This Video Will Make You Hungry
Thomas Moore (2008)
If hanging from a ceiling, drizzling sauce on a plate will avoid heavy shadows during a shoot, that is exactly what David Shalleck is prepared to do.
Shalleck, an accomplished chef, food stylist, culinary producer and award-winning author recently spoke with 411 Publishing to discuss his short HD video entitled “Hungry 4 More.” The tantalizing title illustrates the desire to film, to see more food filmed, and the 4K resolution of the piece.
411: Have you found you’ve had to incorporate different materials, or use different approaches, when shooting food with an HD camera?
David Shalleck: I didn’t realize, especially in getting as tight as we did, just how clear the image would be. Going forward, I’ll pass over everything with a magnifying glass before putting it on set. We were using the Red One digital camera, and that camera picks up EVERYTHING! A little speck when captured in a close-up suddenly becomes a boulder. There are certain tools you need in order to grab at elements without disrupting the food. You almost need dentistry tools. Then, you have lighting synchs. When you’re tight on drops and drizzles, you have to know how the light is reflecting off them because it reflects like a window surface. It’s no longer just a drizzle that you see with less resolution or a little farther away. We’d like to shoot spreads, slices, and sizzles next because they will provide ethereal moments that can make the flat screen edible.
411: Have you found that you’ve had to handle food differently to avoid on-screen blemishes?
DS: Oh most definitely! Latex gloves have to be on; the shopping becomes a little more scrupulous. There’s training that has to occur prior to shooting with the back kitchen staff. This lets them know what’s happening when those cameras are rolling so they’ll be clear about the choices they make when they take food from the refrigerator. We don’t have time when we’re on set to pull little pieces of dirt out of the roots of the leek. The camera’s going to get high and tight on that; it’s a good shot and there’s a lot of texture. Seeing little pieces of dirt is not going to be friendly. I usually don’t use ground black pepper in tight HD shots as well because it just looks like dark specks. People might think the lens is dirty. The other thing is dealing with bowls of ingredients for set decorating. The camera is reading that bowl really sharp and the contents need to be looked at a littler harder. Even the items far upstage are clear so it changes the way you think about where and how you are placing things.
The flip side is it’s food. It’s not plastic, and if it looks too perfect then there is a surreal quality to it. It becomes the photogenic versus the real, and what’s acceptable for your shoot. I don’t mind a little blemish on a lemon; it shows that it’s a real lemon. But again, if the shot’s high and tight, that could look like a crater.
411: What were some of the decisions made during your shoot as you were seeing food in such an extreme close up on such high definition?
DS: What you see on the video (Hungry 4 More) started out even tighter and it got to the point that it didn’t look like food anymore. It started looking goopy and brown, as if you are going into some dark cave with stalagmites. That could be interesting for the sci-fi vision of food but I wanted to have succulent, appetizing ‘for the now’ food. I had a conversation with the directors of photography, Anthony S. Lenzo and Dominick Ciardiello, and discussed what the vision should be and how readable the food should be. Lenzo, an underwater photographer, will go into the crevasses of a coral reef and pull back and show the whole reef. That was a good analogy for certain types of food. When I looked at his fantastic reel, I thought “If he can do with food what he did in the tropics, oh, what a home run!”
411: In knowing the difficulties of shooting in HD, do you feel that you staff the shoot differently?
DS: Yes and no. I usually give a little training session prior to big shoots. Even having that opportunity to get ten minutes of test time in the production schedule as part of the rehearsals is really helpful for the back kitchen or other crew to see what’s going on. The other thing I do is that I have a little second staging area that’s next to the set. This is the final spot for something that’s completely finished, where the magnifying glass phase takes place. In my hiring I find I just need that extra awareness and common sense. I’m looking for people with really good knife skills!
411: How did shooting food with HD affect pre-production?
DS: When we shot “Hungry 4 More,” there were actually two other food segments that were testers, dress rehearsals just to get used to the process. I found it was difficult for me to physically get in close; there was so much gear around the food. It was hard for me to do the drizzles. There were also a lot of issues with shadows getting in that close. I told the DPs it would actually be easier to hang me from the ceiling. I could drizzle from up there and not be in anybody’s way. It would work. I guess I would be hanging virtually upside down, but what ever it takes.
