We chat with Bianca Cline and Erik Adkins about Marcel the Shell’s cinematography with Shoe On and how another iconic filmmaker influenced his imagery.
By Brad Gullickson Published on July 14, 2022
Welcome to World Builders, our ongoing series of conversations with the industry’s most prolific and thoughtful craftsmen behind the scenes. In this post, we talk to Bianca Cline and Eric Adkins about achieving pristine imperfection in Marcel the Shell’s cinematography with Shoes On.
A spell comes over you when you watch a Terrence Malick movie. His films are pristine, beautiful as a picture. You want his frames on your wall as much as on your television. But another part of you, the hostile child within, longs to poke at the glass with a muddy finger. Malick movies are heavenly and can be a far cry from our reality below. A good spotless dead center or along the edges could connect us a long way with Malick’s absurd beauty.
A version of this idea fluttered through the cameraman Bianca Cline while thinking about the visual aesthetic for Marcel de Schel with shoes onthe new stop-motion adventure movie starring Jenny Slate’s one inch scale. Together with director Dean Fleischer–Camp and stop motion cameraman Eric Adkins, she sought guilt in the beautiful. Their film required a magical attraction in Marcel’s small universe. At the same time, she longed for a tactile credibility experienced in documentaries, a medium Cline knows well through her work in Murder Among the Mormons and Belly of the beast.
Marcel the shell with shoes on stems from the 2010 short film of the same name. As before, the film focuses on the titular scale. This time, however, Marcel struggles with internet fame. He and his grandmother (Isabella Rossellinic) desperately looking for their missing family, stolen when they hid miserably in a sock drawer that was quickly evacuated during a feuding couple’s latest argument. Dean Fleischer-Camp plays a version of himself and tells their story after discovering their existence on his Airbnb.
Stop motion movies are tricky, long efforts, no matter the subject, but Marcel the shell with shoes on manages to impress beyond his expectations. The film took seven years to complete. The script was first converted to an audio format and Bianca Cline and Erik Adkins never saw a written word. They worked on the voices of the cast, that’s all.
First, Cline shot on location, often mixing performers with puppets and miniature stand-ins. Adkins shot next onstage with animation director Kirsten Lepore. Putting the film together became a mathematical problem, made all the more complicated by the filmmakers who wanted to reproduce Terrence Malick’s magic with deliberate imperfection.
“We wanted the imagery to be a really nice version of a documentary,” says Cline. “It’s not a Christopher Guest thing where it feels like you just showed up. It’s like, ‘Oh no, these are all the most beautiful things.’ And in the preparation we talked about it as tree of life. It is more of a reference than a particular documentary. Even though that format is there, it’s the director, Dean’s voice behind the camera talking to Marcel and asking him questions and stuff like that. So in that way it was a documentary, but we were like, ‘No, we want this to feel really nice.’”
There was a danger in chasing Malick. The movie could be too good. Marcel is already an adorable creation, and if the filmmakers relied heavily on his adorable character, there could be a distance between the audience and the characters.
“A lot of movies about characters like Marcel,” continues Cline, “are often too precious, which in turn makes the character feel unreal. And so it was like, ‘Okay. We want this to be a great movie, but we don’t want that. it gets buttoned up too much.’ We wanted mistakes and sloppiness. The thing we kept saying was we kind of wanted to throw it out. So it’s, ‘Okay, here’s the bullets from — it’s early in the morning and there’s a beautiful sunshine coming in.’ But maybe we also bumped into the camera, or it’s just not quite in the perfect spot so it didn’t feel too polished.’
Creating imperfection is an almost impossible task for a stop-motion operator. Every move is perfectly detailed and planned. You can’t just do it with these thumbnails. Marcel the shell with shoes on defects were carefully calculated and made.
“I do the opposite of” [imperfection]”, says Eric Adkins, “I just make the imperfections. I could see that Bianca had put a lot of artistry into the lighting and the fog, but I had to perfect those imperfections. I wanted every branch to be raised in the correct frame. I needed that shadow to cross that corner. I needed the motion control rig to fly around when they came around the corner. I had to reverse engineer those imperfections to make it precise.”
So, how do you balance such a situation? How do you reach reality through taint and disfigurement when taint and disfigurement are not possible in such a mathematical art form? The eerie valley threatens everything.
“I’m always looking for things that add detail or interaction,” Adkins says. “For me that helps to bind the situation. I had to do that when I was doing Sky Captain and the world of tomorrow. It was all blue screen. There were no sets, except for one set that we threw a stuntman at. The furniture defined the space, not unlike [Marcel], where at some point the coffee table and sofa have to match. And we didn’t have the couch; we actually had to replace it. If Neville walked on something so defining, there would be bounces on the cushions that were supposed to be there. Planning things that add credibility, like shadows, like inner activities, is a fun challenge.”
Bianca Cline knew the film would succeed or fail based on its aesthetics. If they couldn’t pull it off, the public would check out right away. At no point did she want the public to see Marcel as a cartoon character. He is as real as the woman who pronounces it.
“It’s inherent in watching a movie about a character that’s clearly not real,” Cline says. “How do we make him feel like we’re in his world instead of the typical stop-motion or CG character world? The imperfections help him feel [real]. Erik would match the lens we were using; he would adjust the lighting and try to mimic that on stage with Marcel.
Cline and Adkins rely on each other. She clung to her documentary instincts. When opportunities presented themselves, she went after them. The problems that were created could be solved later on stage. Hopefully.
“The most documentary thing to do,” Cline continues, “is to say, ‘Okay, Marcel is standing by a window, but dappled sunlight is coming through the trees in there. Oh, it looks beautiful. Can Erik imitate that? ?” and he and Zdravko Stoitchkovour visual effects supervisor would make it look the way we wanted.”
Erik Adkins knew that almost immediately Marcel the shell with shoes on was special. All projects start the same. They are a gig. They are full of problems and challenges. His joy comes in coming up with the solutions. Somehow, while he was solving problems, Adkins really understood what the movie was trying to do.
“When you take pictures with records that have already been cut into a movie,” Adkins says, “you can already feel the sense of the timing and the emotion of the project. In a way, the animators and that crew got a sense of that and they knew they were working on something unusual. I call it a melancholic comedy. It represents reality because it’s a documentary, and it’s an animation of this fictional character who actually has no heartbeat. It’s not a character that exists, that we know, in this world. It’s really imaginative. I don’t know, it just felt unique.”
Marcel the shell with shoes on was shot not once but three times. The film was a relay race from audio to location to stage. It’s a technical and creative marvel to bring all three together into a single entertainment. Bianca Cline and Eric Adkins ultimately work as complementary and contradictory elements. Their atmosphere, Terrence Malick but slightly uglier, is the emotional glue between their finely tuned product and their audience.
Marcel the shell with shoes on now running in select theaters.
Related topics: Marcel the shell with shoes on, stop-motion, World Builders
Brad Gullickson is a weekly columnist for Film School Rejects and senior curator for One Perfect Shot. When not talking about movies here, he roams comics as a co-host of Comic Book Couples Counseling. Find him on Twitter: @MouthDork. (he/him)