In commercials, food looks delectable. Your hamburger even looks much more appetizing than when you open the fast food restaurant's box. How do you portray something so tempting? And: is the burger from the commercial really the real thing?
The filmmakers work with large quantities of food: only the best leaves of lettuce are good.
‘Three, two, one,’ counts down special effects assistant Inge van Heezik. ‘Keng!’ A hamburger, a slice of cheese, strips of bacon, slices of tomato and onion rings fall down. There, after the landing, they form a sad pile of food. The cheese even flattens on the floor. Finally, the nicely brown toasted top of a bun plops onto the pile. “The burger fell just too far to the left,” says special-effects supervisor Willem van Muijden. He filmed the food fall with his telephone and is playing the recording again. The meat slice bounced back up after landing, the video shows, and in the process touched the bacon. With that, the bacon launched the onion and tomato. “And the lettuce falls too long. The vegetable catches a lot of air. ‘This lettuce looks like a parachute,’ Van Muij- den observes. ‘This makes the bun stick above the lettuce. Last time we had different lettuce.’ The goal of this exercise: to make a video in which you see the ingredients falling down, so that they pile up into a tasty hamburger bun. It seems an almost impossible task.
No room for spots
Tssssj. We’re at Chuck Studios. Among other things, they filmed commercials with crackling cookies from Verkade and steaming coffee from L’Or. But now the smell of meat sizzling in the pan wafts from the kitchen. The studio is happy to demonstrate the production of a slick food commercial.
The first surprise this afternoon: when you see a hamburger commercial on TV, you actually see a real burger, not a fake one. ‘In a real shoot, McDonald’s sends us as many burgers as we want,’ says director Kristy Snell. Even the buns are the real thing. And the greens? ‘Normally we hire a food stylist,’ says Snell. Such a stylist specializes in making food look beautiful. Today we do it without a stylist, but with a lot of light, camera, and action.
The onion rings and tomato slices are already in place. “A food stylist wouldn’t be satisfied with an onion ring like that,” Snell stresses. She points out an ugly spot on the slice. ‘What they do is cut a lot of onions, and then take out those few good-looking rings for the shot.’ That’s also the method for coming up with the perfect slice of tomato. “Then only the slices from the ‘equator’ of the tomato are useful. The same goes for bacon slices and browned rolls: if you want to shine, make sure you have large numbers and choose the best ones. ‘From a head of lettuce, sometimes only two leaves are good enough.’ Snell runs her finger along some brown edges at the ends of the leaves. Fortunately, there’s a greengrocer nearby for extra supplies of extras. Shouldn’t there still be a glimmer on the star of the video? ‘You can spray some water on them,’ Van Muijden tips. ‘But we don’t do that with the burger drop, because then the splatters fly around.
Rather do it yourself
The burger drop, which is a special installation Van Muijden built to create a shot of a burger whose ingredients fall from the sky one by one, piling up into a burger that makes your mouth water. Chuck Studios is not the first food film company, Snell admits. “I did look at how others did it,” Van Muijden says. For example, there are Willie Wortels who lay ingredients on top of each other on tightly stretched rubber bands. A press on the button and scissors or blades cut through them so that the food sizzles down. But such an installation does not meet the list of requirements Van Muijden has hanging in his workshop. The setups he makes must be super- precise, it says. The installation must be adjustable and mega- sturdy. We are in a studio here, so the design must not block light. It has to look “sexy dope” according to the list, and you have to be able to quickly get the setup ready for another try.
The latter in particular is a problem if you use rubber bands, Van Muijden says. You would have to stretch new ones for every attempt. ‘And the rubber bands shoot through the image. You then have to brush them away frame by frame in the edit, which takes a lot of time.’ But perhaps most importantly, the tinkerer would much rather come up with something himself. Something that works better than what already exists.
Cheese has star power
Van Muijden made small liggers out of Plexiglas, one above the other, on which he lays the ingredients for the hamburger for another try. A sudden blast of air in a pneumatic cylinder lowers the beams very quickly. Five thousandths of a second after that comes a second blast of air. That makes the girders shoot away to the right. ‘First let
Often there are only a few days to build a setup.
I only let them move to the right,’ Van Muijden explains. ‘But then the ingredients stay down and shoot off to the right along with them.’ So first down a bit, so that the beams quickly disappear under the food, then
racing to the right. It was a lot of work and programming to get the rig to move just right.
Unfortunately, the setup is not yet working perfectly. The cheese in particular is proving to be a problem child. Yes, slices of cheese are very similar and thus more interchangeable than onion rings. But the cheese slices are all equally petulant. They stick somewhat to the girder. That explains why the cheese landed on the ground during the first attempt. It can be seen on the video on Van Muijdens phone. When the beam under the tomato, for example, moves down and to the right, the red slices hang in a vacuum and then whizz down. But the sliced cheese moves along with the beam, first downward, then to the right and then still with an arc on the ground.
Aligning with the laser
To get the cheese in line, the filmers brush some cornstarch on it in the kitchen. Hopefully it will stick less. Van Muijden, meanwhile, tweaks his setup. He moves the tray for the top bun up a bit. That way the slow-falling lettuce and the faster roll will no longer meet in the air. If they come down at exactly the same time, the lettuce leaf can no longer slow down the roll. At the spot where the bottom half of the roll will be ready to catch the rest, Van Muijden places a laser. It shines straight up. He puts the top half of the roll on the highest plateau. The red dot of the laser appears in the middle. Then a new leaf of lettuce on the shelf below, with the dot of the laser in the middle. And so it continues down, with the onions and tomato. The cheese stays in the kitchen for a while, “I do that one last,” Van Muijden says. ‘If the weather-barred stuff sits on the setup too long, the beam forms an imprint in the cheese, and that’s not pretty.
Crew eats stars
‘Three, two, one,’ Van Heezik counts down again. A compressor snorts to deliver the necessary eight-bar air pressure. At the push of a button, Van Heezik lets the air shoot into the cylinders. Flop, the burger ingredients gurgle on the work surface. “The bacon and cheese go well,” is Snell’s optimistic view. Unfortunately, the hamburger fell to the left again and the tomato, onion, lettuce and bun landed just to the right. How many attempts does it take Van Muijden to get a good shot? “About four, on a shoot day,” he replies. So few? But then we had already done endless tests the day before. It’s all about millimeters and milliseconds.’
On the big day, things had better go a little smoothly. There are already six people working for today’s demonstration; on a turning day there are even more. ‘This is still just a small team,’ says Snell. Besides the director, the special-effects supervisor and his assistant, there is, of course, a need for someone who is about the filming, the director of photography. The gaffer takes care of the lighting, along with an assistant, the best boy. The director also has an assistant, who normally counts down and keeps track of the schedule. There is a food stylist and there is an operator who operates the camera. This is not an ordinary camera, Van Muijden explains. “It records a thousand frames per second. By comparison, a motion picture plays at 24 frames per second. The camera is a piece of state-of-the-art technology that is used in research into bullet impacts or in car crash tests, for example.
Keng! Attempt three. Unfortunately. Flops, even the fourth test does not give the hoped-for result. The food is again everywhere. ‘All sorts of things are going wrong,’ Van Muijden observes. He has a lot of tweaking to do before the stars do what he wants. That it is possible, we all saw in the commercials. And in the end the filmmakers win anyway. Because yes, afterwards the crew gets to eat the actors.