I’ve worked a number of movie shoots with eating scenes and they can be very difficult because of perishable food items. Since the object is to make the food always look good (even if it is barely on the screen), there are special challenges in shooting edibles. And if you’re filming a feast, the food should look perfect!
I’ve created this list to share some of the most useful information that I’ve come across working Art Department with food handling. These items come from real world experience, so they should be applicable to most filming situations.
Here are some tips on filming food:
Use colored dishes
Most non-professional art directors overlook using colored plates, service trays, glasses, etc. Color dishes do two things for you: add color to your scene and add contrast to food presentation. Imagine a black plate with a tomato and a leaf of lettuce on it. Much better than a white plate with the same items. Warning: Only do this if the colors of the dishes match (all glasses same color, all plates same color, etc.) If it looks like you picked up a hodgepodge of colored dishes at the local thrift store, it will ruin the film illusion.
Use a spray-bottle of cooking oil
Most food has a matte finish so the food surface doesn’t reflect much light. A spray bottle of oil will add a shine to items that will enhance how most food appears on film. It will also add lighting highlights that enhances the look of food. A coating of oil can also be used to simulate wet food.
Think ahead about food rotting
Many people think of food refrigeration before the shooting begins (making sure meat, etc. is well kept before 1st call). Beginners often forget to consider what the food will be like after 5 hours of shooting under the hot lights. Consider this when you’re putting together your on-camera meal. It’s hard to get a good performance out of an actor when a rotting pork chop is sitting right under his nose.
Mix real food with fake food
If you use all fake food (wax grapes, plastic lemons, etc.), the food will appear fake on camera. The best technique is to mix real and fake food. This can work especially well with deserts. Fake ice cream with real cherries and whip cream looks good enough to eat! Also, mashed potatoes can be a useful stand-in for ice cream.
Use the vaseline trick for beading water
Vaseline can be used on an actor’s face to simulate beads of sweat. Likewise, you can coat the outside of a vegetable (such as an apple). Use a hand spray filled with water and the water will bead on the surface for that just-out-of-the-garden freshness. Note that this effect won’t be picked up by the camera except with close-up photography and specific lighting, so don’t bother except under those conditions. This technique can also be used for beads of water on a glass if you need the glass to look like it’s sweating from a cold liquid inside.
Soft lighting makes food look good
The general rule in shooting food is that soft light makes food look good to eat, hard lighting makes it look like poison. The hard light creates harsh shadows which makes food look blacker/rotten. Food lighting is exactly like lighting people — think of your desired effect.
Use dish soap for a head on a beer
If the scene requires beer, dish soap provides a good frothy head that lasts under the hot lights. Obviously, make sure your actors don’t take a swig. That said, I would personally recommend avoiding shooting beer. Unless it is specially lighted, it will show up on film as a flat brown which typically less than appetizing.
Undercook food to retain firmness
Many foods wilt under the long shooting hours and hot lights. Some foods such as pasta (especially spaghetti) can be under-cooked to a rubber consistency. These foods will then stay firm during the entire shoot rather than wilting and appearing exhausted.
Bring spare tablecloths
Almost without fail an actor will spill something on your tablecloth. Both the spill and the stain will cause horrid problems for film continuity. Have 2 or 3 identical tablecloths on set. When a spill occurs, you can quickly swap out the dirty one for a clean reserve.
Consider using food doubles
If the food shoot is going to be very long and the food needs to look perfect, you can use fake food for the long shots and the real perfect food for the close ups.