***This article originally appeared in the 35th Anniversary Issue of Animation Magazine (June-July ’22, No. 321)***
In August of 2010, director Dean Fleischer-Camp and his then-wife, writer/actress Jenny Slate, released a lovely stop-motion short about an anthropomorphic seashell with a single googly eye and very tiny shoes. Now, 12 years later, the super-cute mollusk is ready for his big-screen close-up as the feature-length hybrid movie Marcel the Shell with Shoes On premieres in select theaters in June.
The film, which made a big splash at the 2021 Telluride Festival, finds the squeaky-voiced seashell, his grandmother Connie and their pet lint Alan trying to figure out the mysterious tragedy that separated them for the rest of their community. Fleischer-Camp tells us that after the initial Marcel short proved to be hugely popular — to date, it has over 3.4 million views on YouTube — it generated a lot of interest from studios and networks. But, there was a catch:
“All the meetings were all sort of geared towards how to take this great character and just kind of graft it onto a more mainstream, familiar type of movie,” he recalls. “So, a lot of studio execs suggesting, ‘What if we pair Marcel with Ryan Reynolds and they fight crime together?’ It was basically Detective Pikachu, now that I think about it. It just didn’t feel aligned with what made the short great, or with what I was interested in doing with the character.”
So, the director and Slate (who also provides Marcel’s voice) decided to keep the character intact for a while. “But the character never went away, and Jenny and I just kind of kept joking and riffing about it in private, thinking up stories or jokes or whatever,” says Fleischer-Camp. “I started keeping very lazy notes about those ideas and just got into the habit of jotting them down. And eventually, we’d built up a ton of those. We had generated so much about him and his world that after a while, it honestly felt like it would be a shame not to put it into a larger project and kind of let it be free — you know, jailbreak it from the prison of being just an inside joke. I also finally felt like it was full enough that I could see how it might actually support an entire feature film and not feel like we’d stretched this very limited premise super thin.”
Playing the Shell Game
Then, in the summer of 2014, the director joined forces with producer Elisabeth Holm (Obvious Child), co-writer Nick Paley and award-winning animation director Kirsten Lepore (Hi Stranger, Bottle, Adventure Time “Bad Jubies”). While they drew the storyboards in 2017, the animation didn’t begin until March 2022, and then everything shut down because of the COVID pandemic. “We restarted production in August with very strict protocols, and everyone was wearing shields and masks,” says the director. “We wrapped animation in October 2020 and then locked picture in September of last year (2021). So it took seven years, which sounds like a lot but when you consider that it also includes the time it took to pitch to financers and write the screenplay, etc., it’s probably not that long relative to other animated movies!”
“The first few years were mostly Dean and Jenny recording and getting the audio play locked,” recalls Lepore. “We did a lot of boarding, refining and trying things in the edit until we landed on a final animatic. Another small delay in the process: I had a baby. Then in the summer of 2019 we did the live-action shoot in a beautiful, charming house in L.A., which provided the majority of our plates and established the look and feel of the movie. In 2020, we shot the stop-motion elements (after several months of delay due to the pandemic shutdowns), and then post continued for probably another half year after that! There was a ton of compositing to be done, as we’re seaming both the live-action plates and stop-mo elements for most shots. So, suffice to say, it was a very long process — but one that was filled with tons of experimentation, discovery and ingenuity”
Lepore worked with a 50-person crew, and recalls having around 10 stages running at once — and everyone, including the assistants, animating shots and doing incredible work! “We shot on DSLRs capturing into Dragonframe, which is pretty standard. However, the fact that we were inserting a one-inch-tall stop-motion puppet into roving live-action camera footage was something that, to my knowledge, had never been done before,” she points out. “We had some pretty huge technical puzzles to solve in order to achieve our most complex shots, i.e. the handful that required sweeping multi-axis camera movements (popcorn!), complicated interaction (skating on real dust!) and hundreds of puppets (couch!).”
She also sings the praises of the film’s DP, Eric Adkins. “He was incredible and the absolute perfect person suited for these challenges,” Lepore adds. “For every single shot on the live-action shoot, Eric made overhead diagrams detailing every light source and measuring exact distances between props, characters and camera, so he could recreate that scenario as closely as possible an entire year later on the stop-motion stages. His attention to detail was *chefs kiss*!”
For the filmmakers, merging the documentary-style live-action footage with stop-motion animation proved to be the biggest challenge. “They’re just oil and water,” says Fleischer-Camp “The verité style of the live action is very handheld, loose-feeling, spontaneous — very off the cuff. And stop motion is the total opposite because it’s so labor intensive. It’s very previsualized and technical, very tightly controlled. That was insanely complicated and hard to do, not to mention fairly unprecedented. But I was committed to figuring out how to not just do that but how to make it 100% seamless, so that you really believe Marcel exists in this world and you never question it.”
Fleischer-Camp, who counts documentaries such as Grey Gardens and Portrait of Jason as well as Nick Park’s Creature Comforts, Jiří Trnka’s classics and Niki Lindroth von Bahr’s shorts as some of his favorites, mentions that his true heroes are the artists he met working on the film or through festivals. “People like Kirsten, Kangmin Kim, Yizhou Li, so many others; they just absolutely blew me away with every shot. That’s sort of the best thing about being a director: you get to meet and befriend so many brilliant artists — and if you’re really lucky, like I was, you get to work with them as well.”
Looking back, Lepore agrees that one of the best parts of the experience was getting to meet and work with so many amazingly talented people. “This was the largest scale project I’ve had the opportunity to work on, and there was definitely something special about the camaraderie that forms when everyone is in it together on a feature,” she notes. “And on this project in particular, it really seemed like everyone who worked on it shared a similar positive ethos that was totally in the spirit of the Marcel character. It was a very special crew and wonderful working environment.”
When asked about the universal appeal of Marcel, Fleischer-Camp offers the perfect answer: “There are so many people that live in a world that is not made for them,” says the director. “Even if you don’t feel that way as an adult, everybody knows that feeling because when you’re a kid, nothing in the world is made for you, it’s all made by adults for adults. And that only becomes more complicated as you grow up and realize: Hey, wait, this world still isn’t made for me, but just for different reasons than your height. Marcel is an inspiration in that way. He sees an obstacle and he doesn’t see the impossible, he just sees it as the next thing he has to overcome. I find him very inspiring like that.”
A24 releases Marcel the Shell with Shoes On in select theaters on June 24.