Marcel was born into the world from a seashell, some polymer clay, a single googly eye and a pair of Polly Pocket shoes. A collaboration between director Dean Fleischer Camp and Jenny Slate (who lends Marcel his teeny, little voice), the anthropomorphic mollusk made his debut on YouTube in 2010 in the docu-style short film, Marcel the Shell with Shoes On. That video currently has more than 32 million views.
"The first time that I thought maybe we could expand it in a feature was right after the first short," Fleischer Camp tells A.frame. The opportunity presented itself too, with a number of Hollywood moviemakers eager to cash in on Marcel's viral fame. "But it was clear to me that those studios were interested in putting Marcel into a tent-pole sort of movie. Like, I think it was suggested that he get partnered with John Cena to fight crime."
While Marcel might offer an empathetic approach to community enforcement, both Fleischer Camp and Slate wanted to make a feature that was a more natural extension of the character, while expanding his world in a way that maintained the authenticity and intimacy of the original shorts. That meant doing it themselves. "I really don't think a film's been made this way before," says Fleischer Camp. "I figured out a process that bakes in that looseness and the organic mistakes, really, throughout the process, up until the very end where you have to be nailed down as you're animating it."
It was approximately seven years ago that the duo set out in earnest to make a Marcel the Shell movie, recruiting Nick Paley, a frequent collaborator of Fleischer Camp, as a co-writer and Elisabeth Holm, with whom Slate had worked on Obvious Child and Landline, as a producer. The first few years were spent finding the story, allowing Marcel himself to guide the writing.
"Nick and I would write for a few months, then we would do two or three days of recording with Jenny," Fleischer Camp explains. The back-and-forth allowed them to maintain the grander storytelling structure, while baking in Marcel's signature off the cuff dialogue and improvisions. "Jenny would maybe go on a tear that cracked us all up and we'd integrate that," says the director.
"Marcel's voice is always with me," Slate says for herself. "I can always be ready to do that. It was an entirely different process than making the shorts. The movie was improvising off of a treatment, and then, Dean and Nick going through that audio and scripting something off of that, and then, re-recording based off of that, and then, improvising off of that and, like, so many layers of that. It was a much more detailed process."
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Marcel's feature-length adventure approaches his story from a meta angle, with Fleischer Camp co-starring as Dean, a filmmaker who befriends Marcel and makes a viral YouTube video about him. Newly famous, Marcel uses the opportunity to search for his long-lost family with the help of 60 Minutes' Lesley Stahl (playing herself) and his grandmother, Connie (voiced by Isabella Rossellini).
"We didn't record in a booth. We did it just in the house or on Isabella's farm when Marcel is with his Nana Connie, in the garden," says Slate. "We tried to use natural spaces and always be all together. In a lot of the animated features that I've made or on the TV shows that I'm on, it's a lot of doing that work by yourself. The way we recorded Marcel was so unique."
Marcel the Shell With Shoes On is not, of course, a true documentary. And making a movie with stop-motion animation feel vérité is, as its director puts it, "Like oil and water." Stop motion, as an artform, requires extreme precision. With animation director Kirsten Lepore, Fleischer Camp storyboarded every shot in the movie, then essentially shot it twice: First in live-action, and then again in animation.
"Our stop-motion cinematographer [Eric Adkins] was on set every day of the live-action shoot, taking the most meticulous notes," explains the director. "Down to like, 'Marcel is standing exactly six inches from this Coca-Cola can that might bounce light,' so that he could recreate that [lighting] exactly on the stages."
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Once the live action plates were shot, the team moved on to shooting the animated characters. "That is its own crazy technological challenge." Starting with refabricating Marcel himself, as the original craft store creation does not appear in the movie. ("But I do still have him in my closet and he's in a little Tupperware," Fleischer Camp says. "He's pretty dried out and crusty-looking at this point.") For the film, Marcel was created with 3D-printed shells that were then hand-painted by puppet designers.
"Most people understand how a Marvel movie or something is made, where they shoot live-action, then all of the visual effects are modeled and composited in a computer. That's step two," Fleischer Camp explains. "How ours is different is that for step two, imagine you didn't have a computer. You had another shoot. And everything has to perfectly match what you shot, because you're not modeling it in a computer. I love when people are like, 'I thought it was just you and your camera until I saw the credits and there's 500 people.' Because it means we all did our jobs really well. That it's so seamless, it seems like it could have been a small operation."
What the team managed to create feels as quaint and whimsical as ever, but with a new poignancy as its one-inch tall protagonist faces the vast world. Marcel the Shell With Shoes On is a surprisingly emotional movie, about this little shell that wears pink sneakers. Which is what Marcel's creators always hoped that it would be.
"I think what resonates to me is the same thing that resonates for all of the people that really love him, which is that he is a small soul in an outsized world," muses Fleischer Camp. "Everyone can relate to feeling like, 'I live in a world that wasn't made for me.' We know that feeling from childhood, but then most people I know grew up and felt like, 'Oh, no. I still exist in a world that wasn't made for me.' And Marcel isn't self-pitying because of that. Obstacles are constantly in his way, but he knows, I'm going to overcome this like I overcame the last one, and like I'll have to overcome the one tomorrow. He doesn't feel small even when he obviously is."
"Even though I play him, I like looking to him as an example of how it's okay to be," Slate says for her part, "I'm glad that this character that we made so long ago can finally get this moment of, like, actually sort of explaining himself."
Marcel — or Marcel the Shell With Shoes On, rather — is now an Academy Award nominee, up for Best Animated Feature at the 95th Oscars. "I am deeply flattered and beside myself, and holy s**t, just a pile on the floor," Fleischer Camp reacted. Now imagine how Marcel would take the news, considering the experience of having his own movie was oversized enough — literally. When Marcel arrived on the big screen, it was the biggest screen he'd ever appeared on. If a laptop is like an IMAX screen for Marcel, how must he have reacted to seeing himself in an actual movie theater?
"I think it might be overstimulating for him," Slate considers. "Like when I was little, the first concert I ever went to was Paul Simon's Born at the Right Time Tour in 1990. I had never been in such a giant, huge space like that, and the first song was 'You Can Call Me Al.' And I threw up. I just threw up right away. I think Marcel would probably throw up. Not because he wouldn't want to see himself. I just think it would be like a sensory overload for his little system."
"Oh my gosh," laughs Fleischer Camp. "I think he would probably pass out!"
By John Boone
This article was originally published on June 24, 2022.
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