Grilled Chicken, That Temperamental Star
By DAVID SEGAL
THE sauce will not behave.
It is supposed to drip twice, on cue, from the bottom right-hand corner of a forkful of tortellini — first as the fork is lifted above the plate and, second, after the fork pauses briefly in the air and starts to rise again.
Two drips. A sequence that lasts a second and a half, tops.
A dozen men at MacGuffin Films, a studio in Manhattan, are struggling to capture this moment. For more than an hour one recent afternoon, they huddle around a table rimmed with enormous stage lights, fussing over a casserole as if it’s a movie star getting primped for a close-up.
“Lights. Roll. Action. Drip!” shouts Michael Somoroff, a veteran commercial director who has shot television ads for Red Lobster, Burger King, Papa John’s and dozens of other fast-food and casual-dining chains. A specialist in the little-known world of tabletop directing — named for the piece of furniture where most of the work is set — Mr. Somoroff is hired to turn the most mundane and fattening staples of the American diet into luscious objects of irresistible beauty.
If you watch television, you’ve seen his work, and the work of the five or six other major players in this micro-niche of advertising. These men — yes, they’re all men — make glossy vignettes that star butter-soaked scallops and glistening burgers. Their cameras swirl around fried chicken, tunnel through devil’s food cake and gape as soft-serve cones levitate and spin.
Few outside the business know their names. But given the more than $4 billion in television air time bought by restaurant chains and food conglomerates each year, these directors arguably have some of the widest exposure of any commercial artists in the country. In a typical week, tens of millions of viewers see their work.
“Aside from movie directors,” Mr. Somoroff says during a break in shooting, “I don’t know anyone with an audience as large as mine.”
On this particular afternoon, he is filming a commercial for a chain that did not want to see its name in this article. And you can sort of understand why. If you’ve ever been to a restaurant and thought, “This does not look like the dish in the ad,” here’s the irony: The dish in the ad doesn’t look like the dish in the ad, either.
This casserole shot, for instance, is an elaborate tango of artifice, technology and timing. The steam wafting over the dish comes not from the food, but from a stagehand crouched under a table with the kind of machine that unwrinkles trousers.
The hint of Alfredo sauce that appears when the fork emerges from the pasta? That’s courtesy of tubes hidden in the back of the dish and hooked to what look like large hypodermic needles. Moments before each take, Mr. Somoroff yells, “Ooze!” That tells the guy with the needles, standing just outside of the frame, to start pumping.
As for that quarrelsome drip from the fork, it is the responsibility of Anthony DeRobertis, a special-effects rigger who holds his own hypodermic of sauce and is having a hard time synching with a hand model, a young man with a military haircut who is clutching the fork.
“Anthony, the second drip is about 10 minutes after the shot is over,” says Mr. Somoroff after five or six takes, sounding faintly annoyed.
“I’m right on it,” Mr. DeRobertis says.
“You’re on it, but it’s not dripping when it has to drip.”
A break is called and a tube is attached to Mr. DeRobertis’s sauce injector, which is then taped near the bottom tine of the fork, in a way that’s invisible to Mr. Somoroff’s immense Photo-Sonics camera.
Sauce and fork are finally in unison. After a few more tries, Mr. Somoroff has a take he likes enough to show to reps from the client and its ad agency, a group of whom are waiting in a nearby room that is decked out with a large high-definition TV. The pasta appears moist, the steam organic and the minuet of drip and hand nothing more than a diner on the verge of a blissful bite.
“I make my living basically taking food and painting a reality with it,” says Mr. Somoroff, leaning back in a chair in his office as the team preps another set-up. “And if I succeed in a given moment, you’re going to go buy that dish because you’re going to identify with the experience we’ve created. To do that with something as banal as food is the challenge. I mean, it’s easy to go out and shoot a beautiful sunset or a beautiful girl. They’re beautiful, O.K.?”
He gestures toward the middle of the studio.
“I’ve got a noodle over here.”
THIS is a good moment to be a tabletop director in the big leagues, particularly if you specialize in food. Low- and mid-priced chain restaurants are one of the few segments of the economy that decided, during the recession and in its aftermath, to spend as much or more on advertising than they did in the years before.
Fast-food, casual-dining and pizza chains, as well as what are lumped together as “doughnut and coffee restaurants,” spent $300 million more on TV ads in 2010 than they did in 2007, according to Kantar Media, a market research firm. If patterns hold, the numbers will be even larger this year.
“Generally speaking, restaurant chains spend about 3 percent of revenue on advertising,” says Michael Gallo, an analyst at C. L. King & Associates. “Because these restaurant systems are large and have density, television is an easy way to reach customers in a cost-effective way.”
And any restaurant chain that forswears TV ads is in serious trouble.
“If you come off television, when your sales dip, it takes a long time to get them back to where they were before stopped advertising,” says Michael Branigan, vice president for marketing at Sizzler. “There are a ton of studies that show this. You lose brain share of your customers, and it is expensive to get revenues up again. If I stopped advertising, Sizzler’s revenue would be down, minimally, 10 to 15 percent for the year.”
