‘Marcel the Shell’ Director on Acting Out Film as Marcel for Stop-Motion Preparation

A24’s “Marcel the Shell With Shoes On” is an awards season darling. The live-action hybrid stop-motion film recently picked up the Annie Award for indie feature as well as two other awards. Jenny Slate won the voice acting prize for her performance as Marcel while Slate, Dean Fleischer Camp, Nick Paley and Elizabeth Holm won for feature writing.

Camp called on animation director Kirsten Lepore to help merge the worlds of animation and live-action. As Oscar voting closes on Tuesday, Camp and Lepore discussed bringing Marcel to life, collaborating and the film’s reception.

It’s been a journey since the film was released in June, what has it been like to hear both adults and kids embrace Marcel?

Kirsten Lepore: I’ve had many texts and calls from friends who said that that was the first movie that their kids had ever seen in a movie theater. It was so wild and an honor.

Dean Fleischer Camp: That is such an honor.

Lepore: Everybody went back to the movies, and for it to be the first film kids saw, it was special.

Fleischer Camp: I hadn’t thought about that and how they’re always going to remember that. I remember my first one, it was “Robocop.” My mom was mad at my dad for taking me at three years old.

I’ve heard from people who found it at the right moment and they’re going through something and it helped them feel more resolved about grief and loss.

Lepore: One person came up to me, I think it was the Q&A you moderated, this girl came up to me. She said she was adopted and had never identified with a character more than Marcel. She was actively looking for her birth parents and seeing this movie was so emotional and moving for her. Those stories blow my mind and are so unexpected. I love to say, ‘He’s a shell, but he’s one of the most human characters.’”

To that point, how did you give Marcel this human vibe?

Fleisher Camp: I love that he’s this tiny dude who contains such multitudes. It was a creative choice and we tried to write toward that. It’s the reason we went with an intimate style of storytelling and going inward. We dug deep into that and discovered the core of that character. He was fully formed when we made the shorts, so it was a matter of writing introspectively.

With stop motion, it’s so charming and human. It’s a handcrafted process and inevitably flawed.

Lepore: It’s those little imperfections that make stop motion work. I think people feel more connected to those characters because they feel that he exists in the real world. Marcel is not a sentient living being, but through stop-motion, he is a physical being, and we could create more of an illusion of life and give it that tangible quality.

There was also authenticity that was always important in the documentary style. We wanted him to be completely believable. We wanted you to feel like we just turned on the camera, and he’s just there. Having the world around him be as realistic as possible was part of achieving that authenticity.

Let’s talk about your collaborative process and working together on this.

Lepore: I came on to this in 2014 and it was in the background at that stage, but I knew the writing would get to a place where we were ready to start storyboarding. So, we started there in 2017. We did that through FaceTime and Zoom. It was this great process of having a meeting in the morning and doing our thing.

There were two shoots. The live-action where we have live-action plates and backgrounds. That was the traditional shoot with someone holding a little Marcel on a puppet and estimating where he would go in a scene or how far or what the action would be. That process informed the integration all the way through.

Once we got to the stop motion stage and did that shoot, that’s where Dean sat next to me and we’d have our list of thoughts and we would chat things through. We would just act it out against each other. I would play Marcel and Dean would play Connie and vice versa.

Fleischer Camp: There’s a whole cut of the movie that you could cut together of me playing Marcel and Kirsten playing Connie, or vice versa. She is a fucking genius.

I was made aware of her because our short films were touring the same festival circuit in 2010. Her short, “Bottle” is a love story between two characters where one is made out of ice and one is made up of sand. It’s a punky fun middle finger to what any animation school would tell you is first of all stop motion, which is don’t work with materials that are going to fall apart. I knew at that moment that she was a kindred spirit.

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