How do you make a big idea literally sound small? That was one of the biggest conundrums that faced the worldbuilding team behind the part live-action, part animated faux-documentary feature, “Marcel the Shell with Shoes On.”
“Because Marcel is so small, there was a temptation to do the sort of ‘Honey I Shrunk the Kids’ soundscape where everything sounds massive,” explained director and co-writer Dean Fleischer-Camp in a recent interview with IndieWire. “We picked our moments to do that, but I didn’t want it to feel that way. My sonic comparisons were mostly documentaries. There was a lot of trying to soften things so that nothing stood out.”
That applied to everything from the film’s soundtrack, which consisted of a blend of original compositions and ambient synth music, to natural sounds and the noises made by the characters. Much of the sound is Marcel’s movement or sounds generated by that. “It was hard to find sound effects that worked with this softer palate because with footsteps, for example, every footstep in every sound library on the planet is human and involves things like heavy boots. You can tell that’s not coming from this little guy,” Fleischer-Camp added.
“I have some funny videos of the foley artists trying different things, like when Marcel’s feet are wet. They’re stomping around with lime wedges to get that little squish sound. It was mostly about avoiding a produced, cinematic soundscape. We wanted to retreat from that as much as possible.”
Regarding Marcel’s broader soundtrack, the filmmaker and what he refers to as the project’s “brain trust” enlisted the help of seasoned music supervisor Joe Rudge and composer Rich Vreeland aka Disasterpiece.
“Much of the music that was temped in ended up staying in the cut,” Rudge explained. “It was all these great synth tracks by a Japanese artist, Hiroshi Yoshimura. The hardest thing with any film is finding its voice, but we knew that would be the bedrock of what we wanted as the score.”
“I think we got on Hiroshi right before Light In The Attic, this great record label out of Los Angeles and Seattle, started reissuing a handful of his albums,” he added. “It was beautifully timed because Japanese copyrights are often hard to track down. Having Light In The Attic as a licensing partner made this process much easier. It was one of a few serendipitous confluences that worked to our advantage.”
Yoshimura, who died in 2003, was a pioneer of minimalist ambient music in the 1980s, a genre Vreeland was “only somewhat familiar with.” Because of that and Fleischer-Camp’s vision since the project’s origins as a short film, he had to reexamine his own process.
“In the past, my tendency with scoring was to underline things a little bit more,” said Vreeland. The filmmaker kept pushing him toward making the music “more emotionally ambiguous and less prescriptive,” something the composer describes as the primary challenge for him. “That’s part of why it took quite a lot of iterations to get the music right. There are around 45 minutes of music in the movie, and I probably wrote three times that much for the film.”
He added, “There’s probably twice as much music that didn’t make it as there is that did make it, so there was quite a lot that we did that we tried.”
Marcel’s final soundtrack is a mix of Yoshimura, Vreeland, and a handful of curated tracks that will already be familiar to many people. One that featured heavily in the film’s trailer but didn’t appear in the finished movie is Phil Collin’s “Take Me Home.” You’d be wrong if you think that might be down to not getting the rights or the cost of licensing the track.
“Jenny Slate and I have been working with this character and fleshing out this world for over a decade,” Fleischer-Camp mused. “We have a refined sense of what belongs in or doesn’t belong in Marcel’s world. I don’t think either of us is very good at really articulating what makes something fit, but Phil Collins isn’t a Marcel world musician. I don’t know why that makes sense, but it does.”
However, classic tracks by Technotronic and Shakira did make the cut. “Pump Up the Jam was a track Dean had temped in, and I was the person who pitched the Shakira song,” Rudge raved, saying it “matched that energy.”
“Part of it concerns nostalgia, trying to tap into something many of us knew from our 20s and teens. Marcel itself was slightly nostalgic, right? There is a longing in this film to reconnect with family, so all these things inform each other.”
There is always the potential for a filmmaker and music supervisor to be unable to secure licensing for a track. “I have the reaches, those that are in budget, and then your backups,” Rudge said. “We knew that we had to get some of these hero tracks like ‘Pump Up the Jam’ and the Shakira one, but then everything else was music I found that wouldn’t cost much money and would fit this world. A big part of what I do is try to make the most out of my budget.”
One thing Fleischer-Camp and Vreeland wanted to avoid was giving Marcel a detectable theme tune or audibly signposting significant moments. Instead, they chose a softer approach in keeping with the film’s general ambiance.
“The only thing with a light motif in the film is change,” Fleischer-Camp revealed. “The idea of change is accompanied by the whistling sound you hear at the end of the film where Marcel says, ‘Oh, that’s going through my shell.’ I don’t know what to call it, but I always thought it sounded like Gregorian chants, like an ethereal vocal performance. It’s just this very hollow wind sound.”
Added Fleischer-Camp, “Throughout the film, when the inevitability of change rears its head, you hear a little bit of that whistling. You could take it literally and describe it as the winds of change.”