Production Designer Liz Toonkel Describes Creating the Adorable Universe Behind the New ‘Marcel the Shell with Shoes On’
August 16, 2022
A tiny mollusk with a big personality, Marcel the Shell with Shoes On captivated audiences more than a decade ago with his quirky antics and endlessly entertaining use of human-sized objects. The adorable character returned this summer for a feature-length mockumentary from A24—director Dean Fleischer-Camp and actress Jenny Slate were behind the project once again—that visits the protagonist and his grandmother, Connie, at their home within an Airbnb. Behind the elaborately constructed settings is production designer Liz Toonkel, whose brilliant world-building is an essential component of the film’s most realistic and endearing qualities.
Colossal editor-in-chief Christopher Jobson recently sat down with Toonkel to discuss building a realistic micro world within a life-sized house, the challenges of blending live-action with stop-motion animation, and why the tennis ball scenes are as impressive as the internet thinks.
This conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity. All images courtesy of A24, shared with permission
Christopher: What does a production designer do? I imagine this was a different project than being a production designer for a live-action movie. Maybe you could talk a little bit about that?
Liz: Sure. A production designer, it’s a hard thing for people to understand. The way that I try to describe it to people is that basically everything that’s in front of the camera that isn’t the actor or what they’re wearing, we’re responsible for. Disneyland is a good example because when you walk into Disneyland, you’re immediately transported into a new space. My job as a production designer is to completely create a full world for you to be immersed in and also for the actors to be immersed in. I think of a production designer as a world builder.
In terms of applying that to Marcel, it was an exciting challenge because not only did I have to build the human world that Dean and a lot of these humans that we don’t really get to know very well in the movie inhabit, but then also the micro world within that that Marcel and his community inhabit. In terms of logistics, it was challenging because not only do we shoot live action, but then all of those things had to be archived and brought to stop motion.
Christopher: The movie seamlessly moves back and forth, blending live action and stop motion and also a macro world and a micro world. What are some challenges of moving between the two? I always think just one transition from small to large or from animation to live would be hard.
Liz: When I got onto the project, the first thing that I received instead of a normal script was an animatic, which is basically the whole movie, like hand drawn, roughly. That was all with the audio track that exists in the movie now. They had perfected the audio because, in many animated processes, that’s important.
Christopher: Just to be clear, the audio was recorded first before you even really started?
Liz: Yes. There are a couple of things, like the 60 Minutes interview, that was in real-time or improvised, but pretty much everything else we started the production of the movie with. From there, it’s almost like we had to unpack all these things that Dean and Jenny and Nick Paley, the co-writer, had put into the script. For instance, they’d have a drawing where Marcel is moving a berry and then in the background, a tree is shaking. I had to be like, okay, in this scene, it might just seem like Marcel talking, but all these actions are happening that we have to make happen on screen.
Also, whenever we would shoot anything with Marcel or Nana Connie, there was a three-foot radius around them that we have to preserve, to bring to stop motion because they need all the same surfaces, all the same stuff.
Christopher: What does that mean exactly?
Liz: Say that Marcel is on a tabletop, and there’s some debris and a book for our live-action shoot. We have all of this stuff, and it’s exactly what it’s going to be. But for Marcel, we have a stand-in. Then all of this we pack up, put it into cold storage, and go to stop motion. Then when they actually make Marcel move around on the tabletop, they have all the same exact stuff in the same place.
We have to, like, measure the distance between things. It was extremely technical. It’s such a feat of the movie that when you watch it, you don’t realize that at all. Very straightforward.
Christopher: I assume that this is all shot in one house and the animation was done there on-site in the same space?
Liz: No, not at all. A lot of the movie was shot in one location, but we did a lot of alterations to it. And everything that Marcel stood on there went to a stop-motion stage. Like, if he stood on a window sill, and we didn’t actually own that, we would have to build a new one and paint it and make it look like that. There are just so many little details that add up to make it work.
Christopher: Were you connected to or familiar with the web series? That’s already a while ago. How did you come into this?
Liz: I wasn’t involved with that, but I knew Dean and Jenny before they made it. Dean and I went to NYU Film School together, and he edited my thesis film Fashion Kills that I made there. That’s how we met. While he was editing that, he started dating Jenny, and I met Jenny. Then I moved out to L.A. to go to grad school at Cal Arts, and while I was there, I wasn’t keeping in touch with them. One night somebody showed me this short. I was like, oh my gosh, I know them. I was a fan of theirs and then a fan of Marcel. Then it worked out for me to be involved with the movie.
Christopher: There’s so much truth and realism behind the emotions of the characters and what’s both internally and externally happening for Marcel and his world. That seems to trickle down into everything, into how the sets were designed and how things are animated. It doesn’t feel forced or fabricated. There’s nothing there for decoration. It’s like there’s a purpose behind everything. I’m sure it was a conscious decision.
Liz: Yeah, absolutely. That was probably the biggest challenge of the project. Marcel is maybe the most adorable character ever, and it would be very easy to just make everything around him really cute. But I think it was really important that everything that was in his and his community’s spaces made sense, that it would be functional.
It was a lot like you’re saying. Everything had to be very truthful. It was an exciting thing for me, too. One of the beautiful things about the movie, I think, is how it gets us to look at parts of our world that we don’t pay attention to and tune into detail. It was an exciting thing with Marcel to be like, oh, this is something that would be trash to the people who live here. They probably forgot about it, or their kid had left it behind. But he and his community give it new value and new beauty. That was all exciting to me.
