Animation director Kirsten Lepore discusses the herculean challenges of working with a miniscule mollusk in the Oscar-nominated, Annie Award-winning Marcel the Shell with Shoes On, now in theaters and streaming on Showtime.
As a director and animator, Kirsten Lepore has ranged far and wide, from award-winning shorts like Hi Stranger (2016) and Bottle (2010), to the wilds of Marvel Studios, where she currently serves as the director and head writer for the series I Am Groot, streaming on Disney+. Yet, even with all this varied experience, was she really prepared to direct the animation for a stop-motion feature film starring a one-inch-tall character who also happens to be a seashell? Short answer: Yes. Longer answer: Yes, it was right in her wheelhouse, and it turned out to be pretty much a peak experience.
“I personally get really excited about stop-motion because I feel like there's still so much untapped potential and room for experimentation,” she says of the traditional – and increasingly popular – animation form. “This movie is kind of a perfect example – it's this kind of weird, hybrid, animated film that uses a technique that's never been done before. We were looking for comps in order to figure out how to make this movie, and there really were no comps. There were so many things to pioneer and discover. That's what I always try to do when I'm working in stop-motion, to try something totally different. ‘Let's animate with sand and snow.’ The physical world is so limitless, and stop-motion operates in the physical world, so it feels like what you can do is kind of boundless in an exciting way.”
Marcel the Shell with Shoes On, needless to say, is based on the wildly popular stop-motion shorts created by Dean Fleischer Camp and Jenny Slate, in which the diminutive mollusk (voiced by Slate) shares aspects of his quotidian existence with an offscreen interviewer (Camp). In the feature, Marcel and his grandmother Connie (Isabella Rossellini ), once part of a sprawling community of shells, now live alone as the sole survivors of a mysterious tragedy. But when a documentary filmmaker discovers them amongst the clutter of his Airbnb, Marcel gains millions of passionate fans, as well as a new hope of finding his long-lost family.
While Lepore knew from the get-go that she wanted to do the project, it took some time for everything to come together (a rare occurrence in the motion picture industry). First contacted by producer Elisabeth Holm in 2014, Lepore had to contain her excitement for several years while Camp, Slate and their collaborators wrote the script and began recording the audio.
“The whole process probably took them two to three years after I had said yes,” she relates. “And then we moved into storyboarding, and it was really just Dean and I who storyboarded the whole movie essentially. Then we got to a place where it's like, okay, we have this full animatic. We can see this thing playing out. Now, how do we make it? That was a humongous technical hurdle.”
Even before they got into the more technical aspects of the production, Lepore and her team had to make some decisions about more fundamental matters, like whether to shoot in a stop-motion studio or, following the DIY aesthetic of the shorts, to shoot in an actual house.
“We wanted to do it as authentically as possible,” Lepore says. ”But once we talked about the implications of having animators lying on the floor animating a one-inch-tall puppet, it started seeming like not a very feasible shooting option, mostly for the sanity of the animators. Also, the floorboards of an older house, which is what we wanted, would start to dip and swell, depending on the moisture and the humidity over the course of the day. So you would see all of these little pops in the floor and, like, okay, that was out the window. And, then, in terms of the lighting, we would have to flag off all of the windows and use lights. So it ended up feeling like it was going to become more artificial to do it that way.”
Lepore and her team members did “tons of testing” to figure out how best to recreate the naturalistic, handheld documentary feel that worked so well in the shorts. Among their priorities was wanting to do the moves practically, as much as possible, and avoiding using digital post moves. They tested two different camera systems that had encoded heads that could record the live-action and capture all of the coordinate data, and then translate that to motion-control rigs.
Long story short: none of it worked.
In the end, they went with an approach where they first shot the whole film in live-action, largely without any characters, and recorded all the lighting setups in detail. Then, almost a year later, they shot the movie again on the stop-motion stage with the same lighting.
“Our stop-motion DP, Eric Adkins, was an incredible genius,” Lepore shares. “He was there for both shoots, and he made meticulous overhead diagrams of every single shot. Like, where is Marcel in relation to the lighting coming from a window? Is there a soda can three inches away that's reflecting some light on him? He recorded all the information we needed to recreate those lights as closely as possible. And then it was really just a compositing job, matching the plates. Sometimes, in stop-motion, we would build out big chunks of the house or the floor to facilitate interaction with the puppets. And then that would be comped in, with a little bit of the deep background being live-action. It just depended on the shot.”
If it sounds complicated, that’s because it was. In talking about their achievement, Lepore likes to use a cosmetological analogy.
“The whole movie is kind of like the ‘no makeup’ look,” she says with a laugh. “That’s where you expend significant effort applying your makeup to look like you're not wearing makeup, and no one can tell. I know that we did our job with this movie because it’s kind of like that. It looks like it all just happens and Marcel simply exists in this world. But really there was so much technology, so much compositing, and so many different professionals who lent their expertise to make that world really believable and really seamless.”
Asked whether she had a chance to do any actual animation on the film, Lepore says that, while she was involved in the early tests and R & D work, her responsibilities during production were pretty much restricted to directing. With one exception.
“I did do one shot in the film,” she confides. “It's like a little secret shot. I think it was the very last day of shooting, and most of our animators had rolled off the production, and they needed one more person, and I was like, okay, I'll do it. And it was pretty funny, because I had been directing animators to do this character for months and months and months. And then, when I got on the stage with a puppet that is literally like an inch tall, I was like, oh, this is harder than I thought. It gave me new respect for all of the animators on the film, because it’s such a herculean challenge to work with a puppet that small.”
As for the peak experience part:
“The film is sort of unabashedly sincere, which I love,” Lepore says. “I try to do that in all of the work that I'm a part of, and I feel like this project is really one of the most beautiful shining examples of that – it has such a heart. It's not afraid to be vulnerable and emotional, and I hope that people feel that and really connect with this character. You know he is a shell, but in some ways he's more human than many of the characters that we see depicted, especially in animated films. And that's really special.”