The actor, comedian, and writer is inextricably and perfectly bound to the loveable pink-shoe-wearing seashell she voices – and created with Dean Fleischer-Camp – in the Oscar and Annie Award-nominated stop-motion / live-action hybrid feature film.
It began as a live stand-up show project that soon grew into a YouTube short film sensation. And now, after years in production, the stop-motion / live-action hybrid Marcel the Shell with Shoes On has received an Oscar nomination for Best Animated Feature. The love shown this tiny, one-eyed, pink-shoe-wearing seashell has been nothing short of incredible, spanning a decade now. But it’s possible that no one appreciates and loves Marcel more deeply than the owner of the disarming adolescent voice herself, Jenny Slate.
“When I play a physical person in live-action, I’m always wondering, ‘How close to what they want am I actually getting?’” shares Slate, an actor, comedian, and writer known for her roles on Parks and Recreation, Kroll Show, Obvious Child, and Everything Everywhere All At Once. “Even if I’m doing a good job, they probably imagined something else before. I'm only one version of what this could be. But playing Marcel, it's this unique experience where I originated this with Dean. I am the voice. My psyche is bonded to Marcel. I'm the only one that could be this.”
She continues, “It's the first time in my work, other than in writing my book, where I haven't felt that I was imposing, or a little bit of impostor syndrome. This time around, I have felt completely fused to the character. And I'm really happy that, as a performer, I could feel that feeling.”
Written by Dean Fleischer-Camp, Slate, and Nick Paley, the Oscar and Annie-nominated feature film revolves around the adorable one-inch-tall Marcel (Slate) who ekes out a colorful existence with his grandmother Connie (Isabella Rossellini) and their pet lint, Alan. Once part of a sprawling community of shells, the pair now live alone as the sole survivors of a mysterious tragedy. But when documentary filmmaker Fleischer-Camp (playing himself) discovers them amongst the clutter of his Airbnb, the short film he posts online brings Marcel millions of passionate fans, as well as unprecedented dangers and a new hope of finding his long-lost family.
Check out the trailer:
“Dean is an incredible writer, and he is also a born innovator,” notes Slate. “And our imaginations meet at that spot, where his innovation and my improv and Nick's writing come together. It really is three people bringing their strengths to the table and continually keeping things open. That's how the story has led to both interesting dead ends and also interesting turns where, suddenly, we opened up many new opportunities. I think it took three years to get the [feature film] story into place before the animators even began their work.”
Fleischer-Camp and Slate created Marcel’s tiny, shell-sized, stop-motion world within the home they then shared back in 2010. It was a mockumentary world where dust bunnies became dogs, bread slices served as beds, and a one-eyed, pink-shoe-wearing shell could capture the hearts of millions.
“We were just screwing around,” says Slate, co-creator of the YouTube short film trilogy, and the feature film. “We were just having fun. And, as far as I know, it was Dean’s first time trying animation.”
Marcel the Shell started out as a small project of Fleischer-Camp’s for a live stand-up show built around an adolescent voice Slate had come up with as a joke in a cramped hotel room at a wedding. Piecing together a snail shell, some sculpey, a googly eye, and shoes from a rip-off Polly Pocket set, Marcel was born and the first short film – featuring Fleischer-Camp interviewing and following the everyday life of this young shell – premiered theatrically at AFI FEST 2010, where it was awarded Best Animated Short. It was an official selection of the 2011 Sundance Film Festival and won the Grand Jury and Audience Awards at the 2011 New York International Children's Film Festival.
The short garnered millions of views on YouTube; Slate and Fleischer-Camp produced two more Marcel shorts over the following four years. The same year they released the third Marcel the Shell short film, they announced their plans for a feature film.
Eight years later, that dream is a reality and the Marcel the Shell with Shoes On feature is not only competing for the Academy’s Beast Animated Feature award, but has also been nominated for four Annie Awards: Best Animated Feature - Independent, Outstanding Achievement for Directing in an Animated Feature Production, Outstanding Achievement for Voice Acting in an Animated Feature Production, and Outstanding Achievement for Writing in an Animated Feature Production.
“There is a degree of feeling anointed,” admits Slate. “People who are cinephiles, they love cinema. That's their thing. But people who love animation, I actually think that is a deeper love. It's a different community. And there's a huge amount of quality control there. It is a huge honor to be considered in that way by that community.”
