The new Jonathan Liebesman-directed Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles film sees 90s slacker favourites Michelangelo, Donatello, Raphael and Leonardo return to our screens in 21st century, CGI, beefed up form, taking them far from the pages of the comic books in which they originated.
Alongside the launch of the film, production house Paramount Pictures has created an online exhibition, The Legend of the Yokai, which shows work by international artists that explore “the secret origins of the Ninja Turtles”.
The Legend of the Yokai story is based on a folkloric tale of four Kappa – “ancient turtle warriors who vowed to protect a humble village from the demonic Yokai”, an evil warlord flanked by an army of monsters. These Kappa turtles were said to abide by the pillars of honour, courage, wisdom and brotherhood.
The show features work by 30 artists including the UK’s Sam Gilbey and Matt Taylor. We had a chat with the pair about creating TMNT artwork.
Design Week: Why did you decide to get involved in the project?
Matt Taylor: I was offered freedom to just create a cool piece of art, which is something as an illustrator that I’ll always be inclined to do. Also, it’s Ninja Turtles – who was going to say no to that?
Sam Gilbey: The 12 year old me would have insisted upon it. I used to love the turtles so I relished the opportunity to dive back into that world. Also though, as someone who’s participated in the ‘alternative movie poster scene’, for want of a better term, it’s great to see companies like Paramount taking an interest in some of the passion that’s out there.
DW: What do Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles mean to you?
MT: They were something I grew up along with. I was slightly too young to appreciate the original comics when they came out in the late eighties, but by the time the cartoon and movie were on screens, I was probably the perfect demographic for them. To me they are part of the comic book landscape now – they have endured far longer than you might have expected them to and they’re constantly being re-imagined for new generations. I’m pretty sure my own kids will watch some version of the Ninja Turtles.
SG: In short, they represent the fun of adolescence. They had both Eastern and American appeal, and to a UK kid interested in martial arts and American culture, it was quite a heady mix. I loved the exotic weapons and the ‘mysticism’, and as a result, I drew the Turtles quite a lot. I have really fond memories of the four-player arcade game too. Most videogames worked in that format in those days (side-scrolling beat-‘em-up), but it still stood out as a higher quality example of the genre.
DW: Which “pillar” do you feel you embody most?
MT: Seeing as my art fits within that category, let’s go with HONOUR. I’m pretty honourable.
SG: Really not sure how to answer that without sounding pretentious! I’m just a bloke enjoying making pictures and trying to get slowly better at it. Which I guess just sounds pretentious too.
DW: What inspires you and your work [aside from TMNT]?
MT: Comics, movies, old lifestyle illustration, the idea of the American West, the sea and it’s mysteries… To be honest, my inspiration comes from pretty random sources – a snippet of a photo, the colour of weathered paint on beach hut. I try and look at as much as possible. I’m a big fan of looking at work outside of your peer group for inspiration to help you stand out from the crowd.
SG: In essence I just love to draw, and everything else comes from that. I’ve always made observational drawings, and that led to painting, and portraits. Coupled with my love for movies, videogames and pop culture in general, the sweet spot for me is therefore creating images inspired by pop culture.
DW: Talk me through your working process…
MT: Usually I’ll spend a couple of hours gathering image research – looking through books and blogs to gather my thoughts. I sketch out a rough colour version of the illustration so that the client has a good idea for what the finished piece is going to look like. I work fully digitally these days, so that means I can make my sketches pretty finished and get the palette down at an early stage. Then it’s just a case of tightening up the artwork and making a finished piece.
SG: In the case of this piece specifically, I scoured all the TV spots and teasers in 1080p, looking out for interesting frames and angles of all the characters. I then gradually amassed a library of screenshots, all the time building up an image in my mind of what might work in concert. At that point I used Photoshop to create the composition, to see how to lead the viewer’s gaze around the piece. I then go and paint each character and element separately in Painter, and gradually bring them into the main composition. It’s very satisfying to replace the raggedy reference screenshots one by one with the paintings. Once everything has had a ‘first pass’, I then go and add more detail where needed, and start to use Photoshop again to bring it all together, in terms of adjustments to colour and adding any effects, such as the diagonal ‘sparks’ you see in the background.
DW: Which turtle do you most identity with?
MT: Michaelangelo. Surely the most laid back of the four.
SG: Well, I suppose I’m at the geeky end of the spectrum (even though I’m not particularly technical) so would have to say Donatello, but as a kid I had never heard of sai, and they were just the coolest weapons to me, eclipsing even nunchaku, so I’d have most wanted to be Raphael.
You can view The Legend of the Yokai show here