Becky Van Cleve has loved stop-motion animation ever since she first watched “The Nightmare Before Christmas” as a kid in Erie.
Now, the 39-year-old Northwest Pennsylvania Collegiate Academy and Edinboro University of Pennsylvania graduate is working on films that feature the same techniques, including “Marcel the Shell With Shoes On.” Van Cleve served as the head of the film’s puppet making, overseeing the people who create the characters.
“Marcel” ended its run at Erie’s Tinseltown on Thursday, but is set to be available for pay-per-view streaming beginning September 6.
“Once I started doing stop-motion, I always knew I wanted to do puppets,” Van Cleve said. “Loved seeing the costumes and putting them on the puppets.”
Van Cleve works in a type of animation that has been around for almost as long as movies have been made. Stop-motion animation is a filmmaking technique in which objects are moved in small increments between individually photographed frames.
It’s a painstaking process, but the result can appear three-dimensional and interact with real objects. The process has seen a resurgence in recent years with films such as ‘The Boxtrolls’, ‘Kubo and the Two Strings’ and now ‘Marcel the Shell With Shoes On’.
Van Cleve opened up about her career, how she’s been making movies during the COVID-19 pandemic, and what it’s like to live in Hollywood. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Q How did you start getting into animation?
A Certainly in Edinboro. I knew I loved drawing and I loved movies, so I got into animation. I took courses in Edinboro, including the one on stop-motion animation taught by Brad Pattullo. He asked students to help him with his film. We worked as a team to write a story and create a great thing. It really inspired my own career.
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Q How did you end up in Los Angeles?
A Well, LA has the most stop-motion studios, so I knew that was where (she and her husband, Erie native Tony Sansone) needed to go. Portland has a few studios but the weather was a bit like Erie and we had experienced that before. LA was the right place for both of our careers.
Q What is it like living in LA?
A It’s very different in that everyone in our industry has their own community. The stop-motion community is filled with kind and supportive people. It’s just a different rhythm and attitude. Other communities are more competitive. As for going out in Hollywood, you can just go out and see a celebrity. Jay Leno goes to a small market near our house and he was in line with all of us. A lady said hello to him, and he was really nice. We see it all the time.
Q Once you moved to Los Angeles, how did you get into the animation world?
A I got lucky right away. I applied to all three stop-motion studios in Los Angeles and one of them accepted (laughs). It was an unpaid internship, which they can’t offer now unless they get college credit. I treated it like a job and went five days a week even though I was only supposed to go two or three days. I finally got a job as a puppet coordinator.
Q What led to your work on “Marcel the Shell With Shoes On”?
A I was working on the Netflix movie “Alien Xmas”, where I met the Chiodo brothers (Stephen, Charles and Edward). Ed was producing (the animation for) “Marcel” and I fell in love with the story. It’s so touching and beautiful. I had an interview with the team. I was super nervous, but I got the job.
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Q The film ended production at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. How was it for you?
A We had to close a bit quite late in the process. When we got back to work, everyone was good with on-site testing, wearing masks, and then wearing face shields if you were within six feet of someone. It was sometimes difficult, especially to disinfect the puppets.
Q What happened when “Marcel the Shell With Shoes On” first aired in Erie? It’s the first film you’ve worked on to be screened in theatres.
A My sister, aunts and cousins all went to Tinseltown to see it. When they got there, my husband’s family was also there. They hadn’t planned to do that. So they all took a picture. I would have liked to be there with them.
Q What are you working on now?
A I want to create my own work, so I branch out a bit into different fields and learn more about them. I work as a scripting/recording coordinator for a computer generated feature for Netflix. It’s my job to keep the script up to date with any changes and to release the dialogue for the voice recordings. Prior to that, I worked as a storyboard, script, and editing coordinator for a Netflix computer-generated feature.
This article originally appeared on Erie Times-News: Erie native Becky Van Cleve finds success working on ‘Marcel the Shell’