411: What came first for you: were you a chef that took on food styling or where you a food stylist first who became a chef?
DS: I’d say it’s been a leap frog between the two. When I was very young, I was glued to Graham Kerr’s “The Galloping Gourmet” on television. Glued!! I didn’t grow up in a gourmet family by any means. My father was a director of children’s television. Being around the studio was something I grew up with. I went to college as an art major. In freshmen design classes I was working on massive, room-sized projects. The instructor suggested that I go to the drama department and think about becoming a set designer. That’s what I did.
To make a little bit of a living I worked in restaurants. One summer I worked at the River Café in Brooklyn Heights which, at that time, was part of the American food revolution. There was always a lot happening in the kitchen; always a food shoot or a TV shoot. When I left college I went to the restaurant full-time and I was doing part-time work as a draftsman for a very big television lighting company in New York. They eventually offered me a full-time position. When I spoke to the chef at the restaurant about the job, he said ‘It’s what you went to school for so take that job, but stay at the restaurant part-time.’
I was in the best of both worlds but not really getting far. I felt I really had to make a choice, so I chose to cook. That brought me to California, and the travel I feature in my book “Mediterranean Summer.” I did get my feet very wet in the restaurant world, but there is the media work as a food stylist, recipe developer, and now a culinary producer that entered the fold.
411: What is a culinary producer, exactly?
DS: It’s a position that incorporates food styling, recipe development and blocking for a production, managing the food budget and purchasing, expediting the selection and use of appliances, kitchen wares, props, anything that has to do with food in a production. It’s a relatively new position that’s come about with the popularity of food shows. It takes on many of the roles of a producer, except it deals only with the food.
411: Did the experience of writing your book greatly influence you or your work?
DS: As I was writing, it was on my mind 24/7. It takes a lot of time, and you have to embrace the fact that you need to give it the time it’s going to need. The first chapter took about a year to write. You’re trying to say something and it’s just not working and you keep trying and trying and trying. Then you have others saying “this stinks, do it over,” or “I’m not getting it” or “what are you trying to say?” What’s now at the end of the book was initially at the beginning. At least it gave us a place to get to. That was an interesting exercise. One time during a trip in Tahoe I came up with an idea for a cruise* that I would not have thought of if I hadn’t taken myself out of the cooking environment. That’s what I think writing the book did, amongst other things. I find now my radar is always on.
*Editor’s note: Shalleck will be conducting food and cooking demonstrations on a 10 day cruise that will combine regional cuisine and wine with the ship’s menus. The cruise begins in Italy and ends in France.
411: Do you see yourself writing another book?
DS: Yes, I just had a meeting about that! It will have a historical subject matter that’s relevant today, and it will be set in the same region as "Mediterranean Summer." It may be more in a cookbook format that can work in tandem with a journalistic type visual representation. I’m excited about it!
411: Is there a possibility of developing a show around your travel and cooking experiences?
DS: I’m trying to get my arms around that. Visually, there’s no shortage of glorious backdrops in the Mediterranean, but I think I want to do something that’s not so aspirational. When I watch some other “on the road” cooking programs, I feel they isolate the viewer. It’s like “OK, but, what about me? I might not meet the guy that you are able to be with and do all those things you did.” I’d like to do a show in a documentary style. For example, start with some location shots and b-roll in Italy with a voice over intro, then a time-lapse sequence of a cluster of flowers on a bush turning into caper berries followed by a montage of how they are harvested and preserved. Cut to pov, pans, and jib shots of ingredients and hands cooking and making something simple to eat featuring capers. Pay it off with beauty shots of the finished dish within some lifestyle propping and backgrounds. There’s a lot of storytelling that could take down the walls of aspiration and make the viewer hungry!
411: You’re involved with so many things. How are you able to stay on top of all your passions?
DS: Well, it isn’t easy. I don’t like having divided attention. But, I actually like the challenge of keeping all of those burners on; whether I’ve got some food styling work, and I have some private dining work coming up, and there’s the writing that goes into preparing for the consumer work. For example, with the cruise coming up I’m creating a slideshow of images that will play on a large screen while the cooking demos goes on, as well as providing cheat sheets with pairing port-related ingredients, dishes, and regional wines for folks that don’t go to the demos. I think the reward on the other side is when everything comes together. I think they all feed each other very well. It’s fantastic!
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