It might seem strange to think about directing food – chocolate can be a little tricky to get the emotional performance you want – but there are many ways to make food look its best on screen.
Directing food is different from styling food. Directing food is about what you want the viewer to feel from watching food on screen, the visual style of the food being shot, the type of framing desired, the movement of the shot from start to cut points, the preferred rhythm/sound/music, and what you ultimately want the viewer to take away with them.
Most food projects can be divided into two categories – lifestyle & styled food. Lifestyle food presents food in a real, natural manner, while Styled/stylised food- uses art or creative license to produce a non-realistic look. Whatever the preference, at the end of the day food just needs to look good!
It helps if you enjoy food. As a foodie, I want the ultimate from food. Food is a passion. It’s up close and personal. It’s the most intimate long term relationship I’ll ever have. I want to indulge each of my senses – from seeing every detail, hearing every crunch, smelling every spice, tasting every morsel to touching the hottest flames, food is a sensory experience.
Being a foodie is also why I’ve never worked with fake food. Tricks are great – who knew lemon essence helps you shoot the perfect flame? – but it feels a little much to want the viewer to eat what I’ve put on screen if it’s not real food.
Breakfast with the family. Flatmates sharing a frozen fish dinner. A quick snack. The challenge of lifestyle food is to make ‘real food’ enticing yet believable. Often shot ‘at home’ or ‘outdoors’, the real and natural look is about using the right props in the right setting and ‘real’ doesn’t need to mean boring. Just recognisable and familiar.
For example, honey doesn’t have to be out of a jar. One of the most visual ways to shoot honey is with a honey wand and honeycomb – all natural, all real, but still lifestyle. Fish & chips doesn’t have to be in butchers paper, it’s also served in a cone or with mayonnaise & shoe string fries, Belgian style. Or you may be shooting a wrap, but instead of toasting it, why not put it on the BBQ?
Think also about how the food is served. If we’re talking meat pies – you don’t just have to put it on a plate – why not put it on a tray fresh from the oven? Or if you’re an athlete having a quick snack, you can still add some creativity as a director by putting in some background action to help keep that shot visual, yet real. A couple sharing an afternoon cheese platter is more romantic served on the floor with bare feet with camera movement and strong lighting. The situation will dictate what is real and what isn’t.
It’s believable to have blueberries with yoghurt, but it’s more interesting to see the blueberries ‘drop’ into the yoghurt than already mixed. In a nice, fancy restaurant, it’s believable to have a fancy dessert as the piece de resistance to a girl’s night out. If cereal has to be cornflakes, then maybe hot steaming milk instead of cold milk will give the shot a visual edge. If there has to be lemon in the shot, preserved lemons are a twist on a favourite – pun intended!
Shrouding chocolate & pears in mystery. Two lollipops having a romantic moment. A journey to the Orient with a steaming bowl of Japanese oden.
I love creating worlds, and the possibilities in the world of stylised food are limitless as there are no rules. A toy monkey whizzing around a glass of chocolate milk? Yes! A prawn having a face off against a sardine? Why not? Two white & dark chocolate penguins having a conversation in the ‘snow’? Absolutely.
Sugar in all its forms are my favourite food to style. Sugar cubes, chocolate pyramids, oeufs a la neige, flaming crepes, creme brulee…the list is endless. A personal sweet tooth helps create the most luscious caramel, the sexiest chocolate, the creamiest custards.
Creativity rules and the most memorable often use unexpected props or locations. Changing expectations makes the viewer take notice and remember – always a good thing! What do you see around you? Marbles can make a simple chocolate bar look different. Even using a still can make a background interesting for the same cereal used in lifestyle food. Using a single piece of cereal against an unusual prop will shift the viewer’s perspective.
Directing food in extreme close up is like the ultimate canape – irresistible, enticing and mouth watering. A drop of vanilla essence, a chocolate freckle, perfect pearls of salmon roe.
It’s amazing how beautiful even a simple gas flame can be when shot with dramatic lighting. Carrots are incredibly visual in its raw form. Even fruit is not just fruit when you present it differently.
Making the ordinary work in extraordinary ways is just part of the fun of directing styled food.
Directing Cooking & Eating
Cooking on screen, unless you’re doing a cooking show, doesn’t mean you have show the whole entire process. Usually, it’s about the preparation – that sense of anticipation and the moments – the moment the bowl of chocolate enters the saucepan filled with boiling water to start the melting process, the moment you start to grate garlic, the moment the BBQ plate starts to sizzle, the moment you slice into onion etc…
Watching someone eat is not always sexy. Even when directing a sex scene, I’ve always found it sexiest to imply than show everything. The most sensual moments come from foreplay and some satisfaction without the explicitness of seeing too much. The same definitely applies to eating food. You want the yum of the enticing food and the yum of savouring the food without the not-so-flattering portraits in between.
The goal in directing eating is to allow the viewer a sense of what that food tastes like and for them to want to eat eat. Crave it because they can’t stop thinking about that girl biting into the chocolate pyramid or the way that gherkin crunched so appealingly in the sandwich.
Eat. Drink. Man. Woman. I couldn’t agree with Ang Lee more.