How Marcel the Shell Made His Big Screen Debut
Jenny Slate, director Dean Fleischer-Camp, and animation director Kirsten Lepore talk about bringing a tiny shell into the bigger world.
The first Marcel the Shell with Shoes on was built in 48 hours. Director Dean Fleischer-Camp realized he had to make a video for a friend's comedy show so he interviewed his then-wife Jenny Slate, who came up with the Marcel voice, and then ran to a local craft store, KC Arts, in Cobble Hill. "I bought a bucket of googly eyes, this basket of shells, and some Sculpey, and then, you know, how like bodegas have like ripoff toys?" he remembers. "It was a ripoff Polly Pocket set that was this big accessories thing but then had these two shoes, and so I bought that and that's where I got the shoes." From there he spent some time trying to build the perfect anthropomorphic creature. "I made like three or four just disgusting goblins before I landed on Marcel, who I think is very handsome," he says.
Now Marcel, whose first short was released in 2010, is a big screen star. In Marcel the Shell with Shoes on—directed by Camp and written by him, Slate, and Nick Paley—his teensy world expands, but not by much. The film finds Marcel living in a house with his grandmother, Nana Connie, voiced by Isabella Rossellini, whose Italian accent is explained because she's "from the garage." The rest of Marcel's community of shells has disappeared, and he's struggling to maintain the memory of what once was, especially given that Connie's memory is failing. When a new Airbnb tenant, played by Camp, arrives and starts making a documentary about Marcel, our itty bitty hero gets the opportunity to find the rest of his family.
Camp wanted to maintain the charm of the original shorts and Marcel himself, but knew he would have to be able to do more for his adventure so he brought on animation director Kirsten Lepore, whose shorts had done the festival circuit at the same time his had. Here's how Marcel made his way to a bigger canvas.
Making Marcel Anew
Marcel started with a voice, and when Jenny Slate started speaking like Marcel she didn't really have an image in mind for him, leading from emotion first. So it was up to Fleischer-Camp to give him a corporeal form.
Camp: [When I was first making Marcel] I was reading a book about neoteny. It's the artistic or scientific study of cuteness that is just the features that for reasons of evolution or whatever, are visual cues and they're all almost the same, like cross species. I think it's wide set eyes, but also small features. The audio we recorded it's kind of like, obviously he is very cute and he is tiny, but he is also sort of melancholy. And so I was trying to create something that spoke to both of those things at the same time, and because I'd been reading that book, I was like, oh, like wide set eyes. And I was playing around with wide set eyes, and I was like, what if the most wide set you can get is that there's just one eye. And so that really was the first thing that clicked. I was like, huh, he actually looks kind of cute and handsome.
Slate: I felt like I was going to cry [when I saw him for the first time]. I remember where he was. He was on the corner of the kitchen table. It wasn't like Dean said something like, "Oh, I think I made a thing that goes with the voice." I think he said—and we can ask him, but in my memory at least—"here he is." I remember, truly, as if somebody had flown in a long lost friend from another state or something, I put my hands on my face and said "he is here."
Lepore: [For the movie,] Dean and I searched and searched and searched for like even one other shell that looked like Marcel. And somehow years later we came up with nothing. We couldn't find anything that was even close. I was like, "Okay, this is a dead end. It's not going to happen." So we had no choice but to explore rapid prototyping, 3D printing, for Marcel. Luckily they had already had a 3D scan done of Marcel. So if anything happened, he was preserved. We just tried doing the 3D print printing process. But you've probably seen 3D prints. Usually it's just hard plastic and then you paint it. And then once we saw that we were like, "This is not going to work," because shell texture is kind of like human skin where light passes through it. It has this translucency, it's a really beautiful particular surface. And you can't get that with a painted over object. So we had to find a place that could actually 3D print the color within the print. We ended up with, I think, a very believable Marcel in the end. But it was a super long road to get there.
The original shorts used rudimentary stop motion animation, but Marcel's little movements had to evolve, so with lots of trial and error Camp and Lepore figured out how to make a shell scutter about a house.
Camp: We talked a lot about, okay, how do we keep the kind of staccato, herky-jerky, cuteness of Marcel, but still do better, more fluid animation and allow him some actual articulation, because the original Marcel is just a solid block. He's super glued together. But we came up with a ton of really specific rules about how he moves, and we put together a little bible for our animators to be like when he turns, he turns one foot and then the other, or his feet can't go like 45 degrees. They can only go 30 degrees at a time.
Lepore: Dean's original shorts are very crude stop motion because he doesn't come from that world. He was always interested from the start to scale that up and make that feel a little bit more real. And bring it to a higher production value level in terms of the animation. We just did a lot of testing. We sort of saw what was too smooth and what went too far and then had to back off. We had some very creepy Marcel actions and then backing off we kind of found our sweet spot in the right place.
Camp: When Marcel's animated on ones, he's a horror movie villain, and when, or like a gremlin, and when he's animated on twos, he's his charming self.
