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From a humble comic to Hollywood history, Ninja Turtles are back

The three men responsible for Turtle Power - The Definitive History of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, which has been in production since the beginning of 2009, pose for a portrait in the basement of Isaac Elliot-Fisher with his Ninja Turtle and other toy collections in Paris, Ontario on August 5, 2014. Left to right are Elliot-Fisher, D.O.P./Producer, Randal Lobb, Writer/Director/Producer, and Mark Hussey, Post-Production/Producer.

Peter Power/The Globe and Mail

Randall Lobb didn't think Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles would ever amount to anything. In fact, he was sure it wouldn't.

Lobb first came across the gritty, oversized, black-and-white comic book as a teenager at Toronto's Silver Snail comic shop in 1984, and he thought the idea of four mutated turtles who fought crime as ninjas was an outrageous parody trying to piggyback on the success of Frank Miller's wildly popular Daredevil series.

"I couldn't get past the title," said Lobb. "I thought it was crazy."

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Fast forward 30 years and you can still hear the surprise in the former comic book collector's voice. Now a 49-year-old high school teacher, he is just about to release his first widely distributed, feature-length documentary – about the unlikely history of the storied franchise he was so certain was doomed from the start.

A wholly Canadian production that's been five years in the making, Turtle Power: The Definitive History of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles tracks the evolution of a humble comic book that defied the odds and became one of the world's most recognizable pop-culture brands.

The story behind Turtle Power, which was filmed and produced by Lobb and his friends Mark Hussey and Isaac Elliott-Fisher, is somewhat similar to the franchise it profiles. After all, Turtle Power is equally unlikely, a self-financed movie produced by three part-time filmmakers from small-town Ontario – Lobb and Hussey are from Goderich, Elliott-Fisher lives in Paris – who have been juggling their lives and day jobs ever since they began production in 2008.

Now, five years, countless interviews and more than 200 hours of footage later, the movie is finally set to be released by Paramount Home Media Distribution on Aug.12 – on the heels of the just-opened, Michael Bay-produced Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles reboot and a timely complement to the 30th-anniversary celebrations.

"It's an underdog story," said Lobb, who also works as a brand and innovation strategist for VirtualHighSchool.com. "They [TMNT creators Kevin Eastman and Peter Laird] could have never anticipated what would happen, so that was the theme from the start, and we also saw it as a metaphor for what we were trying to do."

TMNT grew out of a limited-run, independently funded comic book from Northampton, Mass. Eastman and Laird's Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles No. 1 first appeared in comic book stores in 1984, and faster than you can say "cowabunga, dude," TMNT became a hit animated TV series, a bestselling children's toy line and a successful movie franchise, in spite of its off-kilter premise.

It is this story Turtle Power looks to tell over the course of its 98-minute run time. But it's not the story the three filmmakers thought they were going to tell in 2008, when Elliott-Fisher first approached acquaintances Lobb and Hussey on a street corner in Goderich with the idea of making a documentary about a franchise he had been a fan of since he was four years old.

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Much like his initial reaction to the comic book, Lobb immediately dismissed Elliott-Fisher's idea, but Hussey embraced it. After a short back-and-forth discussion about the movie's premise with his future partners, Lobb agreed to go forward.

"We came up with this idea that we'll look at the fans, and it won't run afoul of licenses and all that," Lobb said. "As far as I could tell, it was going to be a big fan-doc. We were going to show some people who had amazing collectibles."

After following up on an e-mail that Elliott-Fisher had sent to Mirage Studios, an independent comic book company founded by Eastman and Laird and the original home of the TMNT franchise, Lobb received the initial networking support he needed to start working on the doc.

From there, things began to spiral happily out of control in a way the filmmakers never anticipated. At New York Comic Con in 2009, Elliott-Fisher struck up a friendship with Eastman. Upon hearing their idea, the TMNT co-creator invited the trio to interview him in Los Angeles and to stay at his Beverly Hills mansion for the duration of their stay.

"As we were leaving L.A., we kept saying to each other that it doesn't matter if we sell [the movie]. Look at what we just did!" said Lobb.

