Is it me… or is table top more white beard than dark art?

Cartoon 2 Jun 2011 Merlin.gif

Many moons ago, I interviewed Alan Parker for a documentary on Pinewood studios. For him, the joy of the place was the experts. Beavering away in their ‘little huts’, these latter day Merlins created onscreen magic. As he said: “All you had to do was find the right hut”.

Regrettably what he didn’t tell me was the secret recipe for success of these modern day Merlins: self-flagellation and a strict lack of contact with the outside world.

Now I don’t want to alarm you, but some of those Merlins have escaped and have taken up residence in table-top food studios across the world…

Ok, I might be exaggerating a little. I’ve since learnt that not everyone who works in the table top industry is a dysfunctional loner. It’s just some have an affinity for rigs and water jets that is beginning to infringe on their personal lives - and their professional ones.

Just as installing a homage to your latest ‘table top masterpiece’ on your bedside table might not sit well with the wife, a lifetime of being the only human in the room doesn’t bode well for actually dealing with actors.

But in our industry we lap it up. That magic concoction of rudeness and lack of eye contact can only mean one thing: we’ve got a creative genius in our midst.

I once worked with one particular Merlin who could do things with lettuces that would blow a bunny’s mind. In the PPM he enthralled the client with stories of the dark arts of table top. He was going to turn their vegetable into a Hollywood star, rotating it at a 1000 frames a second.

As to my meager contribution, some minor performance from a smiling child, the magician scoffed: “Performance? All the kid has to do is smile”…

The day of the shoot arrived and all was well until the five-year-old encountered the great wizard. In a way, I blame myself: I wasn’t on hand when the boy arrived. I had been caught in the Wizard’s conversational tractor beam and was fixating about the best angle from which to capture the crispy lettuces emotional torment. A budding professional, the five-year-old approached the hallowed table top and did exactly what he had rehearsed in the casting. He picked up the lettuce…

Alas, the wizard wasn’t ready. And with one look the boy was turned to stone. The game was over. And my game, the challenge of getting a performance, was on…

In the next sixteen hours I leant more about people, coercion, and a five year old’s extensive toy collection than I care to repeat. I never worked with the wizard again but I understand he’s still busy in his lab working mainly with lettuces.

Now I’m not denying tabletop photography is an art, but why does it have to be so dark? For me food shoots have always been about ‘the team’. Like Merlin, the table top team can make or break the experience – and the end result. Luckily I’ve worked with some of the best.

There’s the infamous Italian genius who has developed an LED lighting system that never raises the room’s temperature, meaning the vegetables on display actually love you rather than trying to wither and die before you can shoot their better side. The international food stylist who can make a humble potato look like Johnny Depp. And my friends at 360 and Cross Street whose studios are definitely not sheds.

These are the true magicians and I’m happy to say that they’re all helping me to combine performance and table top in one effortless whole at my new one-stop food commercial directing service, Gusto.

We’re reintroducing the ancient arts of eye contact and communication and it’s all going smoothly so far. Let’s just hope some Merlin from my distant past doesn’t turn up and take exception to this break with tradition. If I turn to stone on one of your shoots, it’s that guy waving a wand you want to have a word with.