How ‘Marcel the Shell’ invented the ‘never done before’ stop-motion

For director Dean Fleischer Camp, a monumental challenge came in a tiny package.

“The main thing that I was worried about and wanted to accomplish was to make a film that felt like an organic documentary in this stop-motion world,” Camp said. Reverse on Marcel the shod shellis out now in theaters from A24.

“It’s oil and water. These two processes are so different. So there’s been a ton of thinking about how to execute.

Marcel, a seashell with an oversized mind whose world is a quiet suburban home, is no taller than a quarter. Voiced by Jenny Slate, Marcel was created in 2010 for a comedy show in Brooklyn and became an internet darling.

Now, Marcel leaps to the big screen in a mockumentary that mixes live action and stop-motion animation. The film follows an independent filmmaker (Camp) who reunites with Marcel (Slate) and his grandmother (Isabella Rossellini) in his Airbnb. As Camp captures the story of Marcel and his obsession with 60 minutesthe little guy goes viral on the internet, prompting Marcel to search for his missing family.

Modernize stop motion

Although it looks like a tender film with a lo-fi design (Marcel’s face is a single googly eye), the film was only made possible after a process overseen by animation supervisor Kirsten Lepore. .

Stemming from his incongruous mix of cinema verité (a French term referring to the authenticity and spontaneity of the camera, and the action it captures) and stop-motion animation (a complex and meticulous move of moving things one frame at a time), Marcel the shod shell may be one of the most technically complicated films in theaters, even compared to the likes of Top Gun: Maverick and Jurassic World: Dominion.

“What we wanted to do had never been done before.”

“I always had the feeling that it was going to be complex,” Lepore tells Reverse. “What we wanted to do had never been done before. There’s no [comparisons] for a small, one-inch-tall stop-motion character playing against real humans and real dogs.

The closest movie the filmmakers could reference for their work was the 2001 bombshell monkey-bone, but even that was not a perfect model. “I knew we were going to build this process from scratch,” says Lepore.

Marcel the shod shell is the big-screen version of a series of YouTube shorts from 2010. Actress Jenny Slate reprises her role as Marcel, a brave shell in search of her family.A24

The filmmakers took a two-step approach. First, they gathered all the live footage. Then the animation – and how to film it – was iteratively tested.

“We spent about a year testing,” says Lepore, most of which “didn’t work out.”

“Dean wanted naturalistic wearable stuff, and every test I showed him that was a locked camera with a digital wearable effect wasn’t going to cut it. We knew we had to make it as real and practical as possible.

“You can simulate hand movement if there’s no parallax movement on the character,” Camp explains. “You can fool him. But I was really determined not to limit ourselves, to make a film as intimate and dynamic as a true documentary.

Simply put, parallax is the visible difference in speed at which background elements move, or appear to move, relative to foreground objects. Think what it looks like when driving on a freeway. Mountains or city skylines move slowly and steadily, but signs on the road are scrolling. In animation, parallax helps create visual depth, like in side-scrolling video games.

For Marcel the shellthe parallax moments – when Marcel moves at his small scale unlike normally moving life-size human beings – posed a huge challenge.

“We had to plan everything meticulously.”

In the shots with parallax, the filmmakers used a motion control rig that allowed the animators to reproduce the spontaneous movement of the camera during live filming.

This data was fed into their computers during the animation, essentially allowing the animators to work with the “same” camera. This meant they could accurately animate Marcel in stop-motion without compromising the feel of the documentary style. Additional help came from Eric Adkins, the film’s stop-motion cinematographer, who hired artists to recreate the physical sets as 3D models for the animation team.

“We’ve done a lot to develop an on-camera accessory that can record coordinates, so you can be hand-held when shooting live,” Camp explains. “When you get to the animation stages, you can feed that data into a motion control rig and it can recreate the motion perfectly.”

It’s an elegant solution, but the filmmakers had another problem: the art of stop-motion itself.

Like the original shorts, director Dean Flesicher Camp stars as a fictionalized version of himself, who rents an AirBnB where he discovers Marcel.A24

“Stop-motion is a pretty old craft,” says Camp. “A lot of the tools haven’t been updated since the 80s. The motion control platform on every stop-motion stage works like a floppy disk. There are many new tools, but the hardest part is getting them to interface with archaic machines.

“We had to plan everything meticulously and choose our simplest shots,” says Lepore.

It was a lot of innovation and craftsmanship for something small and, as Camp reveals, spontaneous.

Serious story, silly idea

“It all started because a friend asked me to do a video for his comedy show,” Camp said of Marcel’s origins in 2010. Days before the show, Camp was sharing a hotel with friends to a marriage. One of them was actress and comedian Jenny Slate, who had just completed a brief stint on Saturday Night Live. “Jenny started doing this little voice to express how cramped she felt,” Camp explains.

“I ran to the craft store and grabbed googly eyes and a box of seashells.”

As the show approached, Camp interviewed Slate improvising and quickly came up with a character. “I ran down to the craft store and grabbed some googly eyes and a box of seashells, just trying to make a little character, and animated, edited, and projected it all in 24 hours,” he said.

Knowing that the video would be screened by Brooklynites in their twenties, Camp had no idea what the reception would be.

“There was a weird moment when I felt like the temperature in the room had changed,” he says. “It was a hip art crowd, and everyone seemed to have their hearts melted.”

After the broadcast, Camp uploaded the video to YouTube, where it has been viewed more than 32 million times. After two online sequels, Marcel finally has a movie with an actual story, rather than a montage of non-sequences. It turned out to be as daunting a challenge as getting Marcel moving.

“The language of documentary is more compassionate than polished film.”

“With the shorts, we just make jokes. You’re not telling a story,” Camp says. “A feature requires so much orchestration. The challenge for me was to tell an emotionally ambitious story without losing the rough edges of those original recordings.

This explains Camp’s dedication to documentary sensation. “The magic about Marcel is that he is absurd. The way I and the film treat it is like it was any other documentary subject. The language of documentary is more compassionate than polished film.

60 minutes host Lesley Stahl plays herself in Marcel the shod shell. The only celebrity Camp wanted, a producer used a hookup to get a half-finished version of the movie in front of Stahl, who said yes. A24

Marcel the shod shell reflects Marcel’s actual viral fame via the YouTube shorts, although Camp, Slate and co-writer Nick Paley had to make adjustments for 2022.

“We had to think a lot about how we portrayed viral fame because it’s changed so much,” he says. “I don’t know if it’s because I was a young artist at the time, but I mourn the internet of 2010. It was democratic. Now it’s done so that if something becomes popular, it benefits the platform more than the artist.

“I used to teach at CalArts, and I wanted to know how to market yourself on the internet. I started to realize after two years that this course was outdated,” says Lepore. “All the platforms were different. I think there are still some funny water cooler things that have their moment, but maybe things are a little more disposable now.

Camp and Lepore still appreciate silly internet content, and to some extent they believe a sensation like Marcel the Shell can reappear. But they no longer know what fatherhood means. “[The internet] gave many of us a launch pad. I don’t know if it would be the same way now,” Camp says. “I could be wrong, but I feel like Marcel wouldn’t go viral now.”

Marcel the shod shell hits theaters on June 24.


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