In 2010, Dean Fleischer Camp and Jenny Slate made a short film about Marcel, a talking shell with one eye and little shoes. The endearingly cheerful little character became a viral hit, leading to more short films and two books. The two have now collaborated on a feature adaptation “Marcel the Shell with Shoes On,” in which Slate continues to voice the title character.
In an interview with RogerEbert.com, Camp spoke about the painstaking process of creating a feature film that combines elements of documentary, narrative feature, improvisation, and two forms of animation, how Marcel’s co-stars Isabella Rosellini and “60 Minutes” journalist Lesley Stahl got involved, and what he hopes Marcel the Shell With Shoes On will do next.
For a director on this project and probably on any project that’s adapted from something, the number one rule is “do no harm.” And so, I really wanted to expand this character we had created with these shorts but I didn’t want to lose the documentary texture and authenticity of those shorts. I feel like there’s such a special magic that is created when you combine stop motion animation, which is one of the most labor-intensive forms of art on the planet, with that really off-the-cuff-sounding, very authentic, spontaneous audio. That’s part of the magic that we bottled in the shorts.
I really wanted to figure out a way to write this film that benefited from the greater planning and orchestration and emotional ambitions of a true, written, structured screenplay but also still kept intact all of the great things we got from being very comfortable with improv and directing on the fly, punching things up with Jenny [Slate] on the fly. And so, what I landed on with the help of Nick Paley, our co-writer, and with our producers, was a process whereby Nick and I would write for a few months. And then at the end of that, we would record for a couple of days with Jenny in character as Marcel, and we would get all the stuff that we had written but then we would punch it up or we’d say, “Oh this isn’t quite landing. Let’s think of a better joke for this.” Or sometimes Jenny would just go on a tear that really cracked us all up.
And then Nick and I would go back into this editing and writing phase. We both come from editing so it was very comfortable for us to pore over all this audio we’d recorded in those couple of days and pick out the gems and then begin writing again. And we would write for another three months and then we’d do another couple of days of audio recording.
We did that for two and a half years. By the end of that, we had both a finished screenplay that sounded for all the world like a documentary and an almost locked audio play because we were recording the entire time. Doing those two things in tandem allowed us to write to these characters who we were getting to know as we went along.
Even though we started with a pretty detailed outline of the kind of movie we were going to make, there were so many great discoveries. And once we found out, for example, that Lesley Stahl was confirmed, Nick and I could write around the specifics of what we loved about Isabella [Rosellini]. And then towards the end of that process, I started sitting down with Kirsten Lepore, our animation director, and she and I just storyboarded out the entire movie, just the two of us doing storyboards for a year.
By the end of that, we had basically an animatic that moved and worked like a movie and had jokes and had visuals, and we could screen it for friends and get feedback. So, that’s the first two steps. We always joked that we made the movie three times. Then the third step is the live-action shoot. So, once we were happy with the animatic we locked that and we said, “Okay, now we’re going to shoot all of the live-action stuff.” So, essentially that was the movie that you watched but without Marcel or any of the animated characters.
And then the fourth step was the animation, which all is real stop-motion animation other than the insects. So, all the shells, that entire community, it’s all real stop-motion and that was all shot on animation stages. But because there’s so much interaction with the live-action world it necessitates a weird handholding between departments. For example, our stop-motion cinematographer was on set every day of the live-action shoot taking the most meticulous notes about the lighting because once we went to the animation stages he had to recreate that lighting perfectly in order for Marcel to match the scenery. I would even say this is kind of a fifth step, which with a movie that is as visual effects heavy as a film, even though it feels very light and naturalistic. There’s the fifth step of post-production and visual effects, painting out all the rigs and all the finger smudges and all the artifacts that you get from stop-motion that are not the ones that you like.
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