Skip to main content

How Marcel the Shell became 2022’s best feel-good movie

Creating a great, feature-length film isn’t easy when your protagonist is a tiny seashell with one eye and a pair of simple shoes glued onto 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 created with writer and actress Jenny Slate (Parks and Recreation), Marcel the Shell With Shoes On was co-written by Fleischer-Camp, Slate, and Nick Paley, and blends stop-motion animation with live-action settings and performance to bring the titular shell’s adventures to life. Much like the short films, Fleischer-Camp portrays the documentary filmmaker chronicling Marcel’s daily life in the human house where he lives with his grandmother, Connie, and recording his musings on the world and 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 bringing Marcel out into the wider world for the film, which follows the adorable shell’s efforts to find the friends and family members who vanished from the house years earlier, and the long process of making this one-of-a-kind 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 he turned down, and what he’s hoping audiences take away from the touching, family-friendly film.

Marcel the Shell stands on the record player's needle, smiling.
Image used with permission by copyright holder

Digital Trends: What were some of the big steps in building out Marcel’s world into something that can fill a feature film?

Dean Fleischer-Camp: Well, in making a fake documentary or whatever you want to call it, I… I don’t really like the term “mockumentary” for it…

That’s fair. It’s not a term I really associate with this film.

Yeah, exactly. “Mockumentary” sounds, to me, like a comedy sketch. Not that this movie isn’t a comedy, but anyway… To me, the main challenge as a director was that, as opposed to a narrative film where everything is made just for what’s inside the frame, to make a successful fake documentary like this, you have to build so much more to suggest the world outside of the frame. Everywhere you pan your camera, you need to see set dressing and the character’s life. I’m really proud of that with this film. I think it does feel like there’s a whole world there. Sometimes there’s even production design that we obsessed over that’s never even mentioned, like Connie’s bedroom being a jewelry box. It’s just… there. It’s part of the texture.

Stop-motion isn’t the easiest style of animation, and certainly not the quickest. What was the production process like for the film?

Oh my God. So bizarre. You’re going to love this. We basically 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’d do two or three days of recording, and then we’d write again. For the recording, we’d get the scene recorded with Jenny or Isabella and the other cast members, but then it might also be like, “Okay, Jenny said she had a better joke for this, so let’s do it over again,” or “Isabella, can you put this in your own words?” Sometimes it would get recorded faithfully to what we’d initially written, but sometimes it would be completely different, and so much better.

Nick and I come from an editing background, so we’re very comfortable being like, “Okay, now we go back to our edit cave and we pore over all this audio, pick out the gems, and that gets incorporated into the next round of writing.” That was an iterative process we did over and over, writing for a few months, then recording for 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 screenplay that felt like a real documentary and had people talking over each other and spontaneity and the sort of things you would never be able to write.

Marcel the Shell and his grandmother, Connie, stand in a tiny garden bed lined with stones.
Image used with permission by copyright holder

And then you actually had to start filming after all that time.

Right! After that, we filmed the live-action plates — basically, the entire movie without the characters. And I don’t think a movie’s ever been done this way, to be honest. Scenes from films have certainly been made like this, 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-length film. So [after we filmed the live-action elements], the second phase was to shoot all of the scenes with Marcel and any of the animated characters and objects on animation stages. But because we’re not modeling that in a computer and not using CG animation, our stop-motion director of photography was on set every day during the live-action shoot, taking the most meticulous notes about the lighting so he could recreate it on the animation stage when we put Marcel into it. It ended up looking flawless, too.

I can’t even imagine the amount of timing and lighting notes that went into ensuring the lighting on the animated Marcel matched the lighting in the live-action world at all times.

Yeah, when Marcel is riding in the car, we’re passing trees constantly and there are shadows flickering over him on the dashboard. Every one 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’s got a light to create the sunlight effect on Marcel, advancing one frame at a time to match exactly with every tree we pass or anything that creates a shadow in the live-action footage. It’s masterfully done and I don’t think any movie has been made that way before.

You were typically behind the camera in the short films, but you become an on-screen character in this one. What was it like to put yourself into Marcel’s story like that?

It was awful! I don’t like acting. Going back to the shorts, my voice was always the voice of this guy who’s documenting Marcel’s life. So much of the heart in those films comes from our rapport and relationship. So we knew we wanted to tell that story and for my character to have his own sort of subplot, and I think it’s really beautiful the way we see Marcel change him and draw him out from behind the camera. But our initial pitch did not have my character on camera at all — that came from the story taking us to a certain place and us realizing he has to self-actualize and join Marcel to complete that story.

Marcel the Shell With Shoes On director Dean Fleischer-Camp laughs at Marcel, standing on a stool next to him.
Image used with permission by copyright holder

I loved seeing Marcel finally go out into the big world outside the house. How did that element of the story change the way you approached the film?

Well, we first met with studios to try to turn this into a feature right after the first short film took off, and it became clear in those meetings that they wanted to kind of graft Marcel into a more familiar tentpole movie. I remember feeling like, “I don’t think the right adaptation of this character is that he’s partnered with John Cena to fight crime” — which was actually suggested to us at one point.

Wait, that was really pitched to you?

It was! And it’s not that I wouldn’t watch that movie, but it just didn’t seem right for the character we created.

I would also watch that movie. But circling back, how did you figure out where the film should go with Marcel?

