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.
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.
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.
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.