about what’s in store for Mikey?
I know everything that’s in store, but I can’t tell you anything! I mean, Mikey’s growing up a little bit; he’s got more experience; he’s wiser. But he really hasn’t changed – he’s still very free-spirited. He’s a “now-ist.” He’s just wild; and it’s really fun to play someone like that. He brings that out in me. But he does become more intelligent based on experience, as we all do; so he kind of maybe steps into the leader roll more.
Cool! I enjoy that it started with them not being so sure of themselves and growing. So do you have a favorite episode from the last season?
My favorite episode from Season 1? Oh my gosh, it’s so hard to go back. I really am a now-ist; I don’t think about the future, I don’t think about the past; so once I’ve experienced it, and I’ve done it, I don’t think about it again. So for me to go back is difficult. Also because we’ve done so many episodes; and I do eight other cartoons; all these different worlds mesh together.
That’s fair! I personally loved the one where he had the tPod.
The tPod, of course! It’s always so fun to play Mikey, that every episode’s really cool; very fun. And they always give me fun situations to be in.
Yes. I’ve heard that recording with everybody can be a lot of fun. Do you have any good stories about that?
Actually, you know what, I do have a good story – working with Roseanne Barr. She plays Kraang Prime; and she’s awesome. She’s so funny. And she’s a friend of mine, and before she got the role, they were like, “Who’s going to play Kraang Prime?” And I was like, “It should be Roseanne.” And it was such a so-far-out-there casting choice, but Ciro was into it, and we made it happen. So it was really cool to have her on the show and work with her.
That’s really neat. So as you said, you’re working on eight other shows. Tell me a bit about what else you’re doing now.
Well, I’m on a show called Teen Titans Go!, which is a wild, crazy, funny, goofy show, that keeps getting crazier. I’m on Ultimate Spider-Man; I play Iron Fist, Danny Rand. And I can’t say much, but I’ve been hired on [The Legend of] Korra. I’m on The Middle on ABC; they keep having me back; and recently I just finished a big arc on Anger Management with Charlie Sheen – these are live-action shows. I’ve got a couple of movies coming out; and I’m also producing and directing my own TV stuff now. I have a company that I just started with Rose McGowan; a television/film production company, called RMGC Productions, and we’re creating our own original content and going around and pitching it, and making these things happen ourselves.
That’s awesome. So are you in the pitching process? Has something been picked up?
I can’t say, but we are pitching a lot of original things that we’ve created.
That’s really cool; and do you have a place where people can keep up on some of that?
Great. Now talking about live-action versus voice over work, what’s the difference in those experiences? Do you prefer one or the other, or have any insights for people who are aspiring to be one or the other?
Well, everyone’s always asked me, “How can you do all of it?” Because not only am I an actor – I’m a musician, I’m a director, I’m a surfer, I’m a painter; but ultimately where I make money is in the entertainment world in general, and specifically acting. And a lot of it’s from animation. But – just do what you love. I do it all. I do movies, TV shows, animation, music, all of it. Just do it. Because if you love it, that’s all that matters. So you just do it, if you love it, and you’ll get better and better at it – and then people will want to hire you.
Excellent advice. Now with music, I know you play guitar and had a CD out. Are you working on something new with that?
Yeah, I’m putting out a solo album, entitled Cipes. That’s coming out soon, and I’m going to start releasing singles, and funny, wild music videos. And I also put a music video out recently; a side project called Super Space Fighters, which is based on a comic book that I’ve created. And there’s a music video right now called “International Kid Notorious” on YouTube. But really I’m focusing on my solo career now. Oh, and I put an album out in 2007, with my band called Cipes and the People, and that was called “The Conscious Revolution.”
That’s really cool; and thank you so much for the interview, Greg.
• • • • •
Ciro Nieli (executive producer)
(YouTube video: Click here.)
I know you were a fan of TMNT as a child, as was I. Coming into this project as someone who was a fan of the franchise, what was your experience getting into the new show?
