Inside the animation process for ‘Marcel the Shell’s’ big screen glow up

“Marcel the Shell” began as a series of lovingly crafted homemade shorts for YouTube by Dean Fleischer Camp and Jenny Slate. So when it came time to give the diminutive breakout star the feature film treatment — in A24’s “Marcel the Shell With Shoes On,” now playing in theaters nationwide — some technical concerns needed to be addressed.

“The challenge for me was always, ‘How do we maintain that authenticity and the texture from the shorts?’,” Camp recently told The Times. “Because the danger, when you’re dealing with a bigger budget, is that in polishing it up, you might sand down all the things that made it wonderful.”

To ensure that wasn’t the case, he enlisted independent stop-motion storyteller Kirsten Lepore as his animation director to lend her expertise to the meticulous frame-by-frame technique. Her seasoned ability for subtlety of movement in the performance of stop-motion characters was paramount in the decision.

“It’s a very mechanical process and because of the technical elements, it’s hard to get stuff that feels loose and organic. Every time you watch a stop-motion anything, you’re watching a time lapse of a sculpture being manipulated. Kirsten, more than any other young stop-motion artists I know, really embraced that in her work,” Camp said. “We shared the mission of trying to figure out how to make a stop-motion film that doesn’t feel lifeless.”

Kirsten Lepore, left, collaborated with Dean Fleischer Camp and Jenny Slate on “Marcel the Shell With Shoes On.”

(Allen J. Schaben/Los Angeles Times)

To that end, Lepore and the animation crew first had to create a puppet of Marcel suitable to make multiple copies of. For the short films, Camp used an actual shell, but since carapaces vary in shape and size, it would have been nearly impossible to naturally find enough similar ones.

Instead, they did 3D scans of the actual original Marcel figure and then worked with a company called Stratasys. They were able to 3D print a large number of them in a way that the inner translucency and luster of real shells would come across. Once printed, the puppet team would sand down and paint in highlights on them by hand.

“Marcel is meant to be such a simple thing made of found objects, but re-creating that in a more formal setting where we had to have hundreds of Marcels for our shoot and they all had to be consistent, that was quite a challenge. We had to mass produce something like that and make it animatable and sturdy enough,” explained Lepore.

The petite size of the Marcel puppets, which don’t have any internal armature as most stop-motion characters do, also required added precision when bringing it to life. “It’s literally 1 inch by 1 inch. It’s the smallest puppet that any of the animators had ever worked with before,” said Lepore. “Nobody in the industry ever works with puppets that small.”

Members of Lepore's production team examine "Marcel the Shell With Shoes On."

Kirsten Lepore and her team at work during production of “Marcel the Shell With Shoes On.”

(A24)

As a way to ensure that Marcel remained consistently himself no matter who was animating him throughout the long endeavor, Lepore and Camp put together a “bible” detailing how his movements work, how big his stride is, how quickly he can move when he is trying his fastest, and what the range of motion of his feet is.

“The work that they did is not just a feat of stop motion. It’s a feat of expressing emotion in all the little movements of Marcel’s eye and the nuanced postures they got him to make. They did that acting,” Slate said. “They combined that attention to detail with true heart. If that wasn’t the case, Marcel would be stiffer, he wouldn’t exude as much.”

In order to create the illusion that Marcel coexists with our reality, the film had to be shot twice with two different cinematographers.

First, the live-action shoot in a real house was lensed by Bianca Cline, which occurred like most other productions, except that for the most part the shots were devoid of characters. Lepore had a stand-in of Marcel that she would place in the location to mark where the puppet would go once the stop-motion scenes were composited into the frame. They filmed with the stand-in present, and then again without it. Twice for every single shot.

A woman in a kitchen with a tiny set on the counter.

Kirsten Lepore with a miniature set on the set of “Marcel the Shell With Shoes On.”

(A24)

For the sake of light continuity, it was pivotal for the stop-motion director of photography, Eric Adkins to be present for the live-action operation in order to take copious notes on how each shot was lighted — down to the measurements of the distance between the light source and the character — to be able to re-create them on the stop-motion stages months later.

One of the most impressive examples of Adkins’ skills, Lepore recalled, is the car ride that Marcel takes with Dean early in the film. After studying the live-action footage of that sequence and creating an equivalent of the dashboard, where Marcel stands, on a stop-motion stage, Adkins had to program his lights frame by frame to flicker in a way that would perfectly match how trees or other objects block the light from hitting Marcel as the vehicle moves.

Lepore had a stop-motion staff of around 50 artists working on 10 stages running simultaneously.

“For every interaction that Marcel has with a live-action character or a live-action prop, there was nothing spontaneous about it,” she noted. “It was all meticulously choreographed to make it look ultimately like it’s just off the cuff, as if it just happened.”

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