When director Dean Fleischer Camp and star Jenny Slate wrote and produced their viral 2010 short film “Marcel the Shell With Shoes On,” they created the title character (voiced by Slate) as simply as possible. The tiny creature was made from a real seashell, doll shoes, a spot of clay and a googly eye.
Becky Van Cleve, head of puppet fabrication on the feature-length adaptation of the short, in theaters June 24 via A24, made sure Marcel was always in sight as she worked to get him ready for the big screen.
“I kept him right on my desk in a case,” says Van Cleve, knowing the little guy needed to be made of stronger stuff for the long haul: Because real shells are slightly translucent, they don’t hold up to studio lights. Van Cleve and her team opted to scan the original Marcel for inspiration and re-create him using digital sculpting software ZBrush before 3D printing him approximately 120 times for use in different scenes — each rigged with different wires, hooks and holes depending on whether Marcel was jumping in the air or pulling his pet lint by a leash made of a single hair. (Named Alan, the animal was truly just made of a piece of lint.)
“Marcel and his Nana Connie [voiced by Isabella Rossellini] were lovingly sanded and anchored and detailed until they were all done,” says Van Cleve’s fellow fabricator Maria Andreotti. “It took about a day and a half to do the finishing on each puppet. They would come back [from the printer] with lines called striations, and we had a team of amazing puppet makers sanding Marcels and Connies for days.”
The characters’ googly eyes also required meticulous manipulation of various versions. “If you just gave them to the animator how they [were], they wouldn’t be able to use them because they’re moving around on their own,” Andreotti says. “So I took the googles out of them.” She sliced each eye open and glued the black dots into different positions to create facial expressions before closing them back up.
And since Marcel’s footwear is a big enough part of his personality to make it into the title of the film, great care was taken to replicate its toy-like quality. Similar to the shell bodies, Marcel’s shoes were 3D printed (though many of the background shells had doll shoes). An extra handmade touch helped to complement the sweet absurdity of the film as a whole.
“Dean wanted us to dirty all of their shoes, because they only have one pair their entire life,” Van Cleve laughs. “Of course, they’re gonna be a little dirty.”
For shells that hadn’t appeared in the short film, the puppet team often worked from specific human references. “Like the Maestro,” Andreotti said of Marcel’s singing teacher, voiced by Peter Bonerz. “We would show [Camp] five or six different versions and he would be like, ‘Give me a little bit of Eugene Levy.’”
The film also features critters beyond the shells, such as the “pistachio cousins” as affectionately named by Van Cleve and Andreotti. Those were made with real pistachio shells, though the nuts were removed and replaced with artificial iterations before shrunk-down versions of Marcel’s shoes were attached to the bottom with wires. Other snacks that appear on screen include pretzels and Chex Mix, made of resin, and Cheetos, which were completely real.
Left on the cutting room floor was poor Tampoodle — a dog with a tampon for a body, a cotton ball for a head and Q-tips for feet.
“I tried so hard to get her into the film, and Dean wanted her!” Van Cleve says. “But she was just too complex.”
While the omission of Tampoodle is tragic, the reasoning behind it is part of what makes “Marcel the Shoes With Shoes On” so visually appealing.
“Marcel has an eye, clay, a shell and shoes. So the rules were: Nobody can have more than four elements to them,” Van Cleve explains. “Simplicity wins every time.”