Flying Food

Roman Mars:
This is 99% Invisible. I’m Roman Mars.

TV Ad: (Mouths are watering, lemons are squeezing, and stomachs are growling.)

Roman Mars:
Of all the ads you see on TV or on billboards or on the sides of buses, an overwhelming number seems to be for food.

TV Ad: (This is our masterpiece, Boar’s Head Ovengold Turkey.)

TV Ad: (Eggs and sausage, hotcakes and butter.)

Roman Mars:
Icy Cokes in frosted glasses, fajitas sizzling on the grill.

TV Ad: (At Longhorn what’s in season matters.)

Roman Mars:
A guy biting into the perfect hamburger on a sesame seed bun.

TV Ad: (Peak ingredients, perfectly cooked.)

Roman Mars:
But of course, you know in real life these foods don’t look like they do in the ads.

McDonald’s Canada, Video Clip:
“I’m here with a question from Isabel M from Toronto, Ontario. She asks, why does your food look different in the advertising than what’s in the store? It’s a great question, Isabel. We get asked that a lot and if you want to come with me, I’m going to take you across the street and we’re going to find out a bit more. Come on.”

Roman Mars:
In 2012 McDonald’s Canada put out this video about the process they go through to photograph one of their burgers.

McDonald’s Canada, Video Clip:
“What I’m going to do is introduce you now to Noah, who’s our food stylist and here I think it’s important to note that all of the ingredients that Noah uses are the exact same ingredients that we use in the restaurant.”

Roman Mars:
The video follows food stylist, Noah, as he painstakingly selects the perfect slices of onion and pickle. He places them on the burger with tweezers and then precisely melts the cheese just so.

Noah:
“I’m just melting down the cheese with my palette knife.”

Roman Mars:
Then he picks up a plastic syringe filled with ketchup and applies it with surgical precision.

Noah:
“Maybe I’ll put mustard, ketchup… Actually ketchup, mustard, ketchup.”

Roman Mars:
Then they photograph this fancy burger and photoshop it to perfection.

Noah:
“That’s nice.”

Roman Mars:
They place a picture of a real burger just ordered at McDonald’s next to the image of this stylized burger.

Danny Lewis:
And the difference is striking.

Roman Mars:
That’s reporter Danny Lewis.

Danny Lewis:
I would like to eat the burger that Noah styled and assembled. The other one, not so much. The last 100 years or so of food advertising have been shaped by this one simple fact. Real food looks bad on camera.

Terry O’Reilly:
Shooting food and even photographing food has always been fiendishly difficult in advertising.

Danny Lewis:
This is Terry O’Reilly. For decades, he was an ad man and he now hosts a radio show about advertising called ‘Under the Influence’. Terry says the challenges of shooting food are obvious. First of all, food is boring to look at when it’s just sitting on a plate.

Terry O’Reilly:
Because food is generally static.

Danny Lewis:
Then when you subject it to the hot lights of a studio…

Terry O’Reilly:
The food starts to wilt. It’s just simple science.

Roman Mars:
And so advertisers have had to constantly walk this fine line between enhancement and fakery, trying all kinds of tricks to get food to look good.

Danny Lewis:
For the first half of the 20th century, well after photography was widely adopted, advertisers in magazines and newspapers relied heavily on illustration.

Terry O’Reilly:
The reason illustration was the preferred method was because you can completely control an illustration. In other words, there’s no lighting issues, there’s no wilting food issues. A marketer could really completely dictate what that food would look like right down to the strand of pasta with an illustrator.

Roman Mars:
Then TV came along in the 1950s and 60s and advertisers faced a whole new set of challenges.

TV Ad: (I’m going to show you how McDonald’s builds a Big Mac sandwich.)

Roman Mars:
A lot of them didn’t really understand how to shoot food in a compelling way. In this ad, the hamburger just sits there on the counter while the ingredients get piled on.

TV Ad: (It starts here with a lightly toasted bun. And then a pure beef hamburger, sizzling hot.)

Danny Lewis:
Without compelling visuals, there’d often be a voiceover just describing the hell out of the food. Listing ingredients, telling you how good it tasted.

TV Ad: (And a little more sauce just for good flavor. Crisp dill pickles and the sesame seed crown.)

Roman Mars:
These early TV ads relied on relatively static shots. Advertisers would use a wide-angle lens mounted on a camera and it might zoom in and pan a little, but that’s about it. There were lots of shots of boxes and labels. The food did just normal foodstuff.

Terry O’Reilly:
You might see something being ladled out of a pot. You might see a spoon serving peas at a dinner table or serving creamed corn at a dinner table. So that would be the extent of the motion.

Roman Mars:
On top of the new challenges of television, food advertisers in the late ‘60s found themselves facing new scrutiny. The Federal Trade Commission was keeping a close eye on TV ads following the now infamous Campbell soup incident of 1968.

