Camera and the Butter Curl- An Insiders Insight into the World of Food Commercials and Food Photography in India
[dropcap]F[/dropcap]ood keeps us alive. It keeps us going. By providing energy and ensuring strength, it makes possible everything we call human. Yet food commercials in India are marred by inept attitudes and lack of precise methodologies. In a quick one-to-one, Saba Gaziyani, India’s leading designer and director of food commercials, gives us a peep into her efforts at buckling the trend and taking food-shoots in India to new zeniths of aesthetic perfection.
What does a food-shoot depend upon? What are the processes involved in it?
The making of a food ad depends upon the product and its end. Conceptualisation and design are most important. While conceiving a shoot, you think of all possible eventualities and the alternatives that could come in handy shall those eventualities arise. The execution, which is relatively easier, comes later, and depends upon the director’s acumen, her knowhow, her craft, and the skills of the cinematographer. As a director, I ask my cinematographer to produce one kind of light-effect or another. Or I might create a kitchen wall as a backdrop and ask them to light the frame in a way that reveals that backdrop as ambience.
The fate of a stills capture depends upon whether it is intended for packaging, posters or hoardings. For our Cadbury hoarding for Rakhi, the concept demanded that a rakhi be out-of-focus and the rest of the frame be occupied by blemish-free chocolates. I had to ensure that the chocolates had no fingerprints and air bubbles, that they were sharply in focus, and that they retained gloss and shape perfectly. For the wrapper of a brand of biscuits, the conceptualisation and treatment would’ve been different. For stills, therefore, you need to be sure about your composition.
For TV commercials, you need to know your action really well. They are slightly more sorted, as you know that your bottom line is glorification of the appearance of your product. There are two ways to it. Either you could shoot a ready product from various angles and make it look impressive, or you could capture the process of its preparation and highlight the successive stages that go into its making. For our Tata Sky ad, I played with many products. We required fifteen seconds of footage of each. Starting with their ingredients, I moved to successive intermittent stages of their preparation. The cake-baking ad for Britannia was made similarly by capturing footage at 1 fps on 5D MKII for 45 minutes and then playing it fast. We used an open oven for it.
What kind of equipment do you use?
Going in with the current trend of high-speed capture, we use Phantom a lot. At 2500 fps, it’s the best. We also use RED Epic that clocks 300 fps. I feel that in spite of being able to produce outstanding picture quality, film’s going defunct because we are laden nowadays with the dual imperative of shooting at really high speeds and economising budgets and production time.
Shooting film means bearing with lots of wastage of stock. You can shoot film only after it has reached the speed you want. On a photo-sonic camera, film has to go from 0 to 500 fps before you could start capturing. After you’ve finished, the stock that winds down from 500 to 0 fps is a waste too. If you shoot 1000 fps, you end up with about 2 shots in 1 can of stock. That’s a lot of money! Computer monitors too are not calibrated for 2000 fps. Shooting film, therefore, disallows the viewing of what’s been captured till after processing. As a consequence, most of the time, you watch your capture staccato and end up guessing if you’ve got your shot. That’s a big deterrent. The digital platform, on the other hand, allows you to replay your capture and assess it on the spot.
The equipment you use depends heavily on your design and budget. You need to have the knowhow of which lens to use for which kind of shot. Amongst the cameras we used for our McDonald’s Spice Fest film were Phantom, Alexa, C300, GoPro and Milo. GoPro is a small camera that you attach to an instrument to capture pure action, e.g. chopping by a knife’s blade. Milo helps combine multiple shots into 1 action and is used for motion control shots.
How has your experience of working with Joel Fonseca been?
Mr. Joel Fonseca is everywhere. As both he and I have ideas of how to go about a shoot, we get our things together and take a decision collectively. The visualisation happens earlier. Working with him has been sheer pleasure. He can go on repeating thing n number of times if there is a need. He is brilliant and very hard working.
Could you enumerate the factors that have contributed to your continuous streak of success?
One, I’ve worked hard all along. Two, I’m a hotel management graduate so I’ve a good knowledge of food. I know what goes with what. Three, even when I cook at home, I think about shots that I could use. Four, I’ve worked with the India’s best food-photographers and best food-shoot cinematographers. Five, I have learnt everything hands-on, and can, therefore, do things rather than just know theoretically about them.
What kind of perspectives do you prefer?
