Table-top cinematography is a specialized genre of TV commercials – a kind of food pornography – featuring up-close and intimate, ultra-glamour shots that make you want to eat what you see. “I make my living basically taking food and painting a reality with it,” Michael Somoroff, a tabletop director with MacGuffins Films in New York, told the New York Times. “And if I succeed in a given moment, you’re going to go buy that dish because you’re going to identify with the experience we’ve created. To do that with something as banal as food is the challenge. I mean, it’s easy to go out and shoot a beautiful sunset or a beautiful girl. They’re beautiful, O.K.?” For many of these advertisers, the tv commercials are so essential to their corporate survival, that they can’t stay in business without them. “If you come off television, when your sales dip, it takes a long time to get them back to where they were before you stopped advertising,” said a vice president for marketing at Sizzler, Michael Branigan. “There are a ton of studies that show this. You lose brain share of your customers, and it is expensive to get revenues up again. If I stopped advertising, Sizzler’s revenue would be down, minimally, 10 to 15 percent for the year.” Fast-food, pizza, and casual-dining chains – what they used to call “doughnut and coffee restaurants” spend about three percent of revenue on advertising. Consequently, there’s a lot of money to be made in this industry. Many of the TV commercial directors were conspicuously wealthy and at times, aspired to royalty – even though no one ever recognized them in public and nobody outside of the advertising world had ever heard of them. They drove Rolls-Royces, DeLoreans, and BMWs, got two-hundred and fifty-dollar haircuts, wore five hundred dollar “Bill Cosby” sweaters, and lived in expansive McMansions, and drank cases of Perrier water in green glass bottles. In the 1980s, commercials featuring things to eat dominated network television. Advertisements for fast food restaurants, soft drinks, pizzas, frozen dinners, steak houses, beer, breakfast cereals, candy bars, ice cream, and snacks were ubiquitous. In 1970, the Federal Trade Commission settled a lawsuit against the Campbell Soup Company. The commercial production company making their broadcast spots, had put glass marbles in the bottom of a bowl of vegetable soup, to make it look like there were more vegetables than were actually found in a can of soup. The truth-in-advertising statutes require food stylists on tv commercials, in most instances, to use the same ingredients in the same proportions, as are used in the packaged product. However, this doesn’t work for ice or ice cream – the product melts too quickly under the heat on motion pictures lights. If you’re shooting a soft drink or a cocktail in a glass over ice, the ice cubes are made of silicone or plastic (and cost $300 – $500, each) so they won’t melt or tinkle. Some food stylists use a mixture of high-fructose syrup and lard to make something that looks like ice cream but doesn’t melt as fast. Others use conventional mashed potatoes. When you make a television commercial about something that is edible, the food or drink that’s actually photographed, is painstakingly prepared by a professional food stylist who makes it look as appetizing and attractive as possible. This is an exacting and specialized job that only a few truly master. And just like every other job on a motion picture set, one or two individuals in the industry distinguish themselves as being noticeably better at their job than all their constituents. Oona Austin was one of the first choices for the job of food stylist on tabletop TV commercials. Early in my career, as a production assistant in Los Angeles, when I found myself working on a crew with Oona, I would surreptitiously find a way to get myself assigned to her team where, in the safety of her enclave, I would be sheltered from the slings and arrows of production. Oona was a great teacher, so I learned a lot of really important things about the food stylist’s job, which served me well later, when I was producing tabletop commercials. For instance, Oona showed me how to mix Elmer’s glue with milk, so the milk wouldn’t look thin and pale under the bright motion picture lights. One day, I was instructed to use an air compressor to remove all the dust from the contents of several dozen boxes of Kellogg’s Apple Jacks breakfast cereal. Then I sprayed each individual piece of cereal with shellac, so that when it was photographed falling through the frame in super-slow motion, there wouldn’t be any dust or crumbs visible in the shot. Another specialized job in food photography is that of the “hand model.” The hands that you see in television commercials holding forks, knives, bottles, or pouring a glass of beer, or holding a credit card – belong to a few of the busiest people in the industry, whose faces are never seen. In my time, the best hand model on the west coast was Bill Karp. I remember that Bill Karp was on that Apple Jacks commercial I did with Oona Austin in Los Angeles, thirty-five years ago. Oona sent me to the Irvine Ranch Market in West Los Angeles to pick up a case of the most perfect large red delicious apples I’d ever seen. The film sped through the camera at the highest speed, to achieve a super-slow-motion effect. As the bright red apples fell through the frame, Bill Karp swung at them with a razor-sharp eight-inch chef’s knife, cutting each apple perfectly in half. On several takes, I actually saw Bill slice through the stems of several of the apples, he was that precise. As Dizzy Gillespie told Pete Hamill, “The professional is the guy who can do it twice.” * * * One of my favorite crew members was a prop woman named Kathleen Hughes.