Making a great feature film isn’t easy when your main character is a tiny seashell with one eye and a pair of simple shoes glued to it, but that’s exactly what director Dean Fleischer-Camp did with the aptly titled Marcel the shell with shoes on†
Based on a series of award-winning short films he made with writer and actress Jenny Slate (Parks and Recreation† Marcel the shell with shoes on Co-written by Fleischer-Camp, Slate and Nick Paley, it combines stop-motion animation with live-action settings and performances to bring the titular shell’s adventures to life. Like the short films, Fleischer-Camp portrays the documentary maker who describes Marcel’s daily life in the human home where he lives with his grandmother, Connie, and records his musings on the world and the characters around him. Slate provides the voice of Marcel, with Emmy-nominated actress Isabella Rossellini (Crime of the century) voicing Connie.
Digital Trends spoke to Fleischer-Camp about taking Marcel out to the wider world for the film, which follows the adorable shell’s efforts to find the friends and relatives who disappeared from the house years earlier, and the long process of recovering to make this unique film. -some kind of movie. The filmmaker also shared some details about why it took so long to make the film, the buddy film with Marcel and John Cena that he turned down, and what he hopes will take audiences away from the touching, family-friendly film.
Digital trends: what were some of the big steps in building Marcel’s world into something that can fill a feature film?
Dean Fleischer-Camp: Well, when making a fake documentary or whatever you want to call it, I… I don’t really like the term “mocking” for it…
That is fair. It’s not a term I really associate with this movie.
Yes, exactly. “Mockumentary” sounds like a comedy skit to me. Not that this movie isn’t a comedy, but anyway… For me, the biggest challenge as a director was to make a successful fake documentary like this, unlike a narrative film where everything is made for what’s in the box. , you have to build so much more to suggest the world outside the frame. Everywhere you pan your camera, you have to see the set dressing and the life of the character. I’m really proud of that with this film. I think it feels like there’s a whole world. Sometimes there’s even a production design that we’re obsessed with and never even mentioned, like Connie’s bedroom as a jewelry box. It’s just… there. It’s part of the texture.
Stop-motion is not the easiest animation style, and certainly not the fastest. What was the film’s production process like?
Oh my God. So bizarre. You’re going to love this. We actually wrote the screenplay while recording the audio. It was kind of done in tandem. Nick Paley and I would write for a few months, then we would record for two or three days, and then we would write again. Before the shoot, we’d have the scene shot with Jenny or Isabella and the other cast members, but then it could also be like, “Okay, Jenny said she had a better joke for this, so let’s do it again,” or “Isabella, can you say this in your own words?” Sometimes it would be recorded faithful to what we originally wrote, but sometimes it would be completely different, and so much better.
Nick and I have backgrounds in editing, so we’re very comfortable saying, “Okay, now we’re going back to our editing cave and we’re going to dig into all this audio, take out the gems, and that’s recorded in the next round of writing.” That was an iterative process that we did over and over, writing a few months, then recording a few days, probably half a dozen times over the course of two and a half years, and by the end of that we had this finished scenario that felt like like a real documentary and where people were talking over each other and spontaneity and the kind of stuff you could never write.
And then you really had to start filming after all this time.
Right! Then we filmed the live-action records – basically the whole movie without the characters. And I don’t think a movie was ever made this way, to be honest. Scenes from movies are certainly made that way, but I don’t think there’s ever been an entire movie where the main character is stop-motion in a live-action world, for the entire feature film. So [after we filmed the live-action elements], the second phase involved shooting all the scenes with Marcel and all the animated characters and objects on animation stages. But because we don’t model that on a computer and don’t use CG animation, our stop-motion director of photography was there every day during the live-action shoot and made the most accurate notes on the exposure so he could mimic it on the animation phase when we put Marcel in it. It ended up looking flawless too.
I can’t even imagine how much time and lighting notes it took to ensure that the animated Marcel’s lighting always matched the lighting in the live-action world.
Yes, when Marcel is in the car, we are constantly passing trees and shadows flicker over him on the dashboard. Each of those flickers on him is our stop-motion DP looking at the footage and recording, “Okay, we passed a tree at this moment, and then this moment, and then…” and he has a light to give the sunlight effect on Marcel, sliding forward one frame at a time to exactly match every tree we pass or anything that creates a shadow in the live-action footage. It’s masterfully done and I don’t think a movie has been made that way before.
In the short films you were usually behind the camera, but in this film you become a character on the screen. What was it like to put yourself in Marcel’s story like that?
It was horrible! I don’t like acting. Back to the shorts, my voice has always been the voice of this man who records Marcel’s life. So much of the heart in those movies comes from our understanding and relationship. So we knew we wanted to tell that story and that my character would have its own kind of subplot, and I really like how we see Marcel change him and bring him out from behind the camera. But our first pitch didn’t have my character on camera at all – that came from the story that took us to a certain place and we realized he needs to update himself and join Marcel to complete that story.
I was thrilled to finally see Marcel go out into the big world. How did that element of the story change the way you approached the film?
Well, we first met studios to try and turn it into a feature film right after the first short film got underway, and it became clear during those meetings that they wanted to graft Marcel into a more famous tentpole movie. I remember feeling like, “I don’t think the correct adaptation of this character is for him to team up with John Cena to fight crime” – which was suggested to us at one point.
Wait, was that really pitched to you?
It was! And it’s not that I wouldn’t watch that movie, it just didn’t seem right for the character we were creating.
I would watch that movie too. But circle back, how? did did you figure out where the movie should go with Marcel?
We challenged ourselves to find out how we could expand his world by looking near instead of far and being introspective about it. And eventually it kind of came into the picture when we realized he doesn’t actually have to go to Paris and New York City because he’s small in this outsized world. The house is already huge and dangerous and crazy to him. Once we figured that out, we started thinking, “Oh, that’s one way to expand his character. If he leaves the house, that in itself should be a big deal.” So that was always at the forefront of our minds when we were building the story: how can we preserve what’s special about him while expanding his world.
There are so many wonderful lessons to take from the film and Marcel’s experience. What do you hope audiences take away from the film?
That’s a very good question. I hope they look at it again and again because I still see things when I look at it and think, “Oh, I forgot that was in there!” It’s such a complicated movie that I think it’s really worth a closer look.
But one thing that’s really special to me and that’s really helped me in my life as I’ve been making it is how it’s almost educational about how to go through grief. It’s a really fun movie and I still enjoy watching it, but it also has real depth and honesty about how to deal with unhappiness and loss in life. What has helped me most in my day-to-day life and is so special about the film is the idea that loss is an inherent part of any new growth or new life. That’s something that I feel like I discovered through the making of the film and it’s in the DNA in a great way.
Directed by Dean Fleischer-Camp, Marcel the shell with shoes on is now in cinemas.