Filmmaker Dean Fleischer Camp’s Marcel the Shell with Shoes On is a tonic. His incredibly endearing and novel mockumentary follows a 1-inch tall shell, who wears shoes, and who has managed to capture the imagination of so many on the big screen after he initially found fame on YouTube. For those who are yet to meet him, Marcel, voiced by Jenny Slate, lives in an Airbnb with his Nana Connie and pet lint Alan and ponders the big and small questions in life, delicately drawing the audience into his miniature yet epic existence. The feature film came to be after seven long years of meticulous writing, planning, recording and brainstorming in order to create the utterly delightful spontaneous and immersive life we see on screen. Marcel asks you to question your perceptions of death and family while captivating with his daily perambulations, be they using sticky honey feet to walk up a wall or a tennis ball as a vehicle. Fleischer Camp and the entire team behind Marcel put their whole hearts into the project which shines through and whilst they may have just missed out on a BAFTA last night, they are still very much in the running for Best Animated Feature at the Oscars. Ahead of the film’s recent release in cinemas here in the UK, we sat down for an interview with Fleischer Camp where we spoke to him about his determination to create a mockumentary which didn’t make fun of its subject, working over an intense three year iterative work cycle in order to capture Marcel on a larger feature film canvas and not falling into the trap of over-egging the diminutive nature of his formidable protagonist.[The following interview is also available to watch at the end of this article.]
I’ve heard you describe Marcel the Shell with Shoes On as a “soup of collaboration”, how did you come to be working with everyone involved to develop the shorts into the feature across that seven year journey?
Jenny and I first created this character over a decade ago as we made our YouTube shorts. Our co-writer Nick Paley is one of my friends from college. We had come up as editors together and would hire each other and send jobs each other’s way, and have been working together for over 10 years now. Liz Holm is another old friend of Jenny and I and the first person that we called when we started making this film. It’s that rare project where you get to work with all your friends and it’s just a beautiful collaborative family of creatives. The other part of the brain trust were our financers/producers CineReach, a New York-based non-profit that finances films they believe in. We were lucky enough to be one of those.
It became this iterative process of several months of writing, followed by a couple of days of audio recording.
There is such an amalgamation of genres – documentary, stop motion and narrative – in the film. How did you thread those all together?
It was a really unique process. I don’t want to use the word mockumentary because I think it sounds like it’s going to be mocking something or someone. But, from the beginning, I felt like I wanted to make a mockumentary that is not making fun of documentary or its character or its subject. I wanted to extend the same dignity and focused, careful, thoughtful attention to this subject that you would extend to a normal documentary subject. The only difference is that he is a fictional character. He’s a one inch talking shell.
For me, it was all about engineering this process of making a narrative fiction film so that it is as much like documentary production as possible. I have some experience in documentary and so at every turn, we were deconstructing the normal production process we were all used to. Figuring out how to breathe authentic documentary life, exploration and spontaneity into what is normally a very blueprinted, pre-visualized, execution-focused process. Nick Paley and I would write for three or four months based on the outline that we had pitched for the movie and then we’d record for a few days with Jenny and then would repeat that process over again. On the recording days, we would get everything that we’d written, maybe 30, 40 pages and, because we didn’t have any big production elements, while we were there we had the freedom to say, “Okay, that scene actually didn’t work. What if we try to get from A to B in a different way?” or maybe Jenny comes up with a really funny joke that’s better than the joke we wrote. It became this iterative process of several months of writing, followed by a couple of days of audio recording.
Then because Nick and I are editors, we would cobble together the stuff we liked from that and then we’d do it all over again. We’d write all those gems of that recording session into the next phase of scripting and we did that iterative cycle for about three years. During that time, Animation Director Kirsten Lepore and I started drawing storyboards for all the shots and bringing a visual element in. At the end of that three year period, we had arrived at a finished screenplay and a locked audio play, like an animatic at that point because we had the storyboards. We had this way of writing the screenplay that allowed for spontaneity and for the characters to come to life in ways that you couldn’t if you were just sitting down at a computer.
We then moved into live action production and shot all the background plates and all the human interaction, cut that together and laid those shots over our audio play. After which we went into the animation phase where we took all the elements that were interacted with at the house – all the props, the surfaces, all that stuff – broke it all down, moved it on to animation stages and then animated Marcel and the other characters. The last phase was comping them together in post.
What sort of camera set up were you working with?
It was all single camera except for the 60 Minutes shoot for the interview section. Even though there’s this sense of it feeling spontaneous or off the cuff, it’s actually very restrictive. You have to shoot the shot and of course Marcel’s not in it. Kirsten was on set every day puppeting this little Marcel on a stick so that the camera operator could get focus marks. We then had to take notes about the lighting so our stop motion DP was on set every day, writing down all this meticulous information about how to recreate the lighting. I think the trick is that it seems spontaneous, like I just came over to that house with my camcorder or whatever, but it’s all a big illusion. There’s a ton of meticulous and very hard work from a lot of people that goes into making it seem completely effortless.
We had this way of writing the screenplay that allowed for spontaneity and for the characters to come to life in ways that you couldn’t if you were just sitting down at a computer.
Can you tell us more about creating that feeling of spontaneity while blending your stop motion and live action worlds?
