Besides the film’s very authentic looking New York rooftop sets created at the North Carolina Film Studios by production designer Roy Forge Smith, one of the picture’s most important sets was the studio’s back lot where the company filmed night scenes for almost two weeks.
To prepare for creating the design sketches, Smith and his art director, Gary Wissner, went to New York City about four months before filming was to begin and took still photographs of the rooftops there and the tenement area on Bleecker Street where they imagined Casey Jones would live and April’s junk shop/loft apartment would be – with manholes in the street close by that would lead to the Turtles’ sewer den.
Smith’s talented construction team – using his sketches – then set about matching as closely as possible the film studio’s back lot street to the photographs. When the carpenters finally had the sets reinforced, and in some cases, rebuilt, the painters came in and renamed some of the shops, restaurants and apartment hotels, and aged all the buildings with a mixture of various kinds of ink, paint and plaster. The result was an extremely authentic look and the same kind of feeling that is present on the real life Bleecker Street in Manhattan.
One of the problems Smith had, he says, was with the two manholes leading to the sewer. An eight foot square room had to be constructed below each manhole for the Turtles to go in and out of on their way to and from their sewer lair.
“When we started digging in the street we hit water at about five feet because – we found out – the whole North Carolina coastal area near the Cape Fear River is swamp land and just under the surface it is all a natural spring,” explained Smith. “We finally solved the problem by pouring concrete into the underground rooms to keep the water out.”
Smith, who has designed such films as”Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure” and “Monty Python and the Holy Grail,” says that when he first was given the “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles” assignment, he did not do anything the first week except meditate about the project – which is the way he approaches every new film.
“To get motivation for the proper atmosphere in the designs, I started out by imagining I was a Turtle living in the sewers under Manhattan,” says Smith. “Our director, Steve Barron, had story boards drawn for all the action scenes, so that was a big help. I wanted to get the Turtles’ domestic environment, their den, just right because it is important to a lot of kids out there who follow the comic book adventures to create the definitive home of the Turtles, the one the kids will recognize, rough but inviting, furnished by junk swept down the storm drain and made workable by Donatello, the fix-it genius who can repair anything.”
In the designs’ early stages, Smith showed his drawings to two young boys he knew. They said: “Yeah, that’s it! That’s it! But where are the empty pizza boxes?” Needless to say, their advice was heeded, and pizza boxes were added to the set.
While in New York City, photographing Bleecker Street, Smith and Rissner also tried, without success, to gain access to a city sewer hoping to get some ideas to help give the picture’s sewer set a look of authenticity. They were, however, allowed to explore a long-abandoned, one-hundred year-old Brooklyn subway system – originally built for steam trains – whose structure principle is the same as a sewer. They also went into a water tunnel which had huge water pipes running through it that were used to pump water into the Central Park reservoir. Smith shot still photographs of these two underground explorations and used them as inspiration in creating the Turtles’ den and the film’s actual sewer corridors. “Then our set decorators dressed it with a dilapidated couch, old chairs, a cracked but working TV set, second-hand books, a weather -beaten table, a shattered mirror, a hanging tire, an ancient stove, splintered bunks and a faded hammock to sleep in; torn pictures on the wall and a battered old telephone in a broken-down phone booth where the Turtles phone for pizza all the time.”
Smith went on to say that to make the den even more authentic-looking, he imagined that it would have been flooded many times, so he gave it a tide mark – a ring on the walls indicating a long ago high water mark. And knowing such a room would acquire layers of soot, condensation, rust and algae, he tried to get the maximum amount of this texture by covering much of it with brick, plaster and a kind of stucco paint put on with a roller that combines different elements of aging colors with the base color which is literally splattered on the wall with a pump spray to give it that derelict texture look as though dampness over time had slowly flecked away at the paint leaving flakes all over. “We put rust marks running down the walls, ceiling leak marks and rusty colored water marks everywhere — all done with inks, paints and plaster,” adds Smith who, at the beginning of his career, had intended to become an artist. “To me, the whole thing is like a three dimensional canvas which is a projection from my original sketches.”