The idea for a movie was so bizarre, it shouldn’t have worked. But it did. A story that centers on a snail shell that talks. Marcel: The Shell with Shoes On, is a touching, adorable tale about looking at life and death differently.
But really, that’s how the movie’s director of photography, Bianca Cline, approaches life. With curiosity. With a unique eye.
An Eye for Film
Cline grew up in Los Angeles, surrounded by the film industry, although not having a foot into the business quite yet. But as a teenager with a video camera (the 1990s kind) she bought at a swap meet, and pouring over film magazines, she was well on her way.
Still, the word “cinematographer” didn’t register immediately. She made skating films and other flicks you’d expect a 15-year-old to make, getting friends to help her create masterpieces.
“I didn’t know there were different jobs. I thought the camera WAS movies.” In the process of creating, Cline realized that the actual filming part of it appealed to her the most. It spoke to her in a way nothing else did.
“How could I let anyone else do camera? I loved telling stories with images. You can help an audience feel a certain way subconsciously simply through the angles of the camera,” she says.
Her favorite movies were Tim Burton’s Batman, The Abyss, and Immortal Beloved, a movie about Beethoven. All of them hit her emotionally, specifically with the way the story was portrayed visually.
“The images were so impactful,” Cline says. “You can feel it.”
She was hooked on cinematography. When Cline’s mother old her: “You could do this for a living,” there was no turning back.
Making Cinematography a Career
Cline headed to film school at Brigham Young University and was immersed in the film community there, discovering first-hand that the other students would be the people she learned the most from and eventually working with in the future.
A love for languages emerged as Cline served a mission in Spain, leading to exploring other languages (including Russian and Italian). “The universe got 10 times bigger in Spain,” she adds. “I kept looking for that. I was endlessly curious.”
Cline graduated from BYU in the early 2000s and got a gig doing electrical/best boy work on a little indie film called Napoleon Dynamite.
Nobody knew it would be a hit. But that is usually the case, Cline admits. Those in the film industry go from one project to the next, putting their souls into them but never knowing during filming if it will hit a nerve. On set, Cline met her soon-to-be spouse, and together they had three children.
Her first feature film cinematography credit was Pride & Prejudice: A Latter-day Comedy. Her career had a pretty good start. Other notable films she was cinematographer: Mr. Dungbeetle, Passage to Zarahemla, and Hottie Boomba Lottie. Mix in there a wide range of commercials and documentaries and film shorts and, as Cline says, she’s been fortunate to do what she does.
“I travel to different countries and play make-believe,” she says. But her home base is still Utah, and she usually does projects in state a few times per year. Utah, with its vast landscape and history and people, is a great place to tell stories, she adds. With every project, Cline gets to explore new places and meet new people. And in the process, she has learned more about herself.
Through a New Lens
It was around this time that Cline came out as trans, beginning the journey of fully becoming Bianca. Growing up in the 1990s and being religious posed a lot of challenges. It just wasn’t talked about back or embraced, but she finally felt it was finally time to be honest with those she loved the most.
Cline is forever grateful for the film community that has always supported her and quickly accepts people who are different.
“I love the Utah film community,” she says. “It’s a smaller community. Very tight knit. But people are just as talented as anywhere else.”
After her transition, Cline has been asked to be part of some very ground-breaking pieces of film that she hopes help others to be kinder to themselves and others.
She was cinematographer for Peabody Nominated Belly of the Beast, a documentary that aired on PBS that told the stories of women undergoing unconsented sterilizations in California prisons.
After that, Cline was the cinematographer for a long-form Oreo commercial that told a story of a queer woman bringing her girlfriend to meet her family for the first time. The director, who Cline had gone to film school with, thought Cline would lend a unique perspective to filming. And she certainly did. The 2020 Oreo commercial showed a family navigating changing relationships and promoting being proud parents.
Following that, Cline was asked to film a documentary about a trans woman named Ava, but the original concept developed into something even more meaningful: Ava and Bianca, the story of friendship between two trans women. Cline discusses the experience, along with much of her cinematography career, in an episode of the Human Stories podcast.
Murder Among the Mormons, released in three episodes in 2021, was a project Cline found fascinating to work on as well. It was a true crime documentary surrounding Mark Hofmann, who forged documents and set bombs, which caused the deaths of two people, so there was a lot of interviewing and telling the story through the lens.
A Movie Milestone
Then came Marcel the Shell with Shoes On. A concept that only Jenny Slate could voice and write (with others). Even with Cline’s varied career, the film was unlike anything she had ever worked on before.
“The dialogue was locked in. The music was done. The storyboards were drawn. Usually, I read the script and get on set and help tell the story through cinematography. This time it was different.”
In the movie, Marcel and his grandma, Connie, and other shells are stop-motion animated, while the scene and humans and dog were real. So how would Cline help tell the story of Marcel by filming inside and outside of a house and a few shots in a car?
“I wanted to tell the story of Marcel. To give the audience a reference to how small he was, but to bring the camera in close. I didn’t want Marcel to feel insignificant, even though the world was overwhelming. It was a delicate balance.”
Balance was definitely achieved. The film immediately captures the watcher and makes them care about the adorable and very relatable shell. Marcel has been through some stuff and leads a very different life. So, in a way, isn’t it the story of a lot of us?
Even though Cline had been on many film sets and never knew if it was going to “hit big” as they say, something was different this time. It just felt like a special project.
“I knew it was possible,” she says. “Getting a big award for a film was a childhood dream. It’s every baseball player’s dream to make a homerun—this is like that.”
After Marcel was released, it had received a lot of awards, but not the “big one” yet. Cline was in Sundance spending late nights at the film festival. She woke up one morning to a text from everyone she knew congratulating her.
Marcel was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Animated Feature Film. In a business that demands long days, months on location, never knowing what the next project will be, not knowing what projects will hit or miss, Cline finally felt like she had been recognized for her work.
Even though this milestone took a lot of years to achieve, there is still a lot of work left to do. Cline is excited to see what will come next, then next, and next after that.
One thing she hopes to do is inspire other young people who want to jump into the film industry.
Her advice to them? “Don’t take no for an answer. Explore. Become an interesting person first, so you have something to say.”
Marcel the Shell with Shoes On is available for purchase on Amazon Prime Video. Watch the trailer below.
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