How Marcel the Shell with Shoes On went from YouTube shorts to Oscars
Jenny Slate talks exclusively to RadioTimes.com about adapting the popular YouTube shorts she made with ex-husband Dean Fleischer Camp.
In Oscars history, there can't be too many nominated films that started life as a series of YouTube shorts – but that's precisely the case with Marcel the Shell with Shoes On, one of the five movies competing for the Best Animated Feature gong at this year's ceremony.
The film – which is the work of ex-husband and wife team Dean Fleischer Camp and Jenny Slate – takes the form of a mockumentary and tells the story of an anthropomorphic shell who goes on a journey of discovery as he strives to locate his neighbours, who have mysteriously all gone missing.
Fleischer Camp and Slate had originally uploaded a trilogy of shorts focusing on the character to YouTube back in 2010, and the process of turning it into a feature-length movie was at times a complicated one – with the pair needing to make sure they could find suitable partners to fulfill their vision.
"There were certainly a lot of challenges to the actual filmmaking," Slate explains during an exclusive interview with RadioTimes.com. "Stop motion – as our animation director Kirsten Lepore will say – doesn't allow for spontaneity. Although you might depict spontaneity, especially in a film like ours which is documentary style, it actually is an art that requires so many micro calculations."
Together with Lepore, Slate and Fleischer Camp had to come up with an "innovative filmmaking process" and they eventually settled on the idea of recording all the audio first before they even started any animation.
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"The actual audio play and the screenplay as it exists is the result of three years of improvising and writing and improvising and writing," Slate says. "And that was a process that we needed to develop with partners who would support that openness.
"Although our film is a tiny indie – we are not a big studio film with a big budget behind us– we needed to find partners that would be willing to support us financially, while also working with this unknown process that we were kind of like inventing as we were making it."
"So I don't even know if I would call it a challenge, but we just really, really needed to find the right partners. And that took a lot of belief in our project and a lot of paying attention to people and what they were saying they were able to engage with."
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Initially, Slate and Fleischer Camp did meet with some of the bigger studios, but they soon realised that the traditional processes that working with those studios would require were not going to serve the type of work they were trying to do.
"It was a few months before we realised we just really needed to find someone who would support an indie film," Slate continues. "And Elisabeth Holm, our producer – who's produced a lot of my work, including a comedy special and the movie Obvious Child – suggested the people who became our partners at Centereach. And they really helped us develop our unique process."
In terms of actually constructing the film's narrative – expanding three-minute clips into something that could sustain a feature-length runtime – the process was a lot more natural, and Fleischer Camp and Slate quickly realised that the documentary approach was the one that worked best.
"Although Marcel is not real, the interactions with him at first were fully improvised – and those conversations are real," Slate says. "They are two people finding something out.
"And so we said at the start, this is the way that we find Marcel, this is how we get to him, is through interview. So we knew that that worked. And we didn't want to change it, it felt really good to us. And luckily for us, there was a bunch of stuff that felt really good at first. So we wanted to jump off from that."
Slate adds that rather than struggling to find enough material to flesh the concept out into a fully-fledged narrative, they actually found themselves with so much story that they had to discard a lot of their initial ideas.
"Dean and I loved exploring that world, it was very easy and fun to expand," she says. "And a lot of it just didn't end up in the movie because there wasn't enough time.
"For us, it was not like, 'Could this short become a story?' From the inside, we always felt connected to a richer character and to an exchange that sort of felt bottomless or ever-expansive for us. So we just kind of had to figure out well, what's the story you want to tell?
"And that is challenging – how do you choose a story that isn't gimmicky, that doesn't play upon Marcel's cuteness or lean heavily on his smallness? How do you find something that does acknowledge that he is a unique individual in a much larger world?
"How do you make that story call to you as whatever individual you are in the greater infinity that we all live in?"
Clearly, the story that Slate and Fleischer Camp eventually landed on has worked a treat – and the star has been delighted by the Awards recognition, describing the Oscar nod as "one of those moments that falls into a small collection of little beauties you really want to happen but everything in the cosmos would have to be totally aligned".
But perhaps even more encouraging than the accolades from awards bodies has been the response the film has received from regular viewers, especially from younger audiences. Slate picks out a particular reaction that has stayed with her from a screening at last year's San Francisco International Film Festival.
"Part of the programme they had there is that they invite a bunch of maybe 100 schoolchildren to come and watch the films," she recalls.
"So a large group of children watched the movie, and I talked to them afterwards, and one of them asked me, 'What happened to the grandmother?' And being able to have a real conversation with children, about aging, about changes in the body, and that this is something that will happen to all of us – that if we're lucky, eventually we all travel in our lifecycle to that unique position of old age, it made me feel really good.
"Because it also made me aware of the biases that I can have about what young people are able to understand and what is appropriate for them to hold. I think that children are able to take in this information and that it lends something to how they see their own life.
"And I just remember feeling good that they had taken our film seriously and so I could take them seriously and be in conversation with them at a level that they would understand but with a subject matter that was pretty, pretty major for them."
Marcel the Shell with Shoes On is showing in UK cinemas from Friday 17th February 2023. Check out more of our Film coverage or visit our TV Guide and Streaming Guide to find out what’s on.
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