As you can see from this set, I love wide and close. As this shot is for packaging and I do not want much distortion in it, I’m using a marginally wide lens. Using wide-angle allows me to foreground my subject, create greater depth of field, and throw in more ambience. I also use a good amount of macro.
How was your experience working with Tata Sky?
I never met anyone from Tata Sky in person. They commissioned the work through Rahul Shrivastav who handled production. I lay my requirements of equipment and personnel down. After everything was organised, we shot for 5 days. I was sent the edited footage for checks and finalisation after which Rahul presented it to the client. I was allowed complete creative freedom.
How do you convey the specifics of your vision to a Cinematographer?
Through storyboarding. I draw all my frames and get the shoot conducted accordingly. I get the cinematographer to understand my storyboards. He’s free to do what he wants, but at the end, I want the image I’ve thought coming through.
Who are the people who inspire you?
I admire Briton Nick Sawyer’s work a lot. We did the McDonald’s Spice Fest film together. I love his sense of composition. His background designs add relevance and mood to a frame, but aren’t jarring in the least. In Dubai, I worked with Trevor, an English photographer. His work’s really good too and has added much to my knowledge of food and its treatment with light and composition. Among Indians, I love the work of K. Mohanan and Vikas Sivaraman. They are very comfortable to work with. You could ask them for alterations and they do it without any issues. Vikas is the best DOP for food commercials in India. He’s brilliant with alterations of light and with creating superior highlights and shadows.
Is it possible to do food-shoots in daylight? Have you done it?
You could, but it’s not commercially viable. The constant change in light makes it very difficult. You either get stuck or start adding light to your frame. You also have to be precise with time when shooting with natural light as the only times you get appropriate light are early in the morning or in the golden hour before dark. Otherwise glare enters your shot and spoils it, and food-items, such as lettuce, dry up and lose all texture and beauty. Once I did a good film in the afternoon on a hilltop in Sri Lanka with the temperature at 4° C. I’ve shot butter curls against backdrops of grass and flipped paraanthaas in the lush-green gardens while keeping all that’s conducive for a good shot in mind.
What are the principal differences between a food-shoot that’s conducted abroad and one that’s conducted in India?
Recently, I visited Lebanon for just 2 shots for a Lays Baked! film. The team there had an entire Milo set-up ready. They had one director for people and another for food. They gave it enormous amounts of time. For a particular shot, they had an Italian oven made over 4 days. They made me practice my shots for 2 days so that I could be precise during the time of capture. They paid me my day rates for those 2 days too. You can’t expect such professionalism in India. To begin with, the budgeting for a food commercial in India is usually wrong. Indian art directors are generally quite fickle-minded too. Indian agencies ask you for myriad last minute changes, as they themselves are not sure of their budgets and ideas. To be precise, there is no precision in the Indian food ad world.
What kind of trends would you like to see come into Indian food ad industry?
The way food ads are done in India needs to change. If a company wants to sell food, it should shoot food and not mother, father, and family. Sexist advertising dramas that depict women cooking and the men of the family eating with delight all the time need to be discarded in favour of a product-centric approach to the shoot. A food ad that views food as its central character, entices people, and makes many more customers. Food should be its own celebrity in a commercial. The kind of response my Tata Sky films have received makes me feel that my strategy does work better. Brand managers and companies have appreciated my approach.
I also want more time to be allocated for a food-shoot. I think that directors shooting food should primarily be interested in shooting food and not people. A lot of Indian directors shoot these commercials with people as their point of focus and then pass the work of capturing food-items on to their assistants. I want that to change. Also, I have worked with agencies that do 2 shifts of people, give me 2 hours to do a product window, and want magic. I want such thinking to change because the director too needs time.
Are there teams you are partnering with?
No. As it’s my individual vision I work with, I think a partnership in such a field is a wrong idea.
Could you please name a few top brands you’ve worked with? What’re you working on currently?
McDonalds, Pizza Hut, Dominos, Godrej, Saffola, ITC, MTR, Nestle, Maggi, Lays, Pepsi Foods…I’ve worked with them all. Currently, I’m working on nine films for Haldiram’s.
What does it take to be a good food ad stylist and director? Are there opportunities in the field?
If you work hard and produce good stuff, you’ll get opportunities aplenty. You need to understand that it’s a very niche field, a super-specialised arena. You need to be interested enough to be special in it. You need to know the triad of food, creativity, and equipment well. All of it together constructs your aesthetic and makes you a good stylist and a good director. If you can do all these then this is your field.