Well, the one thing about Turtles was that I worked on a lot of projects, and Turtles would always be happening, somewhere, somehow, and I would not be a part of it. And I would just watch it go by and be like, “Damn! I missed Turtles again.” And then I would be like, “Eh, whatever. I did something cool instead, and that’s not my Turtles.” So to be able to finally get to do my Turtles? I mean when I went in to pitch it, it was so exciting to be able to just go, “This is my version of it” and for them to say, “Hey, that sounds good. Let’s try it.”
And a lot of it was just love for the original series. The original comic series; that Mirage Volume One.
Right; and the original animated series was also great. I know that there are some references to the original animated series, as well as, of course, the same mythology. I loved when they had Michelangelo with the 1987 Mikey face over his own [the “tattoo of my face…on my face!” bit]. So is that something that you do, or that everyone does together, or how does that work out?
It depends. Back then, it was more me doing it, because the writers were just kind of more focused on the story. Now I have a little bit of a different relationship with my story editor; so we’ll do things now…where it used to be just the board artists were adding things like what you’re talking about, which is way more visual, now it’s a little more tied in. Like we watch the old series sometimes, and we’ll actually re-use lines and stuff like that. We find ways to slip it in that’s not even overt. It just starts to feel like the brand.
So super-fans might notice, but not everybody.
Yeah, I mean, people will call it out. They’ll be like, “Oh my God, that was like, this episode, where Mikey said this,” and you’ll be like, “Wow, that’s so weird, that you remember that.” Because we’ll watch it, and go, “Oh, let’s write that down.” And then we put it up on the wall.
That’s fantastic. Now of course, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles was not your first project. Can you tell me a little about your background in all of this?
I started in animation years ago. When I first got to L.A., my first job was on Family Guy. I was a board artist; actually a revisionist storyboard artist. And then I did a bunch of other stuff online; and then eventually I found my way, in terms of bigger jobs, to Warner Bros. Eventually there I became a director on Teen Titans. That’s where I met Cipes for the first time. He was Beast Boy, Garfield Logan; and then after that…I moved around a lot. I went to Disney; I had my own show there, called Super Robot Monkey Team Hyperforce Go! Which Cipes was in as well. He was a boy who found a giant robot that was inhabited by cyborg chimps, and he learned the power of Monkey Fu, and fought demons from hell, basically. It was awesome. We did that in Japan; that was a great period in my life.
Were you actually in Japan, doing that? How long were you there?
Yes. We did that project for about four years. And during that time I was back and forth a lot, sometimes months at a time. I learned some Japanese. After that, I bumped back around to the studios. I did some stuff for Warner Bros., some Batman stuff. I was the showrunner on Avengers: Earth’s Mightiest Heroes for the first season, which was great, getting to do the Marvel thing. And then I think that kind of segued right into Turtles. I didn’t really have any time off in between those gigs, so…Turtles just kept rolling. Like, that’s what you do, you work – while you’re on one project, you try and get the next one going.
Sure! So as I said, I watched the original, and I hadn’t watched any of the ones between that and this, because they just never appealed to me. But I watched this one, in part because Rob [Paulsen] is on it, and I love Rob as a voice actor; and I just love the new show. It’s fantastic. It has a lot of humor and a lot of heart. Was that part of your vision, that you wanted to bring to it?
I mean, the whole thing that we always wanted to do was to make the fighting more accurate; make the funny funny, and then actually have a strong sense of drama. I’m one of those kids – like, the first movie that kind of blew my mind was Empire Strikes Back, and the thing that you could say about Empire is that that’s the show where the heroes get their ass kicked, and lick their wounds a lot. And there’s something about that – to actually have that sense of gravity and loss and stakes means a lot. So to balance that against humor is perfect. And I work with funny guys. I think we genuinely try to be really funny, and scary, all the time.
I heard that the original 1987 cast is coming back. How is that going to work?
Well, not to blow it out of proportion – it’s just a big cameo. But it’s great. Without giving too much away – the Turtles get lost in some dimensional portals, and they kind of look into the Eighties a little bit.
That’s fantastic. I can’t wait to see it, and thank you so much!
• • • • •
Well, I hope you guys got as big a kick out of these interviews as I did! Thanks again to Ciro and Greg for their time, and the folks at Nickelodeon for setting this up, and until next time, Servo Lectio!
TUESDAY AFTERNOON: Michael Davis
WEDNESDAY MORNING: Mike Gold