Terry O’Reilly:
They were introducing a new brand of soup that had a lot of vegetables in it, but the problem is the vegetables sink to the bottom. So what they did was put a bunch of marbles in the bottom of the bowl just to hoist up the vegetables.

Danny Lewis:
When the FTC found out they threatened Campbell’s with legal action. The event led to a new push for truth in advertising.

Roman Mars:
A lot of the old tricks advertisers had relied on in the past were now off the table. No more using glue instead of milk in cereal ads. No more substituting mashed potatoes for ice cream.

Danny Lewis:
But in the 1970s food advertising took a radical turn.

Roman Mars:
Food started moving, and that opened the door to all the fancy tricks we see in ads today. Shrimp executing acrobatic flips, lobster claws cracking open in slow motion, French fries bouncing across a table.

Danny Lewis:
Food wasn’t static anymore. Food was flying, and we’ve got one man to thank for this newest aesthetic, Elbert Budin.

Harry Drennan:
He didn’t want anything stagnant. Everything was always moving. He wanted to romance the food or whatever was there in front of him.

Danny Lewis:
This is Harry Drennan who spent years working for Elbert Budin. That’s how he met his wife, set director Jackie Canto.

Jackie Canto:
I’ve been in the film business for 35 years, 40. I don’t want to say how long.

Roman Mars:
The ads that Canto and Drennan made with Budin until his death in 1996 were unprecedented. Working with clients like McDonald’s, Burger King and Coca-Cola, Budin invented a whole new visual language for food commercials and really pioneered the genre of advertising known as tabletop.

Danny Lewis:
Many of the terms and techniques that tabletop directors still use date back to Budin.

Roman Mars:
For example, the prep shot, which tells the backstory of the product, showing all that goes into making the food. You know the ones. Chopping a crisp pad of lettuce, dicing some juicy red tomatoes.

Jackie Canto:
He would make these elaborate banquet things of raw ingredients and that was his look.

Danny Lewis:
And crave shots. That’s when the camera zooms way in and lingers on some tantalizing bite of food on the end of a fork.

Jackie Canto:
Sexy in a way. It’s almost food porn. It made it all real tactile to you.

Danny Lewis:
And the hero shot, a last magnificent look at the food on the plate, ready to eat. Usually in the final seconds of the advertisement.

Roman Mars:
Budin’s big breakthrough was that he didn’t just describe the food and promise viewers it tasted good. He made them feel actual hunger with his images.

Jackie Canto:
His real thing is just food in itself, its essence is real essential. You know what I mean? If you see a hamburger commercial, you really want to eat a hamburger and that’s the point of it and I think that’s what he introduced. And you’ll never see it any other way now.

Danny Lewis:
Canto and Drennan remember working long days and sometimes long nights to meet Budin’s high standards. And to achieve his vision of flying food and mouthwatering closeups, they had to use a whole bunch of crazy tools.

Roman Mars:
Like giant high-speed cameras that would burn through 1,000 feet of film in seconds and make a ton of noise.

Jackie Canto:
They started shooting and it was like (mimics sound of film rolling)… It’s just this, all day long. It was something.

Roman Mars:
These cameras were originally designed for the military to film rocket tests.

Harry Drennan:
It was used for ballistics, but we were the first ones to do it with food.

Danny Lewis:
Thanks to these cameras, Budin could achieve super slow-motion effects. He’d take a split second of time and luxuriate in it. He’d have oranges splashed through a sheet of water. Condensation would drip down the side of a bottle.

Roman Mars:
In order to get the perfect take, Budin started designing strange Rube Goldberg sort of machines to help him get the job done. These contraptions were called rigs. They range from simple spouts for liquid to machines that would drop pancakes into a perfect stack to catapults that would fling oranges across the studio.

Danny Lewis:
And sure, the production team could have just thrown the oranges by hand. But with a rig, they could get the exact same results over and over, which meant fewer takes, which meant less time and less money spent. It also meant that they could achieve a certain level of precision and artistry.

Harry Drennan:
It was so much prettier than other people’s work as far as I could see. He was beautiful at lighting and then with once he got into all of the movement, I mean he was ahead of the curve.

Director: (Lights, roll scene. Ready and action. No, missed it. Try it again.)

Roman Mars:
To see how Budin’s techniques are still being used today, Danny went to MacGuffin Films in New York. MacGuffin does commercials for Red Lobster, Olive Garden, Starbucks and a bunch of other restaurants. The day Danny was there, they were shooting a chicken sandwich.

Danny Lewis:
“So they are shooting a chicken sandwich. Hero shot it looks like on a black slate with a little tray of chili peppers and garlic and stuff.”

Roman Mars:
A hand model stands near the edge of the table where the sandwich is displayed.

Danny Lewis:
“So now they’re doing the crowning.”

Roman Mars:
Crowning means the hand model takes the bun and puts it on top of the sandwich. Just presses it there alluringly and then takes the crown off.

Danny Lewis:
“In between shots, a guy comes on with a fan brush to brush any crumbs off the top of the chicken.”

