Behind the scenes of “Marcel the Shell With Shoes On”

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When director Dean Fleischer Camp and his co-writer and star Jenny Slate made their first short film of “Marcel the Shell with Shoes On” in 2010, they could not have imagined its impact: more than 32 million views at to date on YouTube, with 11.3 million and an additional 4.6 million for its two followings. These shorts have now been adapted into feature films, an idea that is both tantalizing and frightening, posing many challenges of technical know-how and scale.

“It was night and day, production-wise, because the shorts were just me alone in my room,” Camp said in a Zoom interview. The feature film was something quite different: a team of around 500 filmmakers and technicians, working together for over a year. The director feared that expanding the scope and size of the production would rob the project of its quirky, low-fi, low-budget charm. “I think especially with processes that are really technical,” he said, “you can very easily lose the authentic, organic thing.”

The technical process in question is stop-motion animation. Marcel the Shell with Shoes One is just that – a one-inch hermit crab shell with a pair of tiny shoes. His movements are created via one of the oldest cinematic processes available, in which a series of still photographs, with the smallest of movements between them, creates the impression of an animated object.

“These quirky shorts, I just kept the camera static as much as possible,” Camp confessed. He might do it for those short bursts (they last three to four minutes each). But a feature-length narrative would require more movement, more locations, and more interactions with other characters.

“The big technical hurdle is how do you successfully integrate between the live-action world and the stop-motion world,” the film’s animation director, Kirsten Lepore, explained on Zoom. “So we had a lot to figure out and we explored a lot of different ideas.”

That meant doing a bit of cross-pollination, according to Camp. “Specialists never really cross paths,” he said. “And so it was about getting that information from different groups and then having those two different departments hold hands.”

It made for an unorthodox production, to put it mildly. The scripting process was itself unusual; because “Marcel the Shell with Shoes On” is structured as a quasi-documentary, Camp and co-writer Nick Paley wrote the script in spurts, meeting a few days at a time to write dialogue scenes before moving on. record them with the other co-scriptwriter Slate, who plays Marcel, and the film’s other voice actors.

They kept these sessions free, to capture variations and improvisations, which they edited into audio scenes before moving on to another piece of the story. “So at the end of that,” Camp said, “the audio is basically locked in. We basically got to a finished game audio and a storyline at the same time.

But creating the visual accompaniment, mixing “actual” live action with stop-motion animation, amounted to “two shoots, essentially,” according to Lepore. “It was like a full live shoot and then a year later a full stop-motion shoot. So basically shooting the movie twice.

First, they were shooting what’s called a live-action ‘plate’, with the action of each shot minus Marcel and any other stop-motion elements or characters – but carefully tying up the where Marcel would eventually be (Lepore was on set, with a small Marcel puppet on a stick).

Later, on a stop motion scene, they would project this clean plate behind the stop motion objects, striving to recreate the exact lighting from the original shot, so that all the elements would match. “Our stop motion cinematographer took meticulous notes on every shot,” Lepore said. “He did aerial diagrams, he was out with a tape measure, like how far is that light from the character and the setting and everything.”

This was the laborious process for shots where the camera was locked to a tripod. When adding camera movements, the process became even more complex – the camera movements were digitally tracked when creating the live action plate, according to Lepore, “and then that camera movement is translated into motion control cameras that can handle that data on the freeze frame stage, and then a motion control camera moves, frame by frame, through the exact same motion.

The format of the film, as with the original shorts, is semi-documentary; Camp appears onscreen and as a voiceover, interviewing Marcel and capturing impromptu footage of the seashell’s daily life. So that was one more complication for the filmmakers: creating a sense of documentary spontaneity in the meticulous animation project, as well as reproducing visual cues of the form, especially the handheld camera work.

After a failed attempt to digitally create a freehand look, they also used tracking and motion control for these scenes. “You feel this really subtle spin thing coming arrived with the natural movement of the camera,” Lepore said. “And then we just had a ton of track and point markers.”

It amounted to a “really, really crazy way to make a movie,” Camp said. “I always thought it was kind of like a David Blaine thing where you’re like, oh, there’s no trick here. The thing is, you’ve put thousands of hours into it. Lepore said she agrees with this philosophy of “just crazy, meticulous planning.”

“Everything was done piecemeal and under a microscope – to hopefully make it look effortless.”

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