Ciro Nieli, the showrunner for the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle TV series, in Dubai on April 7, 2016, at comic con. Image Credit: Clint Egbert/Gulf News

When Nickelodeon in 2012 announced a new Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles animated series, the sceptics were many. But from the moment it hit the airwaves, the show took off and it hasn’t looked back (the fifth season starts on May 22 and can be seen in the UAE). The Huffington Post said of the show, “The team at Nickelodeon created a surprisingly smart show with strongly developed characters and on-point nods to pop culture, classical movie genres, and hints of the original cartoon peppered throughout.” tabloid! caught up with Ciro Nieli, who developed the animated show for Nickelodeon, at the Middle East Film and Comic Con in Dubai earlier this month.

How did you get the Nickelodeon TMNT gig?

Well, I was always a Ninja Turtle fan and I had worked on so many anime projects. At the time, I was working for Warner Bros., and I was looking for something more significant, more long-term and I heard Nickelodeon had bought the Turtles property rights. So very simple, I just called them up and asked them for an interview. I went in and gave the interview, gave them my thoughts about it. They asked a few questions about what I think and my take on it. I was very confident because of my cache, my repertoire of what I had done but I came to learn it wasn’t that simple. There were hundreds of people trying to get this job so it was a little daunting. They kind of challenged me and said to come back and prove myself. I took it as a personal challenge, prepared materials and a few weeks later I went in with several pieces of art and my presentation and they said to me “Oh now we believe you” and I was really happy.

What’s your earliest memory of the Turtles?

This is a very different climate now, where you can go to a comic con and see a grandmother dressed up as Deadpool. It was a different time — there were no comic book stores in my town where I grew up. But there was one about half an hour away. My mother was very sweet and she always encouraged my love of drawing. She would drive me to this place half an hour away and I remember walking into the comic book store which was an old house which was converted into a comic bookstore. And I remember walking in one day and the first issue was there, quite a few of them. It was a dollar fifty and I bought it and it completely blew my mind. Looking back on it now, I remember how rare that was. That book did not distribute nationally. I believe Kevin [Eastman] and Peter [Laird, the co-creators] had made only 3,000 copies and they kept 2,000 for personal appearances and they only distributed 1,000 locally. So for me to get one was kind of rare.

Do you still have the copy?

Oh yeah, I still have it, it is one of the few things I kept from my childhood. I have sealed it away so it can remain perfect. And the comic came at a crucial period, too. I was drawing a lot as a child but I think when I was ten years old there was a bit of a lull in my creativity and I might have never drawn again. People started changing, growing up and getting involved with school, girls, sports all those kind of things. And when I saw the Turtles, it really empowered me to feel like I can draw. You don’t have to be perfect, you don’t have to draw like some of the greats that work for Marvel or DC. These guys blew my mind and [the comic] was very violent. I shouldn’t have read it as a ten year old, it a was crazy book. So when I made the show, that was the reference point for me.

So here you are with all this TMNT history. What did you want to change about the Turtles when you came in?

It’s funny, the greatest part about working on a project like Turtles to me was I felt that the past incarnations, for whatever reason, were susceptible to the times. In the ’80 it was a toy thing, in the ’90s it was this genre of action and the 2003 series was the same thing. And the medium of TV animation for kids wasn’t like it is these days, it wasn’t sophisticated. I felt I didn’t have to really change anything, but I had the opportunity fulfil something that was never really tapped. So we were able to make it funnier than it ever was, we were able to have the fighting more realistic and be true to the idea of a true ninja arts fighting style. More martial arts.

TMNT has been around for more than thirty years. What do you think kids today take away from the show?

When I think of Turtles, the question I get all the time is which ninja turtle you relate to most. But I feel the four ninja turtles make up sides of your personality, sides of everyone’s personality. In everybody, there is the capacity for Leo, Donny, Michelangelo and for Ralph. The four of them kind of make a complete person and I think for kids, especially when you are growing up in some point in their life, it’s easy at times to relate to any of them. It’s very comforting.