The director and co-creator shares his seven-year journey to produce the Oscar nominated, Annie Award-winning stop-motion animated film about a tiny, googly eyed, tennis shoe-wearing seashell hoping to one day reconnect with his long-lost family.
After capturing lightening in a bottle in 2010 with what amounted to a spontaneous lark, director Dean Fleischer Camp and his creative partner, writer and actor Jenny Slate knew there was no guarantee their suddenly hugely popular viral animated short film sensation, Marcel the Shell with Shoes On, could be adapted into a feature film. In fact, by the director’s own admission, back then, he probably wasn’t up for the task. But meetings with studios eager to exploit their tiny creation only served to cement with them the idea that they’d take their time to find the right story, and right vehicle, to bring him to the big screen. But bring him to the big screen they did.
Ultimately, after five years of wrangling jokes and random notions into a pitchable premise, followed by seven years of laborious production, Camp’s feature length animated masterpiece, written with Slate, who dazzles as the titular character, transforms every bit of magic captured in the original short into one of the most charming, unique, and well-crafted animated films in recent memory.
Camp, working with animation director Kirsten Lepore and the Chiodo Bros. stop-motion studio, harnessed an incredibly sophisticated filmmaking process, essentially creating two movies – live-action shots without puppets, and motion-controlled filming puppets against greenscreens – which were then compositing together seamlessly. The result is an emotionally satisfying and visually compelling Annie Award-winning film also nominated for the Best Animated Feature Film Oscar.
I recently spoke to Camp about the long, strange trip he’s taken to realize his and Slate’s vision of a tiny, googly eyed seashell, with tennis shoes, hoping to reconnect one day with the long-lost family he never really knew.
Dan Sarto: You created the original shorts with your then wife, Jenny Slate, who wrote the film with you and of course, is the voice of Marcel. How did the original story come about, and what led you to adapt those films into a feature?
Dean Fleischer Camp: Well, it was always our goal to make a feature, though the short we made just in the spirit of play and fun and creating. I made it for a friend's live comedy show. I planned just to screen it once. The total budget was $6. Actually, the only reason I put it on the internet - if you can remember back in 2010, it wasn't just automatic you put all your work on the internet like we do now – was when I was leaving, someone from the audience tapped me on the shoulder and said, "Hey, is there some way you can share that with me because I want to show it to my grandmother," who at the time had broken her hip or leg or something and was laid up in bed.
And so that was really the only reason I put it online. And then it absolutely exploded.
I always thought I wanted to make a feature out of it, but at the time, I didn’t think I had the chops to do that, certainly not in the same way or as uniquely as I ended up making it. But we wanted to make a feature and we had the appetite for it. We met with all the studios because we had a viral video and they were happy to meet with us, but the meetings were all about… you could just see the dollar signs in their eyes. It was all about taking Marcel as this character who had become very dear to me and Jenny, and kind of grafting him onto a more traditional tentpole franchise sort of movie. And that process forced me to clarify in my head, "Well, I know it's not that I don't want to do that, but that doesn't feel right with the character that we created or what I would hope his story becomes on the big screen."
It forced me to figure out, "Okay, well if it's not that, what is it?" And it felt like, well, this was a character that came from the heart and from this kind of collaborative, playful, active spontaneous dynamic between me and Jenny. So, let's figure out how to keep that. Let's figure out how to design a filmmaking process around that. Obviously, it requires so many more people and money and specificity with the timeline to make a feature film. And it also requires bigger storytelling, much more orchestration, and much more kind of a traditional three-part structuring.
So, the first question was like, "Okay, how do we do that? How do we make a personal story with this character that also doesn't fall into the pitfall of getting diminished with the bigger budget and with more polishing that sands off the very things we all loved about it?" Because that danger is real. It’s really easy to fall into that, especially with a character that's cute like Marcel.
So, my producer and I took a little bit of time. The first short was in 2010 and we didn't start working on the movie until like 2015. It took some time to find the right financial partners, the right producing partners that were also jazzed by the idea of making a documentary about a fictional character. But not a mocumentary. [It took time] to design that process so that there was spontaneity and some improv and really personal storytelling about a stop-motion character.
DS: I know a lot of people that made fantastic shorts. But when they move to longer format projects, they run into difficulty telling a much longer story. So, I imagine for you, it wasn’t just, "How do we stay true to our vision for Marcel,” but also how do we make something that actually works as a feature film?
DFC: Yep. Like everyone else I know, I’m so sick of things that don't earn their run time. Streaming has incentivized people to make 10-episode miniseries that should be a two-hour movie, and it's a waste of everyone's time. It does a disservice to your audience. So, we thought, “I know that on paper, when you look at a three and a half minute YouTube viral video and then you see that it was made into a feature, the automatic response is, ‘Well, that's not going to hold up. That should just remain as short.’” I felt that way for a long time.
Luckily, nobody wanted to make the movie with us back in 2010, at least not the way we wanted. We said “No” to all the offers. And so, Jenny and I had this long process where it became an inside joke between the two of us… we would add to the idea of Marcel over time.
I don't know how many pages we had, sticky notes on my phone of jokes, one-liners, ideas, story arcs, relatives that just fit into Marcel's world. But we didn't really have much of an outlet for them for a long time. And at some point, I guess around 2015, it just felt like we have enough now. We built a whole world.
DS: You finally decided, “Now it's time.” In talking to Kirsten just the other day, as she described the animation production to me, the early testing, all the motion control studies, I was thinking, “My goodness, what an ordeal!” Certainly, modern stop-motion has become incredibly sophisticated. But there's a difference between elaborate sets, puppets, some CG extensions and rig removal, and the way you made this film, with sophisticated, coordinated motion control filming of puppets composited onto your live-action shoot without puppets. You basically shot two films and crunched them together. Were you always confident you would find a way make this film work? Were there times you thought that maybe this is not such a good idea?
