Food for Thought: Food Styling for Ads
While working at a small design studio, the owner had a brilliant idea, for once. He had bought some frozen blueberry pie that was manufactured by a local company and showed us the horridly unappealing package.
“We could design something better than this!” he exclaimed.
Naturally, we could. Actually, a bunch of monkeys banging on a sketchpad with markers could. So, after our daily banana break, we drove over to the supermarket and after the shopping cart races we held, we walked out with a dozen packages of frozen pies.
We removed the pies from the bland packaging and set to work designing the packaging. The boss was busy microwaving the pie slabs and then photographing them with his cell phone camera. He called us all into the conference area to see his creation. We stood there absolutely dumbfounded at his delusion of success.
“Great, hah!?” he shouted with excitement. His tone was the usual, “I’m-the-best-so-just-agree-with-me” and several designers, who weren’t throwing up from the tension… or perhaps the smell of the pies, nodded in agreement.
Luckily, I was born without an inner monologue and everything just spills out of my mouth. “That’s worse than the original pies on the package!”
Everyone froze, so, after years of making a quick save from my verbal diarrhea, I imparted some personal knowledge on the subject of food for photography. “I had a neighbor when I was growing up who was a food stylist for ads, commercials and movies. She taught me some tricks they use to make food look good for the cameras.”
This was true. My neighbor, a very talented chef, had become one of the premier food stylists in the New York area and having a big crush on her, I would hang out in her kitchen while she tried new techniques. It was fascinating stuff. If you haven’t heard about famous food ads and the tricks used, like a bowl of corn flakes with Elmer’s white glue instead of milk (milk would spoil under hot lights and the corn flakes would get soggy after a minute or two) or marbles in a bowl of soup to force the chunky pieces to the top and give a light refraction to the soup, then some tricks will blow your mind!
My neighbor invited me to several food shoots. On one, I got to carry a 20-pound turkey for her and when she pulled off the layers of tin foil and it looked mouth watering.
“I guess we’re eating turkey for lunch!” I exclaimed, because a previous shoot for spaghetti sauce led to a lunch of tons of pasta and sauce.
“If you eat this,” she laughed, “you’ll DIE!”
It wasn’t a threat to keep me away from the turkey. It was a health warning. She started to tell me how she prepared the bird for photography. Firstly, it was uncooked so it wouldn’t dry out and the skin would be stretched and broken. Although the skin had a delicious golden-brown color, it turns out it was hit with a blowtorch and a lot of airbrushing with paint. She placed the bird on a set table and started brushing it with glycerin so it would look juicy under the lights without drying out.
My neighbor whispered several secrets to me as the shoot went on, unfortunately not that she liked ushering teenage boys into manhood and it became clear that the more delicious the food, the more poisonous it was. The big challenge was when the food had to look good AND be eaten by actors.
Some other tips on food styling:
- Tobacco smoke is used to give the appearance of steam.
- Food is drowned in with hairspray to hold it in place.
- Mashed potatoes are used to look like ice cream.
- Vegetables that appear to be cooked are raw and touched with a blowtorch and coated with glycerin to make them appear cooked.
- Ice cubes are hand-carved acrylic.
- Alcoholic beverages have water added to them to make them more transparent so the backlighting will make them look more appealing and light.
There’s also the ever-tedious chore of having certain things just right. I can remember the neighbor sitting at her kitchen table, gluing sesame seeds to hamburger buns so they were perfectly balanced and sorting through a dozen boxes of cornflakes to find the biggest, unbroken flakes to fill a half dozen bowls for a photo shoot.
If you ever saw the movie “Falling Down,” starring Michael Douglas, you may remember the scene in the Whammy Burger where he orders a Whammy Burger with Cheese and then goes ballistic because the actual burger doesn’t look like the photo on the menu.
Just look at these examples of the photo vs. the actual fast food…
With all of this in mind as examples, we come back to how to make the disgusting slabs of frozen desserts look mouth-watering. I enlisted a couple of designers in the studio and we started to brainstorm about the physics of preparing some of the items for photography.
The original packaging showed the “pies,” which were 8” by 10” slabs probably cut from huge, unending rolls on conveyor belts and then machine-shoved into boxes, with the filling spilling out willy-nilly and an almost square piece of barely-baked crust sitting atop the whole mess. No golden brown color crust, no life to the fruit, no enticement to buy the product.
