How a YouTube Sensation Became a Movie – 12 Years Later

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When the first Marseille Shell short film went viral, it was kind of an accident. As collaborator Jenny Slate told Seth Meyers this week at Late night, her then-partner Dean Fleischer-Camp showed a stop-motion film they made on a comedy show in 2010 and then posted it online at the request of the actor who wanted to show his sick mom. It became one of the first YouTube sensations – after all, “Gangnam Style” was still two years away – and now, more than a decade later, his character has his own movie about the dangers of the Internet that made him famous.

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By and large, twelve years is not a long time, but in online time it is practically an entire era. It’s also long enough for Slate and Fleischer Camp to get some glimpse of Marseille’s rise to fame. “It’s so weird because of course I believe it 100 percent, but sometimes even I can’t figure it out,” says Slate. She believes Marcel’s strength lies in the combination of his size and self-confidence, but also admits that “people like to project their own feelings onto him of how small they might feel.”

And so Marseille remained loved even as Gangnam Style came and went. Fleischer-Camp says he and Slate once went on what he calls a “water bottle tour” of Los Angeles, stopping at all the studios to talk about Marseille after it went viral. At the time, says Fleischer-Camp, “there was a lot of interest in instilling Marseille into the more familiar franchise mold.” The couple knew as they left those meetings that they didn’t want Marcel to leave. Stuart Little or Minions route. (However, they are selling a line of merchandise with A24 film studio to promote Marseilles.) In the end, Fleischer-Camp believes their commitment to independence has paid off.

“What’s special about Marseille for me is not that it’s so tiny,” he explains. “The thing is, he doesn’t care how tiny he is. He has an iron willpower and self-respect, and he is so self-possessed.”

The cinematic world of Marseille is both tiny and comparatively huge. In the film, he lives with his Nana Connie (the stunning Isabella Rossellini) in a colonial house once occupied not only by their entire shell and neighboring family and neighbors, but by a human married couple. People never noticed Marcel and his pals, who built a thriving community of houses out of potted plants, bread patches, and dishes made from scraps of whatever food they could get their hands on. One day, the married couple had a big fight, and Marcel’s entire family, except for his Nana, fled to the man’s sock box for safety. Eager to leave the house, he threw the contents of all his drawers into a bag and fled, never to return. Marcel’s family went with him, lost in the Los Angeles wind.

This does not mean that Marseille is hopeless, because it is not. Marseille Sink discovers that he and his grandmother are growing a thriving garden, developing ingenious food gathering methods, and even following their favorite program, 60 minutes. Fleischer-Camp says that in a sense, the drive of his creation inspired even himself. “When an obstacle is thrown to him, he does not see the impossibility of overcoming it,” explains Fleischer-Camp.

Undoubtedly, Fleischer-Camp had to draw on some of Marseille’s inner strength when he made a film that took seven years from start to finish. The stop motion animation process is painstaking, and Slate and Fleischer-Camp went through their own personal difficulties and divorced a few years after filming began. However, they continued to act out of respect for the project and a feeling that Slate calls “involuntary, like a heartbeat.” Although she was involved in creating, producing and voicing Marcel in the film, Slate was able to jump in and out of production from time to time, if only for Fleischer-Camp and co-writer Nick Paley to really get into the act. However, she says. Every time she returned to Team Marseille, she felt a very specific type of love.

“It’s like, ‘Why are you going back to your favorite summer vacation spot?’ Not because it relaxes,” she says. “That’s because when you’re there, you feel a special love for the place. This can only happen in the present you are in.”

Slate and Fleischer-Camp connection with Marseille Sink feels deeply, deeply personal. Fleisher Camp says Marseilles reminds him of the books he loved as a child, such as borrowers, and several times at his grandmother’s house, when she told him and his siblings to “play in fairyland,” the place he only found out about years later was really just a tick-infested space below her deck. Slate now has a daughter of her own, Ida, who is about 18 months old. With Marcel’s help, Slate says she has learned to accept things like the shell’s insistence on having a good life.

“Everything is saturated with value,” she says. “I want my daughter to understand that there is a moment in the car on a summer morning when you can roll down the window and breathe in the air, and this is a very precious moment. In this way, you can turn the day into a beautiful, beautiful series of moments for yourself, and I just would like her to feel this availability for herself. She cites a scene towards the end of the film when Marcel talks about the need to feel like being part of one big instrument as something she is especially attached to and would like to convey further. “I want [my daughter] understand that she is connected to everyone and that there is a way to thoughtfully position yourself so that you really harmonize. Sometimes there are distances between us, but we are all together.”


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In this frame Marseille Sink becomes a film that explores the intersection of community and loneliness. Marseille is losing its community, so it feels lonely. When he meets Fleischer-Camp’s character, a documentarian also named Dean, he starts to open up again, if only to talk to someone else. When Dean makes a (very metallic) short about Marcel to post online, it goes viral, leaving Marcel to wonder if he can use his newfound fans to find his family. It doesn’t work the way he wants. Instead, his little house becomes a hotspot for TikTokkers looking for influence rather than connection, leaving Marcel to rethink what it means to have the place he belongs to.

This struggle for influence and connection is one of the reasons Slate says he mostly quits social media, although he still occasionally posts on his Instagram. (Especially if, say, she’s promoting a new movie, like Marseille Sink.) She says she’s not interested in getting involved in “futile and flammable” debates about whether people are using the Internet correctly, but her own past reliance on social media has taught her that “to succeed in one way or another on it really won’t work.” solve your loneliness. It won’t tell if you are a powerful person or a worthy person. There are no answers.”

Perhaps part of the beauty of Marcel the Shell, the character and the movie, is that we don’t have all the answers and we don’t know how to get them. Consider the shell itself, which in its own way is a kind of miracle. The shells are utilitarian, only there to give the shellfish a protective shield, but they are also beautiful. They’re “extra,” says Slate. “They don’t have to be so pretty.” Like Marcel, the shell is simple but perfect and is a good example of how, in Slate’s phrase, “Earth doesn’t do things just for fun.” Everything has a function, she explains, quoting Robin Wall Kimmerer’s work on how goldenrods and asters always bloom together. Everything in nature has a purpose, but also what she calls a “beautiful mystery.” Live like Marcel Sink and, for that matter, appreciate Marseille Sinkis all about sitting down and opening your eyes and heart and just letting the world rush in.

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