Building Nana Connie
If Marcel is sort of a miracle of cuteness, Camp, Slate and Paley created a challenge for themselves in introducing another, adorable creature, the wise Nana Connie. Isabella Rossellini was attached early on, but the shape Nana Connie would take came later.
Slate: My own grandmother's name is Nana Connie. I think, first of all, my relationships with my grandmothers are the most precious relationships and really were prime examples of secure attachment and unconditional love. I just found my grandmother's feet enchanting and magical. I think we wanted to show that relationship. We also wanted to make sure that while Nana Connie was a shell, that she was kind of her own thing. That being positive or whatever is not the quality of a shell. That would, again, have made it kind of seem sort of sappy. Nana Connie does happen to be a really resourceful, strong person who is kind of no nonsense while also being really warm. I think you could say, because they're in the same family and she's one of his role models, that Marcel gets his own brand of dignity from watching her. But also she's a great elder because she's left enough room for him to develop as himself and not be like a clone of her. I think it's really funny that she's slightly larger than Marcel. Marcel's not a child. Although the baby shells or the younger shells are slightly smaller, I tend to think that their bodies grow like trees. We don't really have rules. We don't have a lot of answers for you in terms of how their bodies work. We like not having the answer, but there were a bunch of different character designs for Nana Connie. I think in the end it was really nice that her shell is older. I like to think that her shell is older and that's why it's a bit bigger.
Camp: Nana Connie was the hardest character to design. We were like, it's boring if she looks exactly like Marcel, you want her physique to say something about her character.
Lepore: How do we create the main character playing off of him and not totally mess it up to the point where it creeps people out. Or it's like, "Why is that there? That's weird." I mean, even just down to the decision of she's another shell was like a huge decision.
Camp: We went to a lot of shell shops. But there were just certain things about Connie that I wanted that do not exist in shells. And so she's not a real shell. She's sort of based on a bunch of different types of shells. For example, I was like, okay, if they're looking at each other, I want to be able to shoot over the shoulder shots and see their eye. So they have to have an eye on the opposite side of their body. Marcel's eye is on the right side, and then Nana Connie's has to be on the left. And I found out that shells actually don't turn that way. It's very rare to find a left handed shell.
Lepore: Figuring out what her size should be compared to Marcel was really tough. I did some little sculptures. We had like three different illustrators to kind of do like a couple different designs for what she could be. I think it was actually our friend, who just sort of did a really off the cuff sketch one time of a Connie with a little farm hat. And that was the one that we kept coming back to. She was a little more of a blob. She kind of looked like Grimace in his drawing. She was very blobby but she had moss growing on her. I think in the end we ended up really liking that shape. Actually it's funny. I'm remembering now, in the storyboards we didn't have a design for her yet. So in the storyboards, we always just drew her as like a big Grimacey blob, basically. We sort of got attached to that. And so ultimately we're like, "Okay. We've decided she's a shell. We've decided we have her basic form. Let's try to create a shell around there that looks somewhat believable as a shell, but looks like the old version." And we put like chips in there. So she felt a little more weathered and her paint job reflects that.
Slate: When I first saw Nana Connie, I just remembered telling Dean this is so right on. Also being like, I can't believe all these other people are jumping in to help us.
Putting Marcel and Connie in the World
The script started as a treatment written in prose, then they took a few years to work on a screenplay, before it finally evolved as a radio play performed with improvisation by Slate and Rossellini. Finally the live action component was filmed in a Los Angeles house near Koreatown before Lepore and her team stepped in with animation.
Lepore: We actually had this house in Silver Lake that we thought we were going to shoot the movie in. It's funny because it took so long that we ended up losing that house and didn't end up using it. But we did a lot of tests in that house and we actually went through and tried to location scout the house, like find the little corners that we were going to shoot in. But that was all really helpful later on when we found the actual house.
Camp: What we wanted to do is not done in stop motion or animation at all or, not at all, but not very often, which is to maintain the actual physics of the real world. And so things like Marcel jumping off a pizza box or something, we often had to remind people: Imagine he's the weight of a marble. He should not be able to jump more than half an inch. And when he jumps off of something, he drops a little faster than even he realizes he was going to drop.
Slate: Nick Paley, our co-writer, and Dean did a really good job of showing how, for example, it takes a long time for Marcel to do stuff. When he's trying to shoot the Ginkgo Berry into the spice rack using the spoon as a catapult. That's probably an hours long process for him. They put it in montage so that you can tell. I think we did a good job of making sure that the film had a really nice trot to its pace.
Lepore: I was there on the live action shoot. I would hold Marcel on a stick, like a little puppet Marcel and a Connie, and have them just play off each other and figure out, without even having done any animation tests at this point, how fast does he move? Like where can he go? How do we even plan these shots out before we figured out this character's walk cycle? So I just had to approximate the best I could basically to walk him through and be like, "I think he could make it here in time."
Slate: If you want to know Marcel's story and have that not be a condescending experience. You just have to start with the belief or the point of view that his size and his world is the world. We just liked that the most. It always felt uncomfortable for us to try to amplify his smallness by making the world also bigger.