One of the Marcel story’s biggest charms was the fact that it was truly play, as well as a leap of faith with regards to the visuals. Fleischer-Camp had never done animation and ended up using photo bursts of the same shell model to create a stop-motion effect. Though the Chiodo Bros here hired to assist with the animation on the movie, Fleischer-Camp’s original videos, which were almost completely void of any effects, served as the foundation for the style on the feature.
“Dean and Kirsten Lepore, our director of animation, and everyone on her team, had to invent a style and invent mechanisms for how they were animating to make sure that the light looked right and that they could get reflections just right so that this could look like real life,” explains Slate. “What they have achieved is an uncanny feeling where you're like, ‘I know Marcel is fake. But everything about him is completely real.’ It really puts you right down in the middle of an imagination.”
Slate believes another part of the early appeal of Marcel was how she and Dean made use of live-action comedy traits through the vessel of a $6 anthropomorphic shell model that weeps for his loved ones, gets annoyed with barking dogs, and screams his head off when a squirrel makes its way into his house. Really, he’s like any of us, except that he uses a curly noodle as a trombone, a raisin as a bean bag chair, and pops popcorn with a magnifying glass.
“One of the things that makes Marcel so great and, generally, what is a great tool in comedy, is an odd couple or an odd pairing,” says Slate. “He’s a little guy, but he has a lot of straightforward confidence. That's an interesting pairing.”
Marcel’s character is a mix of Slate and Fleischer-Camp’s comedic strengths as well as their most vulnerable emotions, which neither are afraid to approach through Marcel. One moment, Marcel will be sharing his experience of being sunburnt by looking at a diamond, using men’s toenails as skis, or being afraid to drink soda because the bubbles will make him float up to the ceiling. Then, in the next moment, his words will take a direct shot to a viewer’s soul, discussing hiding in sock draws to take refuge from domestic disputes, being afraid to lose his Nana who is suffering from memory loss, and finding value in life’s little joys regardless of circumstances.
“Guess why I smile?” asks Slate as Marcel in the second short film from 2011. “Because it’s worth it.”
At the end of the third short, the camera pans down to Marcel staring out the window after a rainstorm. As the sun shines through the trees, the tiny shell begins to sing a song that Slate learned at camp as a child.
“Do you think what the end of a perfect day could mean to a tired heart?” sings Marcel. “When the sun goes down with the flaming ray and the dear friends have to part.”
Marcel then says to Fleischer-Camp, “I sing it because my best friend lives far away.”
“We recorded so much audio, and Dean is such an incredible editor, and that was how he would gently land us down,” remembers Slate. “The shorts would conclude with this gentle, contemplative ending. Dean’s also really innovative with his use of things like wind chimes and the sound of things being moved by air which allowed for a forgiving, but also rather mysterious and organic atmosphere and we could be really vulnerable in those moments.”
The 90-minute Marcel movie contains nearly all the comedic and emotional dialogue from the first three shorts and fills in the gaps between them, offering context to all the jokes and wisdom Marcel offered to fans of the original shorts. In the full-length film, Marcel, Fleischer-Camp, and Nana Connie discuss death, divorce, trauma, and everyone’s deeply rooted fear of being left alone in the world. The film makes clear the topics that were only eluded to in the shorts and challenges its characters – and the very creators of those characters – to face the things that make them afraid or sad and transforms their understanding of “home” and “belonging.”
Slate admits that the experience of working on the film was also a transformation process for her.
“This character is definitely not just for children,” says Slate of Marcel. “I think we're all trying very much to be connected to our homes. One of the biggest human fears is displacement. It’s the center of many stories throughout thousands of years, a person trying to return to home.”
She continues, “Marcel actually is in his home. But the reason his home has been disrupted is that his community has been taken out of it. It also really brings up that question, ‘What are your opportunities for the different varieties of homes?’ Because he certainly does have a home with like Dean and Nana Connie. But it's not his original home. At the end of the film, Marcel realizes he's been changed by the different versions of home that he's experienced. And it's led him to this final place in the movie where he has this special resting home for his spirit. That actually is what most of us are looking for, the place inside of yourself where, if you can access it, you can feel connected but relieved in almost any place.”
Marcel the Shell with Shoes On returns to theaters February 25, and is now available on Digital, DVD, and Blu-ray. The 50th Annie Awards, honoring excellence in the field of animation for the year of 2022, will be held on Saturday, February 25 and the 95th Academy Awards will be presented on Sunday, March 12.