Roman Mars:
Then the crown goes back on again.

Director: (Would you mind just topping the crown back on the sandwich please?)

Danny Lewis:
It took them all day to film this sandwich. The whole shoot, precisely orchestrated, relying on highly technical tools.

Roman Mars:
Downstairs in MacGuffin’s prop room, there are all sorts of rigs sitting in storage, a lot like the ones that Budin developed.

Danny Lewis:
But these are way more high tech. Riggers today use lasers and sensors and preprogrammed motors. And depending on the shot or the rig, there can be some intense physics to take into account. Like if you’re trying to slice an onion in two while it’s flying through the air.

Anthony DiRobertis:
We break down the elements. So we know we’ve got to get an onion to a certain height.

Danny Lewis:
This is Anthony DiRobertis. He’s a special effects technician at MacGuffin Films and he designed a special rig just to get this shot.

Anthony DiRobertis:
Everything is computer-controlled. So when the onion’s in the right spot, these two sharp knives come through, split the onion and leave you with the slice down the middle.

Danny Lewis:
And slices of onion artfully tumbling across a table, classic prep shot.

Roman Mars:
But while Budin may have introduced rigs and action to tabletop, some directors like MacGuffin’s Nick Fugelstad are trying to get away from Budin’s fantastical dreamscapes of flying shrimp and oranges.

Nick Fugelstad:
I think that’s a little bit of an older point of view.

Danny Lewis:
For Nick Fugelstad, the idealized images of food that Budin tried to bring to his ads just don’t cut it in a world that’s now totally saturated with food porn. While Budin’s commercials often zoomed in so close to food that you couldn’t see the space around it, tabletop directors like Fugelstad now frame their food in a space that you might see out in the world, like at a restaurant or a barbecue.

Nick Fugelstad:
You know when you dig into a lasagna, do you want the sauce to go all over the place? When you eat a taco, is stuff going to fall out? Yeah so let’s shoot that. Let the flavors mix. It’s all right. It’s what tastes good.

Danny Lewis:
But the thing to remember is this, on the set of a food commercial, everything, everything is highly orchestrated and contrived. Even if the ultimate effect feels somewhat natural.

Roman Mars:
Because a 30 second TV spot by a firm like MacGuffin can cost literally hundreds of thousands of dollars. So it’s got to do one thing to make it all worthwhile. Sell a lot of food.

Terry O’Reilly:
I would say the number one rule in food advertising is that the first taste is always with the eyes. So you’re trying to create a shot that makes somebody salivate.

Roman Mars:
This is Terry O’Reilly again and he’s fascinated by the lengths people go to sell something. He tells a story about working on a commercial for a hamburger company and watching an actor do take after take, biting into a hamburger and then gazing into the camera with a look of total satisfaction on his face.

Terry O’Reilly:
Then you cut and then there’s this spit pail right beside the actor. And then they just spit it right into the pail. Cut, spit. And you watch that happen 40 times or 30 times or 20 and it’s so hilarious to me. Just the mechanics of advertising. The illusion and the reality of creating it, that’s exactly it in a nutshell.

  1. Stacey

    A college friend did a Coca-cola commercial in the mid-80s. He had to guzzle a glistening bottle of Coke, take after take. The outside of the bottle glistened with Vaseline, and the busy bubbles inside were enhanced with added salt. Yuck.
    Thanks for another great episode of my favorite podcast!

  2. David Root

    I abhor the perfect, stylized photos in ads and on menu boards. Even though I know this is the case, I am supremely disappointed to order a taco, pictured fairly overflowing with their meat-like filling, only to find a scant tablespoon of “beef” filling, and a quarter pound of shredded lettuce stuffed into a broken tortilla shell.

    I’m always tempted to return it and complain, but I know the staffers have no say in such matters, and that I would be told that the pictures are only a suggestion.

  3. What this piece doesn’t get to is, Flying food may well have generated the taking of pictures in restaurants with smartphones of what you’re served, as a backlash.

    I know there have been theories about such restaurant photos as being artifacts of conspicuous consumption. But as someone who does this often, I don’t see it that way. I see it more as a truth in advertising service. “You know those glossy pictures you see in the ads and the menus of this stuff? Yeah, forget all that… here’s what it really looks like when it’s served to you on the table.”

    I don’t think I’m alone.

    I also don’t think taking photos of food in the “wild” is all that difficult. Here are two sets of my own attempts:

    http://obrien.photography/?cat=6
    https://www.yelp.com/user_local_photos?userid=n63DuYF4_hw9bWz3KHi53g

    I’m sure there are people who’ll disagree. That’s what the internet is for, after all. But I’ll bet they are fewer than those who are taking pictures, even as I write this.

  4. Bill Curren

    “Back in the day…” and why Budin and others were so great was because everything had to be done “in camera”, no post clear up or multiple background passes to fix/remove rigging. That’s why the stuff was, literally, “Magic”!

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