Typically, companies use television commercials to introduce new products or to remind consumers about old ones. Regardless, the goal is the same: show the product, and do it in a way that makes people want to eat the TV.
Tabletop directors don’t handle the part of the ad where the family walks into the restaurant, or where Mom looks for a whisk. That’s farmed out to someone else. But say you’re the Checkers chain and you want to unveil “Chicken Bites,” a fried-chicken offering. You need to distinguish these “poppable” treats from a few dozen others on the market. And you need to give a hint of what they taste like.
“It’s breaded, seasoned chicken, so to the naked eye you can’t really tell,” said Kris Miotke, senior director of marketing at Checkers. “The question was, How do you define a fun, bite-size product in a way that shows both the inside and the outside?”
How about a hand tearing open a Chicken Bite? “Me, personally, I don’t want hands in my shot. I want the food to speak for itself.”
To solve this problem — how to create a hands-free, fried-chicken reveal, if you will — Checkers hired Michael Schrom. For 11 years, he has worked in 16,000 square feet of space in Silvercup Studios in Long Island City, Queens, in the same building where “30 Rock,” “Gossip Girl” and other shows are filmed. Nearly all his clients sell food or beverages, among them Domino’s, McDonald’s, Applebee’s and Smucker’s.
“That took about 40 takes,” says Mr. Schrom of the Chicken Bites shot. There was no sleight of hand; each bite was cut open, pushed back together, then dropped on a table. The goal was to see moist white meat when it bounced.
“It’s far harder to get a cookie break with chocolate chips,” Mr. Schrom says. “We went through 100 cookies for Nestlé’s on one shoot. We knew when we got it because we could hear the clients in the other room, applauding.”
Mr. Schrom has the eyeglasses of an architect and the relaxed, contented air of a man highly entertained by his job. On this day, he is filming for a national chain — one that also requested anonymity — capturing what he calls “flavor cues.” In one shot, a stagehand pours chocolate syrup over a sheet of caramel. (You can almost hear a voiceover purring, “Chocolate.”) In another, cream bubbles up in a cup of coffee. In real time, these moments barely register. In slow-motion playbacks, with a digital camera that shoots up to 1,600 frames a second, the images are almost erotic. Which is no accident.
“You’re using the same part of your brain — porn, food,” Mr. Schrom says during a break. “It’s going in the same section; it’s that visual cortex that connects to your most basic senses. What we’re trying to do is be the modern-day Pavlovs and ring your bell with these images.”
He has several food stylists who work in a huge kitchen next to his set. They start with the very same food and recipes used in the restaurants and stores.
In part, this is a truth-in-advertising issue. Everyone knows that in 1970, the Federal Trade Commission settled a complaint against the Campbell Soup Company after its ad agency slipped marbles into a bowl in ads featuring its vegetable soup, apparently to force more veggies to the surface. That put a scare into the industry that endures to this day.
Anything that flatters the food, of course, is fair game, and that includes gimmicks you’re unlikely to find in a fridge. Glue is used to keep spaghetti on forks and pizzas in place. The ice in a beverage might be made of acrylic and cost $500 a cube. The frost coming off a beer could be a silicone gel, mixed with powder and water.
The difference between enhancement and fakery, though, becomes a little murky, and some directors tiptoe right up to, and well past, the marbles-in-the-soup line. If thetomatoes in a client’s red wine reduction aren’t visible, some fresh ones may be sliced up and tossed in. On rare occasions, the food you see on screen is merely a facsimile of the product.
“We used lard and Karo syrup for an ice cream client,” says David Deahl, a tabletop director in Chicago. “The lights we have melt the product so quickly that it’s impossible to make ice cream look like ice cream. So we got permission from our client to fake it.”
That’s a rarity. Mr. Deahl and other directors say they expend far more effort making the food look authentic than they do glamorizing it. The risk is overpromising, a topic that comes up a lot on sets.
“It’s all about a certain approachability,” Mr. Somoroff says. “If it looks too good, consumers are going to think it isn’t real.”
Great tabletop directors are like makeup artists who want their models to look ravishing, but in a girl-next-door way. Plausibly scrumptious — that is the ideal. Find that sweet spot, and clients say a campaign can bump up revenue 5 to 10 percent the weekend after the ads start to run.
UNTIL the early 1970s, most TV commercials for food and drink were static, shot with a zoomed-in, wide-angle lens mounted on a camera that didn’t move. Then came Elbert Budin, a former still-life magazine photographer, who set up a studio not far from Penn Station in Midtown Manhattan; his pet finches had the run of the place. He used micro lenses placed two inches from the product, close enough to see individual droplets on a soda can. With the help of a mini jib, he would swing the camera in graceful arcs.