All of those little details that you wouldn’t think about, when you watch it they give it an inherent truth because everything feels like it does in our real world… There was a lot of thought put into how to bring organic, real life to the things around Marcel.—Liz Toonkel
Another thing that I would say in response to your question that I think adds to that truthfulness that you would never even notice is that in most stop motion films, the characters are sort of staccato. Like, if you’re rolling a ball along, it wouldn’t roll like it normally does. It would be a little geometric or static. It was really important to Dean that nothing Marcel interacted with moved that way. So everything that moves on camera, we had to actually make move without anyone there. There were a lot of practical little effects, like blind drawstrings going up and down or the shoe keychain going across the rope of pubes. Things like that.
All of those little details that you wouldn’t think about, when you watch it they give it an inherent truth because everything feels like it does in our real world. Same thing with the garden. Those are real plants. That’s so rare in stop motion that you have real organic materials. It’s pretty much impossible to stop-motion animate with them because they decompose. There was a lot of thought put into how to bring organic, real life to the things around Marcel.
Christopher: Did you work with Jedediah Voltz?
Liz: Yeah. Dean is a huge fan of Jed. Dean loved this idea that the shells could kind of be living in plain sight, but in places where you might not notice. You might not notice there are these little homes within your house plants. So he reached out to Jed, and Jed loved the project. We commissioned Jed to make some of these homes, and he’s so fantastic. It was really fun to collaborate with him. He just has a brilliant mind and great ideas.
Christopher: Everyone seems to be talking about, at least on the internet, the tennis ball? How does that work?
Liz: That makes me excited. That was maybe the hardest thing in the whole movie. Originally, we had found these little robot balls, and we were like, oh, we can cut open a tennis ball and put it in there. We tried that at first. It wasn’t fast enough. Then we tried many different things. We had a robot guy. Then we brought in my friend Francis Angevine, who’s a great prop fabricator, and she took a larger robot ball and turned it into a tennis ball.
She put a facade onto the whole thing, but it couldn’t have a lot of thickness for the ball to be able to be fully speedy and functional. It was weeks of work to figure that thing out, but it was very impressive once we got it to work.
Christopher: Yes. There are so many playful ideas of how Marcel navigates and lives and works and becomes mobile and that sort of thing. Having seen the web series, I thought like, oh, they’re going to explode this into a huge travel movie that’s going to go all over the place and see the world. I was astonished by how introspective the movie is but also by how much you can do with just inside the house. There was no shortage of amazing little things. These little intimate details carry the movie.
Liz: Yeah, that’s a real testament to Dean and Jenny. They had such an opportunity to make this a huge movie and work with a major studio and exploit it for everything. I don’t think there are a lot of people out there like them who had turned down basically every opportunity to say, “no, we want to do this exactly the way we want to do it. We care so much about this character, and we don’t want to just dilute it.” It took them, like, ten years to make this movie because of how much they cared about it.
That’s what makes it so special. Like you’re saying, it feels like there could be this world right next to your bed that you don’t know about it. It’s not a crazy, flashy movie that’s so fantastical and outside of what seems possible. For me, those were the movies that have always been most exciting to me, when it feels like this is something that could be real or feels relatable to my world.
Christopher: Unrelated to this, but I’m very curious. You’re also a magician?
Liz: I make a lot of performance art and magic. My art practice has steered more into making magic shows, and I’ve been developing a one-woman magic show called “Magic for Animals” that’s all about how humans treat animals and uses that as a way to unpack how we treat one another.
Christopher: This happens through magic?
Liz: Yeah. It’s unique in the sense that the show is more of a storytelling show where I use magic as a storytelling technique. My goal for each of the tricks is to have more impact and help deepen the narrative and tell the story further. I did a workshop performance of that in L.A. in November, and I’m going to Denmark in August to perform it at a performance art festival there.
My goal is to continue developing it over the next year or two, go to Edinburgh, and then ideally, tour it. It’s been really exciting. I’ve been making performance art for a long time. It’s a challenging format to work in because there’s very little infrastructure. I would show at some pretty big galleries, but it’d be like you have to put it up tonight, take it down tonight, and here’s $100. That wasn’t very sustainable. I’m putting years of work into this. It’s very attractive to me to have a show that I can pack in a suitcase, literally, and travel around the world and do. It just feels very attainable.
It’s also very exciting because bringing magic into my performance art makes it so much more accessible to a wider audience. A lot of people have come to my work that would never come to a performance art show, but they’ll go see a magic show. It’s been a really exciting thing to excavate, and I’ve been enjoying it.
Christopher: Amazing. This might be weird, but I think performance art is often compared to collage in that it’s an art form that is immediately accessible. It’s like, I’m doing it. I’m cutting stuff up. I’m putting it together. There are no rules. But that makes it extremely hard to do well, to take all of these rules, recognize what they are, what you can break, and then come out with something that truly is original. Magic sounds like a very interesting inroad into that space.
Liz: Yeah. It’s cool, too, because a lot of the performances that I was doing, I was playing with not rehearsing and a low-fi performance aesthetic. This has been a great challenge for me, aesthetically, because I have to know what am doing. It’s so technical. I have to rehearse. I feel like I’ve found a stronger voice through that because it’s pushed me in a different direction. It’s been fruitful.
Christopher: What’s next for you? Where else can people find your work?
Liz: I have another movie coming out on August 12 called Emily the Criminal, starring Aubrey Plaza. It’s a project that I really care about and love. It’s a thriller about student debt, so I believe in it. It speaks to an issue of my generation that I don’t think has been talked about in this way. It’s really exciting, and it’s different than Marcel. It’s very gritty. The goal is to show Los Angeles in a way that feels true to people who live there but who we might not always see on screen. I’m really excited about that.
I’m doing my magic show in Denmark in August, and then I’m also in process of writing a feature that I want to direct. It’s all really exciting.
Marcel The Shell With Shoes On is in theaters. Find more of Toonkel’s work on her site.