How does creativity converge with culinary aesthetics and physics to tell a story? African-born Kristy Snell who holds the position of creative director at Chuck Studios, and has worked on brands such as McDonald’s, Subway, Tropicana and New York Pizza, tells us more.
Ever seen a television commercial with a piece of bacon flipping through the air or a cookie crumbling in such a way that your mouth began to water? Don’t let the apparent simplicity of such images fool you, making food move by itself and in the way you want it to is surprisingly difficult. It’s so hard there’s an entire industry built upon it.
Tabletop directing, the name given to the art and science of making food move and skillfully orchestrating this movement, is impossible to get right every time. For one thing, food can’t take direction like a human actor can, and it can be extremely perishable.
While this transient nature adds authenticity to the work, it also introduces a race against time to capture the perfect shot. However, while these limitations add to the challenge for tabletop directors, they can also inspire creativity because, in the end, it’s about using food to create a story.
Art and science
For me, the vision I have of what I want the food to do in a shot is a major part of the artistry. I’ll be thinking of how to make a food flip in an energetic, fun or elegant way for example. Imagine a dancer. It’s like the difference between how a ballet dancer and a hip-hop dancer spins. Those spins create totally different emotions. It’s the same with food.
However, when it comes to the execution of an idea, I must understand certain concepts of physics to know what the food I’m working with will do. Let’s say I’m using a pineapple. In my mind, I can see it spinning in the air three times.
Why does the pineapple only spin twice for me? What do I need to change in the set-up I’ve created to make it work? Using science and the limitations it might impose to my advantage is also part of the craft side of the job.
How do we do it?
The sheer speed at which food falls, pours, drips, jumps and spins is truly remarkable and often imperceptible to the naked eye. Everything is highly time-dependent. In order to showcase the intricate details of food in slow motion during playback we use high-speed cameras.
Footage needs to be captured down to the millisecond on a Phantom 4k flex camera that allows us to shoot at 1,000 frames per second (fps) or more. To put this in perspective, a normal frame rate is 25 fps. Therefore, testing beforehand is important.
We don’t rely on computer generated imagery (CGI), but rather physics. Which is a good thing and a bad thing: we know the laws of physics so we can use them to our advantage — like gravity. However, physics also means we can’t defy the laws. It’s impossible. Centrifugal force can make our lives very complicated, and gravity is not always our friend. We are constantly finding ways to work around our good friend physics.
Just like actors, the characters in our food story need to be styled. One can understand that cauliflower may need a completely different approach than chocolate or whiskey. Yet still, there are many commonalities. Firstly, the food must look tangible, as if you can eat it off the screen. This is because our brains simply don’t know the difference between delicious food and an image of delicious food. The response of our reptile brain is the same.
And, we humans are really good at determining what is edible and what is not. Evolution has programmed us. So, if something is wrong with a food, we can get scared away and avoid eating it. This is why in tabletop directing we’re like rappers — we like to keep it real, and we’ll often work with mock-ups of a product instead.
This brings me to another important point: food is perishable. Ice cream melts, cheese congeals, lettuce wilts, chocolate hardens and burgers dry out. I am constantly reminded of the limitations of food. Even though I work with food stylists who have special techniques and recipes to make food look amazing, you can only manipulate food to a certain degree.
Overworked food can easily look fake or unappetising. Contrary to what a lot of people believe, most of the time food stylists work with the real product. There are of course exceptions, like ice cream and chocolate. Fake ice cream that does not melt is essential. Chocolate is very expensive and difficult to temper in large batches, so we use fake chocolate from our recipe.
Why do we do it?
The combination of technical precision and creative vision makes tabletop directing an exhilarating yet nerve-wracking endeavour and despite meticulous planning and extensive testing, an element of serendipity, chance, and perhaps even luck, remains ever-present. We create the circumstances in which ‘lucky accidents’ happen. Little droplets, a few unexpected dynamics, particles that fly away — it all adds to the sense of realism – and the fun.
For me, food is the protagonist and I get to create an entire world that can be serious, romantic, funny, sexy…whatever is needed to tell that story. I get the chance to give the food character. I can make a pretzel, through stop motion, go through a surface and then come out of a roof like an action hero. Or, I can do a seemingly simple thing like make a banana swim like a dolphin and people love it.
And, often in the course of a project, a riddle emerges that I want to solve and it’s incredibly rewarding when it all comes together, and you see your shot replayed back to you.
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