“Before him, tabletop was just’ shoot the box, shoot the label,’ ” says Santiago Suarez, who worked with Mr. Budin for six years before setting off on a successful tabletop career of his own. “Elbert wanted the product to have a three-dimensional feel. He wanted you to smell it.”
If tabletop has a vocabulary, Mr. Budin coined many of the words. He popularized prep shots (a kind of back story for the product, typically ingredients being chopped), crave shots (self-explanatory) and hero shots (a glorifying farewell look at the product, usually in the last few seconds of the ad).
And it is from Mr. Elbert that we get one of the lasting visual tropes of American advertising: flying food. Ever since he launched an orange through a thin sheet of water for Sunkist — showing in gorgeous slow motion the hole left by the fruit — everything that you can put in your mouth and store in a pantry has been hurtling through the air.
“Food has to be in motion to have character,” says Alex Fernbach, another Budin acolyte, who now works at Arf & Company, a studio in Hoboken, N.J. “It gives food a personality.”
It also gives prop men a challenge. Like Ed Fountain, who builds food-tossing devices in a large, cluttered workshop in Mr. Schrom’s studio.
“We recently did a shot where this doughnut was tumbling through the air and through a curtain of sugar,” he said. As he spoke, he reached under a table and brought out a pair of matching, foot-and-a-half-long black catapults, powered by air cylinders, which he’d originally built for a Long John Silver’s commercial in which shrimp collided.
“I put the doughnut in here,” he says, pointing to the end of one catapult. “And I had it strike a paintbrush to get it tumbling. Then I connected it to a device that bumped a table and sent up the sugar right as the doughnut passed through.”
You could throw the doughnut by hand, he explained. But with a rig, as everyone in this industry calls these little Rube Goldbergs, you get the exact same results, over and over, which means fewer takes.
Fewer takes means less time — and time is always in short supply these days. Most directors charge by the day, with fees starting at $60,000 and reaching as high as $150,000. But clients who a few years ago would be content with one or two good shots in a day now want five or six.
“The era of the prima donna tabletop director is over,” Mr. Deahl says. “There was a time when a client would say ‘I don’t like this shot,’ and a director would throw them out of the studio. Those guys are out of business. The economics of today — we have to squeeze three days of shooting into two and four days into three, for the same dollars.”
Mr. Deahl recently finished a two-week shoot for Subway, in which 25 shots were filmed in seven days.
“Everything has to be perfect and approved by the client all along the way,” he said. “The clients march into the kitchen and bless the way the sandwich looks, then we take it to the set for rehearsals. The rehearsals are previewed, and the client passes judgment again. Seven people, looking at a sandwich, saying things like: ‘There’s a hole here. Move that piece of meat.’ ”
THE studio at MacGuffin Films, on the first floor of a nondescript office building near Astor Place in Manhattan, has been home to some canny feats of visual theater. It has served as the setting for Olive Garden’s training kitchen in Italy as well as Burger King’s grill. Once, for a seafood restaurant, a huge water tank was installed, complete with fish and a coral reef.
But, a few weeks ago, the crew here faced what sounds like its most daunting mission yet: to make “pizza pasta” look yummy.
Pizza pasta, it turns out, is just what it sounds like: pasta covered with mozzarella cheese, pepperoni, sausage, peppers. Never heard of it? Hope to avoid it? O’Charley’s, a casual dining chain with more than 200 restaurants, mostly in the Southeast, wants to change that.
“It’ll be one of our ‘eight under $8’ dishes in January,” says Laurie Katapski, O’Charley’s director of marketing, who is standing near MacGuffin’s huge kitchen one afternoon. “We look at food trends, we do concept screening, we field-test our products with customers and pizza pasta rose to the top.”
Nearby, Mary Divett, a food stylist with a British accent, tweezes slices of pepperoni into place on top of the dish. Then she spears the platonic ideal of a fork of pizza pasta and glues it in place.
The dish is eventually passed to a stagehand, who heats up the mozzarella and welds it to the noodles on the fork, using what looks like an industrial hair dryer. A hero shot is being set up, and not just any hero shot.
“It’s a cheese pull,” Anthony DeRobertis says, using the term of art for hot cheese in motion. “They’re really difficult when it comes to pizza because every company has a different idea of how many cheese bridges there should be. It can take hours to get it right.”
The O’Charley’s cheese pull is less time-consuming. For 45 minutes, Mr. Somoroff shuttles between the set and the room where Ms. Katapski and her colleagues await the film footage. The key is getting the exact amount of cheese to stretch and give way, along with a little bit of motion on the surface of the dish, so the other noodles don’t look paralyzed. Then again, too much motion makes the shot look fake.
It takes a while, but the O’Charley’s contingent and Mr. Somoroff finally like what they see.
“I like the sloppiness of this one,” says Ms. Katapski, as a cheese pull plays in a loop on a TV screen.
“It’s pretty, yeah,” chimes an ad rep.
“Plenty of appetite appeal,” adds another.
“Pizza pasta!” someone yells, triumphantly.