DFC: Oh, there were so many times, that if Kirsten told you otherwise, she's lying or being nice. There were many times when we felt like, "Oh, this just isn't going to work. We're never going to crack this problem.” We started out thinking the best way to give ourselves documentary constraints and really breathe that authentic spontaneous energy into stop-motion - the only possible way to do that - was if we shot all the stop-motion in a real house in a real location. And we spent a long time trying to develop that process and figure out if that would be possible. I think fortunately it wasn't possible. For a number of reasons. But what we landed on was actually the best creatively as well.
But yes, there were plenty of times. I don't think I had faith that marrying the two seamlessly was going to work until several days, maybe a week into shooting the live-action portion, when Eric [Adkins], our stop-motion DP and Bianca [Cline], our DP and our visual effects supervisor [Zdravko “Zee” Stoitchkov] spent a few days taking an actual scene from the movie that had already been shot, and lined it up, figuring out the lighting, shooting stop-motion, and comping them together as a test.
That didn't happen until a week into shooting, and it was such a relief. I think I had like 10 canker sores in my mouth that went away the next morning.
DS: Yeah. I bet. But even with confidence you had the basic technical premise tested, there’s still a difficult film to make. Were there doubts, or at that point were you confident that, “You know what, we're going to make this happen?”
DFC: I always knew that I wasn't going to give up. I didn't know if it was going to crash and burn, and we would end up with something we didn't like or weren't so proud of. But I always knew that we were going to finish the film. And as the years wore on, I think lots of my friends were like, “Oh, I assumed that you abandoned that,” or “I assumed that got defunded,” or whatever. And after all that, the reception to the finished film, getting to enjoy this with the whole team, has been incredible. So, moving, very emotional and very, really once in a lifetime beautiful.
DS: Once again proving an artist’s tortured path can lead to something utterly unique.
DFC: Yeah, totally true. We spent so many hours finding ways to improve the movie as we went along, based on what we learned from this unique process. You know how they say there's no love without risk, there's also no beauty and there's no art without risk either. And fortunately, we found financial partners and producers who were willing to take that risk and let us find this process.
If there are any animators out there worried about following through or feeling like, “Oh, this project's going to take so long,” I remember when Kirsten first came on, and we were trying to find animation supervisors or a studio to work with. We visited a couple studios, I don't remember which ones, but at one, they were in production on something and had this big board of every shot they had to get done.
It was the beginning of production, so there were thousands of index cards on this huge bulletin board, the length of a building. And it suddenly dawned on me that at least that's an image that I can hold in my head and say, “That's what the movie is, and that's the mountain we're climbing.” Because before that, it was like climbing a mountain without being able to look up. It was just, I know I have to put one foot in front of the other, but if I think about the fact that this mountain could be one year long or it could be 17, it's too daunting.
So, I wrote an index card that I put over my desk - it remained there for all seven years – that said, “Picture the big board.” Because that at least gives you that feeling of, “One day it's going to all be on a big board, all the shots will be laid out and we'll be in the process of executing the animation.”
DS: It's big, but it's finite. It's not without borders. In our last few minutes, this is an indie film, you've got to get it funded, you got to get it produced, and it took years to make, trudging uphill the entire time. Ultimately, what would you say were the biggest challenges for you?
DFC: The biggest challenge, first and foremost, was exactly what you're talking about, just finding the money and the right partners to make it with. Because we had a lot of offers based on the popularity of the character, but none of them would... they all had at least one thing that was a total deal breaker for us that we would've had to compromise on. Not that I think you should never compromise. But what are the things that you just can't compromise on? For me it was we wanted full control over the merchandising. We didn't want to get in bed with a partner who was actually just looking at this as a way to turn a quick buck and sell some merch on the internet. I had to have final cut, and we wanted to make a movie without a... we wanted to use this unique screenwriting process, which combined improv with recording audio and getting into character.
And that's difficult because usually the first thing a financier will ask for before you meet is the script. So, we were saying, “That's not how this is going to work, because we could sit down and write you a Marcel the Shell screenplay, but it will not be the same thing that we created and loved making and why we want to make the movie.” So that was the hardest thing, finding partners, then convincing them.
We ended up with a pretty extensive pitch deck, treatment, outline, and imagery and even cut together, I think, a few pivotal scenes. They had audio to hear of me and Jenny and what some of those scenes would feel like. And it was a lot of investment in a project that potentially might never get bought, but ultimately it paid off because it pretty effectively weeded out the people that were not our people.
Then the other thing was the technology. The approach to blending stop-motion and live-action in a way that felt genuinely spontaneous and documentary and authentic was extremely important to me. The whole challenge on this project was, especially after meeting with all those studios that were pitching us on, “He partners with Ryan Reynolds and they fight terrorists together,” was staying true to the idea that “Ugh, there's no reason to make this bigger. He's tiny, so everything is already big.”
A house is big. It's like a country to him, so why would you try to blow it up?" And so, I think figuring that out felt very important to me. The whole challenge was I want to hit these big emotional moments. I want it to feel cinematic emotionally, but do it with the smallest means possible, through this literally tiny character. And I felt really strongly that the only way to do that was to be really strict and rigid in the aesthetic. If it's going to be a documentary, you have to believe it’s a real documentary. If you don't, if it's too polished or if it doesn't feel like a documentary, if it doesn't feel real, then those emotional beats are going to fall flat.
Dan Sarto is Publisher and Editor-in-Chief of Animation World Network.