Laird also agreed to an on-camera interview, and with that access to the franchise's two creators, Lobb, Hussey and Elliott-Fisher changed the focus of their documentary from TMNT fans to the franchise's complete history.

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"It was a combination of the fan culture and the story of Kevin and Peter, and I don't know if I'd give myself credit to say that I saw their story as the hook at the beginning," said Elliott-Fisher, a 28-year-old freelance cinematographer. "But what I was aware of was that there were these two guys who had an idea and started a comic book in their living room in the mid-eighties, and it became this huge thing that I loved as a kid. And there was something about that transition that I found intriguing."

The trio travelled across the United States interviewing everyone from the original cast of voice actors from the hit 1987 animated TV series to Brian Henson, current chairman of the Jim Henson Company, which engineered the animatronics used to bring the turtles to life in the 1990 live-action movie.

Then, after several months of pitching the movie to studios such as Lionsgate, Nickelodeon and The Weinstein Company, they received an offer from Paramount to buy their film (they wouldn't reveal for how much).

The end to another unlikely adventure was finally in sight.

In the time it took to get from idea to release, "I had my hips replaced, Mark had two kids, Isaac got married and bought a house. Our whole lives were just radically shifting and … we became friends with Peter and Kevin," said Lobb. "We juggled our jobs, it was hard work."

While the past five years have been filled with uncertainty – the gang would routinely travel to the U.S. on a moment's notice if it meant securing an on-camera interview – there was one thing that remained constant: people's undying nostalgic love for a unique comic franchise.

Elliott-Fisher attributes TMNT's success in part to its kid-friendly but edgy humour and character design.

"I think it comes back to product design, and that ties into the core concept of the franchise," said Elliott-Fisher. "You have a lot of toilet humour because of the fact that the characters are living in the sewer. So you could have fun with toilet plungers and garbage cans and toilet seats and funny things that they would incorporate into the accessories or the vehicles of the toys. … They would push the envelope of the gross-out factor."

As for what the future holds for the doc's producers, Lobb is adamant that Turtle Power won't be the last pop culture-fuelled documentary the trio makes.

"We've defined a way to look at these properties from the 1980s and 1990s," said Lobb. "We're not going to stop."

***

Turtle-mania

While the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles may have made their debut in the pages of an oversized 1984 comic book, their hit animated series (starting in 1987) and accompanying toy line (1988) are what propelled them into mainstream consciousness. Below is a list of some of the most expensive and rare TMNT-related collectibles.

Scratch One of the turtles' more obscure villains, Scratch is a mutant cat in a black-and-white prisoner's outfit. One of the rarest and most expensive pieces of TMNT memorabilia due to its limited production, Scratch was one of the last action figures to be produced in the original TMNT toy line, so it is a must-have for any completist rounding out a collection. A loose figure can be found for more than $300, while one in its original packaging can sell for more than $1,000.

Eastman and Laird's Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles #1 The first edition of Eastman's and Laird's comic book was released in May 1984 and had a run of only 3,000 copies, so a first printing of the book is extremely difficult to come by. Mint to near-mint copies of the oversized comic have sold for more than $22,000.

Technodrome While not one of the priciest pieces of memorabilia items, the 1990 Technodrome is one of the most popular TMNT toys ever to be released. A massive ball that opened up to reveal a detailed rendition of the evil Shredder's lair, the vehicle was said to be able to hold as many as 10 figures. Used Technodromes can be found online for about $350, while those in sealed boxes can fetch $900 each.

Channel 6 News Van Michelangelo, Donatello, Raphael and Leonardo are the stars, but Channel 6 reporter April O'Neil is a staple within the TMNT universe. A long-time ally of the turtles (portrayed by Megan Fox in the just-released, Michael Bay-produced live-action movie), O'Neil's news van is one of the most sought-after pieces of TMNT memorabilia. A complete set can sell for $250.

The Originals In 1988, Playmates Toys released the first set of 10 TMNT action figures. In addition to the four turtles, the set included Splinter, April O'Neil and the villainous Shredder, along with a few of his nefarious henchmen. A single figure in near-mint condition on card (jargon for "sealed in its original packaging") can fetch $100, depending on the character.

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