The hidden art of food-styling

Elisabetta Pulcini shares how food styling works behind the big screens

Elisabetta Pulcini
24th February 2020
Image: Toa Heftiba (Unsplash)
From rich Hogwarts banquets, to impressive Chocolate Factories, food is important to so many movies. Yet it rarely gets the praise it deserves.

While costume design and make-up get the bulk of the mentions in the conversation about the production design of a film, a contribution that rarely gets their due is the food. Yes, because arranging food for a film set is a skill mastered by few. Not unlike a regular chef, food stylists are concerned with the presentation and taste of a product they put on screen. However, they also need to take into account a number of factors not considered in the preparation of a normal dishes, most notably: research, durability, and on-camera appearance.

Research is an essential part of any production. The food presented on the screen needs to fit in the historical time and place in which the movie is set. For example, it would be quite jarring to see Elizabeth I enjoy an avocado toast for breakfast. However, at times food stylists are required to go further. Not only does the food have to be accurate, but it also should represent an aspect of the story, through the visual portrayal of themes and messages. In Chocolat for example, it goes without saying that chocolate is a central aspect of the film. Therefore, it is essential for it to look luxurious and rich, to portray the themes of lust and passion, central to the plot.

“directors prefer not using fake things on movies. It is important for them to use real food”

While many sets used to resort to fake foods, most directors today prefer to the real thing. In fact, not only does it look better on camera, but there is more room to make it look realistically imperfect. Zoe Hegedus, food stylist for Midsommar, has stated that “directors prefer not using fake things on movies. It is important for them to use real food”. For example, in the scene where Florence Pugh attempts to eat a raw herring whole, the expression on her face could not be replicated by using a fake fish. Therefore, Zoe Hegedus was in charge of flying the herrings all the way from France to Hungary, where the movie being made, and keeping them fresh throughout the shoot.

Taste is not always relevant in film-food. For example, one of the popular tricks used to make roast chicken look good on camera is to take a raw chicken and paint it with a mixture of colorants. Though some point to the food waste, it is important to point out that, since a normal food cannot withstand the long times required by a shoot, this is the best way to ensure that the least amount of food is wasted: instead of having to bake a chicken for every shoot, just one chicken will be sacrificed for the perfect shot. However, the same techniques cannot be employed when an actor needs to take a bite out of the prop. Here, taste becomes an essential consideration.  A notoriously difficult food to film is ice-cream. Therefore, a lot of food stylists resort to swapping it with dollops of merengue, which don’t melt and are edible.

It is clear that a lot of factors go into being a successful in this pursuit. From resourceful problem solving, to creative presentations, to actually being able to cook, food stylists are Hollywood’s most underrated artists.

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AUTHOR: Elisabetta Pulcini
Film Editor 19/20 and Law (LLB) graduate. An Italian passionate about journalism and the law: always up for a debate. @ElisabettaPul

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