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Terrence Malick and the Cinematography of ‘Marcel the Shell with Shoes On’

We chat with Bianca Cline and Erik Adkins about the cinematography of Marcel the Shell with Shoes On and how another iconic filmmaker influenced its visual language.
Marcel The Shell With Shoes On Cinematography
By  · Published on July 14th, 2022

Welcome to World Builders, our ongoing series of conversations with the industry’s most productive and thoughtful behind-the-scenes craftspeople. In this entry, we chat with Bianca Cline and Eric Adkins about achieving pristine imperfection in the cinematography of Marcel the Shell with Shoes On.

A spell washes over you when watching a Terrence Malick movie. His films are pristine, pretty as a picture. You want his frames on your wall as much as on your television. But another part of you, the antagonistic child within, desires to jab a muddy finger at the glass. Malick movies are heavenly and may be far removed from our reality below. A good smudge dead center or along the fringes could go a long way in connecting us to Malick’s absurd beauty.

Some version of this notion fluttered through cinematographer Bianca Cline as she contemplated the visual aesthetic for Marcel the Shell with Shoes On, the new stop-motion adventure film starring Jenny Slate’s one-inch shell. Along with director Dean FleischerCamp and stop-motion cinematographer Eric Adkins, she sought fault in the magnificent. Their film required a magical pull into Marcel’s tiny universe. At the same time, she desired a tactile believability experienced in documentaries, a medium Cline is well-versed in thanks to her work in Murder Among the Mormons and Belly of the Beast.

Marcel the Shell with Shoes On springs from the 2010 short film of the same name. As before, the film centers on the titular shell. This time, however, Marcel struggles with internet fame. He and his grandmother (Isabella Rossellini) search desperately for their missing family, stolen away when they woefully hid in a sock drawer that was quickly evacuated during a feuding couple’s final argument. Playing a version of himself, Dean Fleischer-Camp tells their story after discovering their existence at his Airbnb.

Stop-motion films are tricky, long endeavors no matter the subject matter, but Marcel the Shell with Shoes On manages to impress within its expectations. The film took seven years to complete. The script was first transformed into an audio format, and Bianca Cline and Erik Adkins never saw a written word. They worked off the cast’s voices, nothing more.

First, Cline shot on location, frequently mixing performers with puppets and miniature stand-ins. Adkins shot next on stage with animation director Kirsten Lepore. Assembling the film became a math problem, made all the more complicated by the filmmakers wanting to reproduce that Terrence Malick magic with purposeful imperfection.

“We wanted the visual language to be a very beautiful version of a documentary,” says Cline. “It’s not a Christopher Guest thing where it feels like you just showed up. It’s like, ‘Oh no, these are all the most beautiful things.’ And in prep, we talked about it like Tree of Life. It’s more of a reference than any particular documentary. Even though that format is there, it’s the director, Dean’s voice behind the camera talking to Marcel and asking him questions and that sort of thing. So in that way, it was a documentary, but we were like, ‘No, we want this to feel very beautiful.'”

There was a danger in chasing Malick. The film could become too pretty. Marcel is already a cutesy creation, and if the filmmakers relied heavily on his adorable nature, a distance could manifest between the audience and the characters.

“A lot of films about characters like Marcel,” continues Cline, “tend to be too precious, which in turn makes the character feel unreal. And so it was like, ‘Okay. We want this to be a beautiful movie, but we don’t want it to be too buttoned-up.’ We wanted mistakes and sloppiness. The thing that we kept saying was we want to throw it away a little. So it’s, ‘Okay, here’s the bullet strokes of – it’s early morning, and there’s this gorgeous sunshine coming in.’ But then also maybe we bumped the camera, or it’s just not in quite the perfect place so that it didn’t feel too polished.”

Creating imperfection is a near-impossible task for a stop-motion operator. Every movement is perfectly detailed and planned. One cannot simply wing it with these miniatures. Marcel the Shell with Shoes On’s flaws were carefully calculated and crafted.

“I’m doing the opposite of [imperfection],” says Eric Adkins, “I’m precisely making the imperfections. I could see that Bianca put a lot of artistry into the lighting and the fog, but those imperfections I had to perfect. I needed every branch move to be incremented at the right frame. I needed that shadow to cross that corner. I needed the motion control rig to swoop around when they’re turning the corner. I needed to reverse engineer those imperfections to make it precise.”

So, how do you balance such a situation? How do you accomplish reality through blemish and disfigurement when blemish and disfigurement are not possible in such a mathematical art form? The uncanny valley threatens everything.

“I’m always looking for things that bring detail or interaction into it,” says Adkins. “To me, that helps bind the situation. I had to do that when I was doing Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow. It was all bluescreen. There were no sets, except for one set where we threw a stuntman against it. The furniture defined the space, not unlike [Marcel], where at one point, the coffee table and the sofa have to match. And we didn’t have the sofa; we actually had to replace it. If Marcel was walking on something that was so defining, there would be bounces on the cushions that needed to be there. Planning for things that add believability, like shadows, like inner activities, are a fun challenge.”

Bianca Cline knew the movie would succeed or fail based on the aesthetic. If they could not pull it off, the audience would check out immediately. At no point did she want the audience thinking of Marcel as some cartoon character. He’s as real as the woman voicing him.

“It’s inherent in watching a movie about a character that is clearly not real,” says Cline. “How do we make him feel like we’re in his world instead of the typical stop-motion or CG character world? The imperfections help him feel [real]. Erik would match with the lens that we were using; he would match the lighting and try to replicate that on a stage with Marcel.”

Cline and Adkins put their faith in each other. She clung to her documentary instincts. When opportunities presented themselves, she went after them. Whatever problems that were created could be solved later on the stage. Hopefully.

“The very documentary thing to do,” continues Cline, “is to go like, ‘Okay, Marcel’s standing by a window, but there’s dappled sunlight coming through the trees right in there. Oh, it looks beautiful. Can Erik replicate that?” And he and Zdravko Stoitchkov, our visual effects supervisor, would make it look the way we wanted.”

Erik Adkins knew almost immediately that Marcel the Shell with Shoes On was special. All projects start the same. They’re a gig. They’re filled with problems and challenges. His joy comes in concocting the solutions. Somewhere, while solving issues, Adkins truly understood what the film was attempting.

“When you’re shooting with plates that are already cut into a film,” says Adkins, “you already get the sense of the timing and the emotion of the project. In a way, the animators and that crew got to feel some of that and knew that they were working on something unusual. I call it a melancholy comedy. It’s posing reality because it’s a documentary, and it’s an animation of this fictional character that actually doesn’t have a heartbeat. It’s not a character that exists, that we know, in this world. It’s really imaginative. I don’t know; it just felt unique.”

Marcel the Shell with Shoes On was not shot once but thrice. The film was a relay race passing from audio to location to stage. Getting all three to assemble into one singular entertainment is a technical and creative marvel. Bianca Cline and Eric Adkins ultimately operate as complementary and contradictory elements. Their vibe, Terrence Malick but slightly uglier, is the emotional glue between their finely-tuned product and their audience.

Marcel the Shell with Shoes On is now playing in select theaters.

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Brad Gullickson is a Weekly Columnist for Film School Rejects and Senior Curator for One Perfect Shot. When not rambling about movies here, he's rambling about comics as the co-host of Comic Book Couples Counseling. Hunt him down on Twitter: @MouthDork. (He/Him)