We challenged ourselves to figure out how to expand his world by looking near instead of far and being introspective about it. And eventually, it kind of snapped into focus when we realized he doesn’t actually need to go to Paris and New York City because he’s tiny in this outsized world. The house is huge and dangerous and crazy to him already. Once we figured that out, we started to think, “Oh, that’s a way to expand his character. When he goes out of the house, that should be a big deal on its own.” So that was always at the forefront of our minds when we were building the story: how to maintain what’s special about him while expanding his world.

There are so many wonderful lessons to take away from the film and Marcel’s experience. What are you hoping audiences take away from the film?

That’s a really good question. I hope they watch it again and again because I still notice things when I watch it and think, “Oh, I forgot that that was in there!” It’s such an intricate film that I think it really rewards close rewatching.

But one thing that’s really special to me about it and has actually helped me in my life while I’ve been making it, is how it’s almost instructional on how to move through grief. It’s a very cute movie and I still crack up watching it, but it also contains real depth and honesty about how to deal with misfortune and loss in life. The thing that’s been most useful to me in my daily life and is so special about the film is the idea in it that loss is an inherent part of any new growth or life. That’s something I feel like I discovered through making the film and is in its DNA in a great way.

Directed by Dean Fleischer-Camp, Marcel The Shell With Shoes On is in theaters now.

Rick Marshall
A veteran journalist with more than two decades of experience covering local and national news, arts and entertainment, and…
5 great (HBO) Max TV shows to watch on Father’s Day
A family of four poses in The Sopranos.

What do you want to get your dad for Father's Day this year? Word to the wise, it might be bad form to buy your father ties and socks, unless they really love clothing. For our money, the best thing to give is the gift of binge watching with your loved ones on a quiet Sunday afternoon. And if you're a Max subscriber, then we've already got some suggestions in mind.

Our picks for the five best (HBO) Max TV shows to watch on Father's Day 2024 include an overlooked sci-fi series, three all-time great HBO originals, and an updated take on one of the world's greatest superheroes. All five of these series also feature fathers and their children as main characters, and that's a theme that's worthy of exploration this Father's Day.
Fringe (2008-2013)

Read more
The 25 best YouTube videos for kids (June 2024)
Kamri Noel from Nat Geo Kids talking with an expert about how 3D printers work in a lab with one in front of her in a YouTube Nat Geo video.

Every parent of young kids needs a break from time to time, whether it's to get a load of dishes done, make a phone call, or chat with friends while out for brunch with the kids. This is where some educational screen time can come in handy. As kids get older, their personal screen time increases. While you still want to make sure they don't have their faces buried in phones and tablets too long or too often, you can encourage them to watch content that has some value when they do. There are great YouTube channels and videos that are engaging and inspiring while also being entertaining. The options span every age range as well, from fun songs to delight babies and toddlers to interesting videos to spark curiosity in older kids.

The 25 best YouTube videos for kids cover topics like learning the alphabet, understanding kindness and personal hygiene, science experiments and facts, ways to safely use tech, learning to play instruments, catchy tunes, and more. Scroll to the appropriate age category and you'll find some great, parent-approved video options for little ones and big kids, alike.
ABC Song Learn English Alphabet for Children with Ryan! | ABC phonics + More Kids Nursery Rhymes
Ryan's World
Best for Ages 1-4
ABC Song Learn English Alphabet for Children with Ryan! | ABC phonics + More Kids Nursery Rhymes
Repetition is the best thing for kids to help them learn, and Ryan from Ryan’s World has become a cultural phenomenon for a new generation of kids. The popular YouTuber, first known for his unboxing videos, has a channel filled with tons of videos of all kinds that his 37 million and counting followers watch. This one is a simple video for toddlers just learning to speak, understand the alphabet, and identify objects. Ryan takes them on a journey that includes oversized alphabet letters, dancing, catchy songs, and even a fun game of hide and seek.
At 23 minutes long, it’s like a TV show episode, but the first nine minutes are perfect for one sitting and take kids from A through Z. The video moves quickly at times, however, so expect the kids to want to watch it again and again. Each time, however, they’ll pick up a new letter, associated word, and how to pronounce it. They might even start repeating some of the elements of the song, like “P is for pizza, puh-puh-pizza” and “N is for naptime, na-na-naptime.” (One view and the tune is already stuck in my head on repeat!)
Turn the video into a game you can play along with, placing the same objects in the room for your toddler to point out along with Ryan. Following the alphabet time are family performances of various upbeat tunes, including the popular Pinkfong song Baby Shark.

Read more
5 TV shows you need to watch in July
A strapping man wearing a loincloth stands over two other men on the ground in an arena as others look on in a scene from Those About to Die.

Looking for something new to watch this summer? While you’re probably spending most of your days outside soaking up the sun, once night hits and you want to unwind, you can do so in front of the TV with a great new show. There’s a lot coming this summer from all the top streaming services.

Of the five TV shows you need to watch in July, four are new while one is the final season of a popular postapocalyptic series, which is also now streaming at a new home. The shows collectively feature talented actors like Rashida Jones, Anthony Hopkins, Natalie Portman, Seth Rogen, and Jennifer Connelly. July will be an exciting month in television, with lots of new shows to watch through this summer.
Sunny (July 10)
SUNNY — Official Trailer | Apple TV+

Read more