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Comic-Con 2014: 'Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles' 3D Reboot vs. Low-Tech 'Project Almanac'

Thompson on Hollywood By Anne Thompson and Bill Desowitz | Thompson on Hollywood July 26, 2014 at 5:18PM

Two of Paramount's offerings at Comic-Con, "Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles" and "Project Almanac," revealed an interesting contrast in tech approaches. While the "TMNT" reboot touts the latest facial capture advancement from Industrial Light & Magic called Muse, the time-traveling teenage adventure is proudly low-fi in its attitude toward hardware.

The Hall H footage for Paramount's "Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles" and "Project Almanac" revealed two very different approaches. The former is a live-action 3D reboot that takes advantage of the latest technology (VFX details below). Megan Fox plays comely reporter April O"Neil who's tracking a pack of vigilantes with Will Arnett (who takes a good look at her butt leaning out a window during one truck-diving-down-a-mountain chase).

The project came into being when producer Andrew Form called original 1983 comic creator Kevin Eastman (who has a great boyish quality) and begged him to come to a meeting. "This has been going on 30 years, crazy!," he told the hall. "I didn't think we would sell one issue of the comic. Thank you!"

Comic-Con questioner

They agreed to collaborate and brought in director Jonathan Liebesman. Born in 1986, Fox grew up a fan of the TMNT, she said, and wondered how April, "who was slightly different in each manifestation, would turn out in this version. I was not sure who she was going to be."

One fan asked a good question: why did this movie go in such a "paramilitary direction"? Liebesman responded that the ninjas use martial arts, and with today's world of law enforcement, they'd be up against the real thing, and would "have to be formidable in all aspects." Liebesman revealed that the voices of Leonardo and Splinter were changed in post-production to Johnny Knoxville and Tony Shalhoub, respectively.  Which suggests some degree of insecurity--the footage looked like pixel chaos. 

On the other hand, the studio was confident enough to promote low-budget time-travel POV flick "Project Almanac," starring a quartet of young unknowns, to the Comic-Con hordes via a screening Thursday night. Director Dean Israelite, the younger cousin of Liebesman, who last came to Comic-Con as his assistant on "Battle Los Angeles," delivered stronger footage with "Project Almanac," which played well.

Meanwhile, at the Paramount roundtables, "Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles" and "Project Almanac," revealed a distinct contrast in tech approaches. While the "TMNT" reboot touts the latest facial capture advancement from Industrial Light & Magic called Muse, the time-traveling teen adventure is proudly low-fi in its attitude toward hardware.

Megan Fox and Will Arnett at Comic-Con
Megan Fox and Will Arnett at Comic-Con

In fact, "TMNT" director Jonathan Liebesman even acknowledged the brilliance of Weta Digital's performance capture work on "Dawn of the Planet of the Apes" as a preface to explaining the importance of ILM's animated contribution. "You cannot get a great performance without a great actor and animators are there to almost re-target that performance onto the characters that you create, and so when they say that Andy Serkis deserves the Oscar, he does deserve the Oscar. He does an amazing performance and makes you believe Caesar is real. Those were some of the shoulders we were standing on.

"And so we cast the actors that embodied each turtle, and their performance was translated. Where the technology went even further than on 'Planet of the Apes,' we were able to select different takes and then blend them in one performance. So that was something that ILM did a lot of R&D on, enabling us to not to have to stick to one take, and that gives you a lot of flexibility in post-production."

ILM benefited from using two HD cameras, according to the director, and, for the first time in its history, captured eye movement, teeth, and even the tongue. "The technology they were using was a lot more challenging and took a long time to research, so by the time we got to the set, it was sort of user friendly, To me, it's incredible. For 'Planet of the Apes,' you have apes, you have a reference in real life for the animators as artists. In a way, what's difficult for our film is there are no ninja turtles."

Thus, it was a challenge to create such beloved, iconic characters in a more believably photo-real way. "And emote the way we do."

And the appeal of revisiting the Turtles for Liebesman was reaching back to the dark tone of the original comics and blending it with the lightness of the popular animated series, In effect, making it grittier with a greater sense of danger while staying true to the spirit of the archetypal personalities. "And I think those characters could work in any story, so for us the characters themselves and their interaction was almost more important than the plot itself."

Meanwhile, "Project Almanac," which is about second chances and the consequences of that when changing events in time, starts out as a comedy but then grows darker. However, for director Dean Israelite, it wasn't particularly important to immerse himself in the time travel genre because that was merely a device to explore a teenage rite of passage story, Even so, the catalyst of discovering found footage from the past makes for a fresh time travel twist.

"I think what we really tried to do was take this high-concept and do it in a low-fi way so it becomes edgy and gritty. Time travel is violent at first and full of mistakes and obstacles and these guys almost kill themselves in just trying to get it working. And when they do get it working, it only goes back for a day. And they need to find more parts and raise more money to get it back two days, maybe a week, three weeks. So I think by making everything subjective from [star Jonny Weston's point of view] puts a new spin on it,"

This article is related to: Comic Con 2014, Immersed In Movies, Paramount, Project Almanac

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Born and raised in Manhattan, Anne Thompson grew up going to the Thalia and The New Yorker and wound up at grad Cinema Studies at NYU. She worked at United Artists and Film Comment before heading west as that magazine's west coast editor. She wrote for the LA Weekly, Sight and Sound, Empire, The New York Times and Entertainment Weekly before serving as West Coast Editor of Premiere. She wrote for The Washington Post, The London Observer, Wired, More, and Vanity Fair, and did staff stints at The Hollywood Reporter and Variety. She eventually took her blog Thompson on Hollywood to Indiewire. She taught film criticism at USC Critical Studies, and continues to host the fall semester of “Sneak Previews” for UCLA Extension.