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The Man Behind the Shells

An inteview with Tom Gray.

How do you influence millions of children’s lives over two decades and not be a household name?

Ask Tom Gray. He produced all four Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles Movies, including the fourth film, “TMNT,” which opened this past weekend at No. 1, toppling five other films that debuted in the same weekend and reaffirming that the ninja turtles are still as potent as when they opened their first live-action film in 1990 — back when it became the top grossing independent film of it’s time.

In 2004, Gray was named President and Chief Executive Officer of Imagi USA, the U.S. branch of the Hong Kong animation studio that made the new movie. He said the position inspired him to bring the turtles back to the big screen.

“When I joined [Imagi] I realized that we could do it right and in the right budget. Since our company is based out of Hong Kong, we can get everything in at a dramatically different price range, but still have some of the top level work done,” he said in a phone interview last week.

More important than any budget constraints was that the film stay true to its roots, Gray said.

“We didn’t just do it for the kids, we wanted to nail it for the alums,” he said.

The movie picks up chronologically after the third film, simultaneously reinvigorating the franchise with a new style while remaining true to the film, comic and cartoon lore that came before it. Lines, characters and plot points all remaining in tact, though some changes had to be made. Maybe the biggest of these plot points, and the most disturbing to hardcore fans, is that The Shredder, the turtles' arch-nemesis, is still dead.

“The Shredder died in the last film and we didn’t want to bring him back…right away,” Gray said.

So there is a new villain, voiced by Patrick Stewart, and new monsters; and, most noticeably, a new style: CGI.

“We thought CG would give us a bigger canvas, we could do more with the fights and the turtles themselves,” Gray said, “You can actually see Raph’s veins in his muscles and emotions are easier to deal with in CG.”

WITH ALL OF THESE new ideas and looks coming around, Gray wanted to make sure the director could maintain the feelings of the originals that alumni expected from the series.

“I didn’t want to make a ninja farce. We wanted to honor the alums and we found a director, in Kevin Munroe, who was a big fan of the original comic and movies,” said Gray.

Though Munroe has worked in the animation industry for over the last decade for companies such as Disney and The Jim Henson Company, “TMNT” is his directorial debut.

“He had to go meet with Peter Laird (co-creator of the turtles) and convince him he was going to do right by the characters and not slam the alums,” Gray said.

Munroe convinced him by presenting the darker more gritty turtles that he, Gray and the artists at Imagi had come up with.

“A lot of people have confused it for something like 'Shrek,'" Gray says, “We didn’t want that. The turtles are an action movie with some humorous aspects. There is humor but it’s just enough to make the turtles the turtles. I think fans will like it because it is a bit darker and grittier. We are bumping right up against a PG-13.”

Much of that darker look comes from the animators at Imagi Studios. Along with that darker approach and CG animation comes fight scenes that could have never been produced in live action. Gray says that working with a Hong Kong based company gave them amazing ideas how to choreograph and design the fights in the film.

“In the beginning, we thought we’d get a martial arts choreographer but people growing up in Hong Kong have seen so many martial arts movies that it’s practically in their DNA. All these great fights came out of our animators at Imagi’s studios minds. It was really impressive,” Gray said.

FOUNDED IN 2000 Imagi first broke onto the international scene with the short lived television show “Father of the Pride.”

The company, which focuses on more serious animated movies with superhero themes, does its development and pre-production in LA and its animation and post-production in their animation studios in Hong Kong, allowing them to work closely with the major U.S. production companies and maintain a lower production cost while still working with some of the top animators in the field.

“[Imagi] is an independent company where we make our films. Our visionary is only 29 years old but he says he wants to be as big as PIXAR, and we will be. We are making major films for studios that people want to see,” said Gray.

Next on the docket for the budding company is a CG film of the classic Japanese television show "Gatchaman," followed by a theatrical version of Astro Boy. Even with these big guns already in the holsters Gray, said the company is working on something more.

“I can only hint at it, but we are trying to work on something that, if we get it, could be as big as the Lord of the Rings trilogy,” he revealed.

As for now though he’ll have to be content with successfully reintroducing a generation of children to the previous generation’s favorite heroes.