That was a big collaboration between me and Bianca Cline, the DP on the live action phase of production, and Eric Atkins, our stop-motion director of photography. Stop motion has a lot of technical constraints that a live action DP if they’d never shot that way wouldn’t have experience of. It was basically the three of us figuring out, “Okay, how do we codify the ‘je ne sais quoi’ of those original videos and of Marcel as a character”. We wanted it to feel natural and we didn’t want to break the conceit of it being documentary but we also wanted it to be elevated. We wanted it to feel like all the shots were captured naturally but we also wanted those shots to be the most beautiful version of that corner of the house.
We were in the house, which is a real house, every day for a month before shooting, scouting it out going from the living room to the office or the kitchen. It was a lot of taking photos and figuring out that the light in this room is gorgeous between 3.30 and 4.15 so let’s plan our shoot around capturing that. Then also, for example, if we were losing light or if the shot required multiple passes so the light was changing, Bianca would augment or recreate what naturally happens so that we had control over it and could stay there for as long as we needed. But it was always a dialogue with actual nature and the actual light in that house.
They were excited to work on something different and I chose them especially because it felt like they didn’t totally care about the rules.
How was the experience of working with the Chiodo Brothers?
They are legends in the stop motion world. Their first movie Killer Klowns From Outer Space scared the living piss out of me when I was a child. They’re animators who’ve had a whole lifetime of experience in stop motion animation and they were really instrumental in terms of listening to us, figuring out our vision for this and then working on the brass tacks production and creative logistical things that you need to do in order to achieve that. They were excited to work on something different and I chose them especially because it felt like they didn’t totally care about the rules. That is very important when you’re trying out things, experimenting and figuring out how to make a stop motion movie that feels like a live action documentary.
I was so drawn into the details of Marcel’s life in the house, such as the plant tree houses and the sticky footprints which allow him to walk up the wall. How were all those idiosyncratic moments chosen?
By the time we had the house we already had the animatic and so a lot of those concepts – like the honey wall, the honey footsteps, the tennis ball as a car, and the tree houses – were developed and fleshed out at that earlier stage before we had found the house. A lot of those ideas were me, Nick, Jenny and Kirsten all putting our heads together. I know that we had an ongoing text thread where when an idea would pop into our head, such as “What is Nana Connie’s tombstone?”, over the next few days someone would suggest a domino or a stick and all of these ideas until it finally dawned on us that a chess piece was perfect. There was a lot of brainstorming and having a good time making each other laugh which is how we got to a lot of those ideas.
A lot of them were also generated by me and Kirsten when we were storyboarding. If you start with an audio play you’re not considering the geography all the time so once you start storyboarding, you realize that you have all these problems on your hands. He’s in the living room here, how does he get to the mantle? So, probably for a year, Kirsten and I sat down every day over Zoom and drew out every frame of the film and over the course of that, we had to put ourselves in Marcel’s position and figure out; all right, how would I get up the wall?
Alongside Marcel’s loveable voice, the music add so much to the general feel of the film. What was the process of developing that?
I feel like I understand that creative path much more now than when we were working on it, maybe that is always the case. I have always been a fan of Rich Vreeland, aka Disasterpeace, he’s an incredible and very talented musician and composer. I tried to make sure we had time and resources to get him to work on it and he totally knocked it out of the park. When we were writing and storyboarding I was listening to a lot of ambient music, specifically 90s Japanese ambient music. I eventually used that for some of the temp tracks and there are a few tracks on the soundtrack we licensed from artists from that scene. What appealed to me was that a lot of those albums feel cyclical, they don’t feel like they’re telling you how to feel about a specific moment. When you put them to a piece of cinema, they don’t feel like they’re telling you exactly what to feel, it’s not prescriptive in that way. They feel like cycles, like vibes that evolve over the course of the entire song or tighter instrument cycles that kind of evolve and add instruments as they go along. That always felt like an apt metaphor for Marcel and for this story. When Rich and I started working on the score those were a lot of our references.
I, as an audience member, hate it when I’m watching a movie and the character’s clearly sad and the shot is telling me to feel sad and then the music comes in and it sounds really sad.
I think the things that are really loud and apparent about Marcel – the fact that he’s small, the fact that he’s cute – are always the things that are the most fun to bury a little bit and not hit super hard because they’re so apparent already. I, as an audience member, hate it when I’m watching a movie and the character’s clearly sad and the shot is telling me to feel sad and then the music comes in and it sounds really sad. I just think that there are much more interesting ways to go about scoring a piece of film and my favorites rhyme with what I’m seeing but also contradict it in some way or it enriches it or deepens it. It was a process of by and large of just figuring out what’s the piece of music that you would expect to hear and then what’s the way to deepen it.
I was talking to Rich about the score in Minari which I really loved and I think it works so well. He said, “Music and films almost always speak to the future”. When you see Minari, there’s this vaunted celestial feeling music paired with a shot of a tomato growing on a vine. The imagery is kind of banal and very terrestrial and what you’re hearing is reverential and godlike. So you’re looking at that little thing and thinking about its great projected future because the music is telling you that this is actually extremely important and borderline godly. When I look back now at our film, I think that it does that in a way that I love. The music is often these cycles that slowly evolve or devolve or build to something new and that’s what happens with Marcel. It’s all about life cycles and about death being a prerequisite to growth and to new life. And I love that.