written by Lydia Geisel, Domino
Before we were all watching people hack IKEA furniture and DIY twisted taper candles on TikTok, we got the majority of our non-TV entertainment from YouTube videos. And if you journey back to the year 2010, you might remember coming across clips of an adorable tiny talking shell named Marcel. The viral short films, created by Dean Fleischer-Camp and voiced by Jenny Slate, charmed millions of us back then, and now Marcel has returned to bring a little joy to 2022 in a bigger way: The stop-motion-animated shell stars in his own movie, Marcel the Shell With Shoes On. The story follows his search for his long-lost family, and he’s aided by a documentary filmmaker who discovers Marcel and his grandmother, Connie, and their pet lint, Alan, living in his Airbnb. Creating a home for people on the big screen is one thing—creating a home for a 1-inch-tall shell is another.
Fortunately, production designer Liz Toonkel is used to scaling down fictional spaces (her background is in theater design). In Marcel’s world—an actual home in Los Angeles that the makers rented out for two months to gather the shots they would need to combine with those from the stop-motion stage—a tennis ball operates as a makeshift car, VHS tapes double as a sofa, the houseplants serve as actual houses for his shell community, and two slices of bread make a bed. By the nature of her job, Toonkel already had a collection of little and strange objects she could pull from, study closely, and repurpose in new ways for Marcel. “We weren’t just bringing in something because it was cute; it had to have a function,” she explains.
The designer and her fellow creators imagined that the house had once belonged to the owner’s grandmother and had been passed down through generations, so she sought to bring in older pieces of furniture to communicate this recurring theme of family lineage. In other words, it’s not all just stuff pulled from HomeGoods. “There are things that have been sort of pushed more to the outskirts and then either taken by the shells or that you have to tune in and notice,” she says. “There’s a vague neutrality like there would be in an Airbnb.” A rental owner herself, Toonkel was familiar with the nuances and even took the list of rules from her own refrigerator and temporarily posted them on the set’s.
While the movie offers important lessons on the power of positivity, the design reaffirms the value in upcycling. “One man’s junk is a shell’s treasure,” shares Toonkel with a laugh. Nana Connie’s bedroom is a discarded jewelry box, and though all the precious belongings have seemingly been removed, it’s a space she was able to make her own. “There’s something really special about them finding these things that are no longer in style and giving them a new life,” Toonkel adds. It’s something the designer has tried to replicate in her own life by buying secondhand furniture and thrifting decor. “You don’t need to spend a lot of money to have style,” she affirms. And Marcel…well, he is full of that.