Tabletop: What Does it Take to Make Mouths Water and Fingers Itch?
In today’s hyper-visual culture, brands marketing their food and drink products must consider their visuals more seriously than ever before. Vast improvements in camera quality and accessibility to nifty image-editing apps have made it possible, in theory, for anyone with a smartphone to create drool-inducing content. As a result, competition for consumers’ eyeballs (and appetites) is at an all-time high as brands vie for precious space on our social feeds.
Making mouths water through smartphones and TV screens at a professional level requires a precise art and science. Whether you’re watching glossy red tomatoes being tossed in a sizzling pan or rich velvety chocolate being stirred to perfection, the visceral reaction these visuals evoke are the result of painstaking precision by tabletop experts.
“Most of the time when you see food in an ad, it’s not quite what it seems,” comments Park Village's producer Pete Ryan, who has been producing tabletop commercials for over a decade. “People tend to assume you can capture the perfect shot in just two or three takes, but it doesn’t work like that. You have to remember that food isn’t an actor – each product behaves in its own unique way and it’s not always the way you’d expect. For example, I’ve been on shoots where the creatives have written for a chocolate cake to ooze when cut into – but it didn’t. To capture the right shots, you need to be equipped in advance with quick-thinking and an encyclopaedic know-how of the tricks of the tabletop trade.”
Crucially, Pete identifies one ingredient you can’t do without: “Time is by far the most important consideration, yet often the most overlooked. Hours can be spent resetting and reshooting food because it doesn’t rise or move right. To make sure brands and agencies aren’t wasting precious time and resources on set, it’s important to work with the right director, production team, and food stylist who know the food inside out. The best tabletop experts research the product weeks in advance – vigorously testing how well it lasts under the lights, what combination of foods work well together and what doesn’t, when to use a model, and when to use a fake liquid to get the viscosity of the liquid just right. This level of insight takes years to accrue.”
London based production company and film and photographic studios, Park Village, has been crafting culinary perfection for brands for years – recently including Shreddies, Glenlivet, Lidl and Tesco. While the production company may be better known for its 45-year heritage of shooting commercials, music videos, branded content and photoshoots, 10,000 sq. ft Victorian heritage building has had reems of content flowing through its studio space.
While the team has cooked up hundreds of tabletop commercials, no two shoots are the same, says Pete. “It’s imperative to keep abreast of the latest visual trends and technology to create relevant and effective tabletop content. 10 years ago, it was all about showing off the product in glorious slo-mo shots, but now there’s a strong shift towards capturing real, fresh food that moves naturally. Beautiful, controlled food will always remain relevant, but ‘honesty’ and ‘believability’ are recurring more and more in the briefs we’re getting. People want to see convenient and achievable food that they can recreate at home. There’s far more focus on the social aspect of the food and the lifestyle of the people who consume it.”
To those unfamiliar with the process, capturing food in a natural and less stylised way may sound like less work but the lack of control actually makes it a more challenging production, reveals Pete: “Fresh food spoils faster so you have to have a deep understanding of how different food reacts in different production settings. Technology has of course really helped because you can now use lights that don’t generate as much heat as before, making the food last a bit longer. Nevertheless, the tech is still only as good as the cameraman and director you’re working with – especially if you want premium-looking content.”
All over adland, content-creators are navigating how to reconcile brands’ rising demand for higher-volume content with tighter timelines and harder-working budgets. How do tabletop experts navigate this without compromising on quality? “Clients need more material than ever before and as a result, the value of time has become escalated significantly,” comments Peter. “Brands can’t afford to underestimate the unpredictable nature of tabletop and make costly mistakes on-set. From a production standpoint, it’s about maintaining an obsessive attention to detail. Whether you’re shooting a full-service commercial, shooting cookery lessons with Delia Smith in the studio, or shooting a tin of beans – having pride in your work and making sure the food looks and feels right is key.”