We separated each element into what we loved about a great dessert and how we could make it look scrumptious. Our first agreement was that we all wanted a pie to be thick and the filling to hold together, almost like a brick of sugary goodness. The crust should be a golden brown but not too dark. Flaky and light so when a fork is dug into it, the pastry would give without breaking outside the edge of the fork, giving you a bite of perfectly sized crust and filling.
The challenge was having to use the actual product and not taking a sheet of Pillsbury piecrust to use instead of the low-cost material this manufacturer used for their foods. We took a defrosted blueberry pie and started dissecting it as if we were biologists, examining an alien body from the Roswell crash… that never really happened, if you get my meaning.
The crust on top came off easily and we put it aside to concentrate on the glob of filling. We were all in agreement that we needed to build a form to the dimensions of the crust and freeze the filling for photography. We created six forms out of foam core and bought 12 more pies. We defrosted those, carefully removed the crusts, breaking about half of them and placed the survivors on separate sheets of tin foil. We spooned the melted blueberries into the forms and wrapped them in plastic and carefully boxed everything so we could meet at one of the designer’s home for the baking of the crusts and freezing of the filling.
I gave the boss the heads up that we would be ready for photography the next day and insisted he book a photographer and not use his cell phone camera. That night, we all arrived at the fellow designer’s home for the freezing and baking.
We started by baking three of the remaining six crusts. The instructions said to bake at 375 degrees for 20-25 minutes if the pie was frozen but the crusts had defrosted, so we started at four minutes. Four minutes gave the crusts a bit of puff but they were still bland-looking. We saved out three and baked the other three for another four minutes while we sat and watched the process through the oven window. The crusts came out flakier… and crumbled when we touched them. They were still fairly bland looking. We took one of the four-minute crusts and gave it two minutes in the oven. It came out a bit puffier but was still firm and bland.
After some discussion, we took the next of the three four-minute crusts and brushed it with butter, placed the oven rack as high up as it would go and gave it two minutes to bake. It was a bit more golden brown but the edges were starting to flake off. The third piece was brushed with butter and given just one minute. Not brown enough but it held together and we figured we could airbrush it in Photoshop.
The filling was chilling in the freezer, the crusts were packed and I had found some glycerin at the local drug store. The next day would tell how well we did.
I went over to the house where our pie pieces were and we placed the frozen fillings into an ice chest, picked out a tablecloth, plates, forks and cloth napkins and headed for work. We were all tired and nervous but when we saw the photographer wasn’t at the office and set up, we grew nervous as slabs of blueberries thawed.
He showed up a half hour late, throwing greetings around as if nothing was wrong and started chatting with everyone. We had worked with this photographer before and he loved to talk. A quick glare from me and the other designers excused themselves and started to arrange the table for the shoot.
The photographer set up his camera and lights, while yapping incessantly about God knows what while we started pulling frozen blueberry forms out and placing them on the bottom crusts while gingerly placing the top crusts on the frozen piles of fruit. It took a little adjusting with an Exacto knife so the crust matched the fruit form, brushing away crumbs with a watercolor brush and using a straw to blow away smaller crust dust.
We brushed the fruit with some glycerin for that juicy-look but as the photographer continued to yap on, the fruit stared melting, giving it the same look as the glycerin. I reminded him it was time to shut up and start the session. It took about half an hour of shooting, stopping to sculpt the fruit back into the form shape with a knife as it started to melt and berries threatened to fall out of place, destroying perfection.
The photos turned out nicely and with a bit of Photoshop magic, the pie slab looked like it was out of a Norman Rockwell painting. The boss patted us on the back and inferred it was all his credit for putting together such a great team. We started designing the new packaging, got the boss’ approval, created presentation boards and the boss made an appointment with the marketing manager of the manufacturer.
Unfortunately, making what has been a long story, short – the food company didn’t want their food to look too good on the packaging because it was cut-price food for cheap stores and they didn’t want consumers to be disappointed by how the product looked after they prepared it. You have to admire their honesty about it, I suppose.
So, it all was a fun but intensive learning process for a nice portfolio piece. The entire process took a full week of the studios time, the cost of the lunatic photographer and a lot of wasted cheap pies. When you are Coke or Campbell’s or McDonald’s, the investment in food stylists, material, photography and post-production magic is all worth it but if you need a quick, inexpensive shot of a burger, taco, pie or glass of beer, think of using a stock photo!