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‘Marcel the Shell’: Behind the Stop-Motion Crowd-Pleaser’s Quest to Make Oscar History

Director Dean Fleischer Camp tells IndieWire the process of advocating for the film's Best Animated Feature qualification "is like defending your child."

"Marcel the Shell with Shoes On"

“Marcel the Shell with Shoes On”

A24

Animation.

By qualifying for Best Animated Feature, A24’s “Marcel the Shell with Shoes On” (winner of the NYFCC Best Animated Film) became the first stop-motion/live-action hybrid to enter the Oscar race. Now it could make history as the first hybrid nominee. If nominated along with “Guillermo del Toro’s Pinocchio” — the favorite in the category — and Henry Selick’s “Wendell & Wild,” this would be another milestone for the technique, tying the record for most stop-motion Best Animated Feature nominees set in 2013, when “Frankenweenie,” “ParaNorman,” and “The Pirates! Band of Misfits” all vied for the award.

“What constitutes animation as it relates to the Oscar qualification is an important discussion,” director Dean Fleischer Camp told IndieWire. “We got to show the process. What some people don’t understand is how animated it is. They think it’s a stop-motion character and some objects composited into a live-action world. But so much of that live-action world was animated to impersonate real physics, like Marcel jumping on a spoon. In a way, ‘Marcel’ is a victim of its own success because it worked so well. But having to mount a defense [for qualification] is like defending your child.”

“Marcel,” the feature debut from director Fleischer Camp (adapted from his series of shorts with Jenny Slate), follows the 1-inch anthropomorphic shell (voiced by Slate) on a journey to find his family, becoming a viral sensation along the way thanks to a doc filmmaker (played mostly off-screen by Camp) and an appearance on ’60 Minutes.’ During its theatrical run, the film was embraced for its charm, wit, the unusually small scale of its stop-motion (overseen by animation director Kirsten Lepore), and adorable breakout star.

"Marcel the Shell with Shoes On"

“Marcel the Shell with Shoes On”

A24

But those merits alone wouldn’t qualify the film for Oscar consideration. In order to prove their film’s eligibility, the “Marcel” team submitted documentation detailing the use of animation in every scene to the executive committee of the Short Films & Feature Animation branch. The aim was to explain how the film complied with the Academy’s stipulation that all Best Animated Feature contenders must contain animation for 75 percent of their runtimes. They additionally had to show how Marcel, his grandmother Connie (voiced by Isabella Rossellini), and a cameo appearance by more than a hundred stop-motion family members fulfilled the requirement that there be “a significant number of animated characters.”

“It’s such a unique movie because that delineation between stop-motion and live action is so weird,” Lepore told IndieWire. “We talk about miniature sets on a stop-motion stage, but it really is a re-creation of a real world space that’s made to be animatable. And we took copious notes about the lighting conditions down to inches from the live-action shoot, including the reflections from an aluminum Coke can onto Marcel.”

Marcel the Shell and Dean Fleischer-Camp

Marcel and Dean Fleischer Camp

A24

The only precedent for such a hybrid was Selick’s “Monkeybone,” from 2001. But even then the scale wasn’t comparable, given the miniature size of Marcel and his stop-motion world. Unlike the shorts, they couldn’t just dress up real shells with found objects  — they had to mass produce hundreds of plastic Marcel puppets (working with the 3D printing company Stratasys), which were then sanded and painted to authentically reflect the translucency and luster of real shells. Animated mouth movements were added on top. For most of the emotion and articulation, they relied on a single googly eye (with an eyelid the size of a fingernail clipping) and a tiny set of shoes. These were easily replaceable and hand-glued, and the puppet displayed a range of movements with his stride.

“But for a movie about someone who’s getting by in a world that wasn’t made for him, there’s something human and flawed about those tiny mistakes,” said Camp. “And when you see a stop-motion character in our world, it has an emotional quality to it. We wanted to treat it like a documentary — shooting in a real house in LA with a live-action crew. But because we have lighting we’re matching to in the real world, the challenge was doing all of this work to control everything, and then re-create it in a stop-motion studio so it looks seamless. It was an avant garde deconstruction of a real house.”

Marcel the Shell with Shoes On

Behind the scenes of “Marcel the Shell with Shoes On”

Courtesy of A24

Even so, they had to replicate full corners of the house on the stop-motion stages, and then account for every lighting glitch and shadow that passed, every camera movement, and every bump shot in live-action. “Some of my favorite shots managed to bring out every ounce of emotion and articulation,” the director said. “One is the wonderful heart-to-heart when Connie’s urging Marcel to do the ’60 Minutes’ interview and he says, ‘What if everything changes again?’ She says, ‘It will,’ with a smile. Not only is the crying very impressive but so is the tiny little pupil movements.”

For the eye-darting, they tried replacing the eye and popping it in various positions. But because the puppet was so small and because of the nature of the macro photography, it proved to be too much movement — the onscreen results were jarring. “So what we ended up having to do was turning the eye in place just a little bit to get it off center,” said Lepore.

Marcel the Shell

“Marcel the Shell with Shoes on”

YouTube/A24

Another stop-motion convention that differed from Lepore’s previous experience was the way they locked down Marcel to the sets. Again, he was too small to be bolted down, so they applied a mixture of wax and putty to his shoes and connected them to his body. Then they scrubbed the shoes clean. “And if there were surfaces that couldn’t be re-created, we made a little gray card that was reflective of light,” she added.

Adapting “Marcel” into such an unconventional feature enabled Camp to understand why there are so few stop-motion/live-action hybrids. Getting the techniques to match perfectly is so difficult that, if any detail is off, the animation won’t work and the emotional spell will be broken.

“I think it’s ultimately great that we’re having these conversations about animation,” he said, “because blending these things opens up a whole new world of possibility for the types of stories you can tell. And that’s evidenced by the diversity of movies that are in the race this year. There are so many different types of styles represented, including a lot of stop-motion.”

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