The Craft Behind the Commercial: How Tabletop Connects Physics With Creativity
Whenever someone tries to understand what exactly it is that we do within the field of marketing and advertising, I say the following: imagine if you’re working with an actress, it’s very likely that she will smile when you ask her to smile. Now, imagine your actress is a strawberry. If you ask the strawberry to wiggle and jump gracefully into a bowl of fresh yogurt, what do you think our star of the show is going to do? Exactly, absolutely nothing—because as much as we love this sweet, summery fruit, food is simply not a team player. That’s why every tabletop director needs technical engineers who understand both film and physics, and thus can help make the creative’s wildest imagination come true.
In the field of tabletop, which typically refers to the shooting of objects in great detail, products such as food, drinks, cosmetics or other liquids serve as the actors. But because they don’t live, talk or respond to our cues, we need our technicians on set to make the products move in the ways that our tabletop directors want them to. Using specialized equipment, our engineers can work their magic on said strawberry to not only let it wiggle, but do so perfectly timed and in focus. In other words, every day we have to fight gravity on set to keep our actors in control—all to tell a tasty-looking story that resonates with the audience. Let’s take a look at how.
Appealing to the audience takes tickling the right taste buds.
For the purpose of this piece, let’s focus on the shooting of food, keeping the strawberry in mind as the hero of our campaign. It all starts with defining the taste appeal of a brand and its product. With every client, our team’s goal is to help them translate their brand strategy into food imagery with the aim to create distinctive taste appeal—and there are various routes to arrive at this destination, each with their own expressions and associations.
“We help brands build recognizable and earnable taste appeal, for instance through tools such as movement,” says our Film Director Catherine Millais. “Should the product move in an explosive or elegant way? Should it breakdance or do ballet? Should it jump, hop or only ever fall? When you’re thinking about how you’re going to present the food to a consumer, those are the types of questions that you have to ask, so that you can start defining a set of visuals for your design, sonic rules for your sound, and behavioral rules for your product.”
It’s important to keep in mind that food is inherently cultural, social and emotional. As such, the visual language of food products is constantly in flux—it reacts to geography and changing sociocultural attitudes, to what’s happening in popular culture, and even to technological advances. As filmmakers in marketing and advertising, it’s crucial to be sensitive to the changing aesthetics of food and the different ways in which taste appeal can be delivered. In fact, it allows us to view taste through new lenses. Above all, it helps us understand how our clients can establish their own take on deliciousness.
Enter the scene: our toolbox of taste, which we’ve developed for our clients to understand how we can play with various elements to determine the taste appeal of a product. Various tools help us define this, such as movement, camera speed, sound, setting, or even food styling, just to name a few, all of which we have readily available at our studio. Our first job is to sit down with the brand’s marketers and make sure we translate the brand voice and creative brief into a commercial that’s in tune, impactful and tasty-looking.
The main challenge is how to stand out in a sea of deliciousness. The first thing that will make your commercial distinctive is the creative concept. The second is how you leverage the tools at hand—and this is where our SFX specialists come in.
Need to cause a controlled explosion? Just call our SFX team.
The special effects are a critical part of a tabletop shoot. Our SFX specialists control the motion of the objects we are filming, like the automatic release of liquids or the explosions of products—all with millisecond precision. Each movement has to happen in the exact same place each time so that it’s always in focus. Try telling that to the strawberry that’s meant to jump onto a creamy bed of yogurt.
Before our specialists can start testing and setting up any effects, they first need to understand the director’s vision. Our SFX Specialist Jesse Dermout tells me that “a director’s idea can be quite abstract, which can make it hard for me to understand what exactly they’re after. Once we’ve talked it through and we’re aligned, it’s a matter of finding the right tools to get the desired effects. For slow movement, for instance, I would use an electric motor that’s programmed to do very precise steps, while for something more explosive, I would use pneumatics, which is pressurized air to blow stuff away with.”
In essence, our SFX team provides support to our directors and other engineers on set, like our robot operators, which makes the special effects work both creative and technical. “Though my role is mostly technical, the creative side of it is thinking about how to make effects work in a ‘film’ kind of way, meaning that it has to be maneuverable, the movements have to be very small, and there can’t be too many things in frame,” says Dermout. In other words, SFX is about getting past the boundaries that film itself poses, like lighting, the set, the frame and so on—all the while making sure the effects work.
The way to realize this is through rigorous testing. Once the director’s creative brief is locked and loaded, our SFX specialists do test after test after test—then conducting stress analyses, creating rigs in modeling software, 3D printing prototypes and testing out the physical version of a rig—until they finally get the director’s brief to work in practice. Safe to say, it takes not only a solutions-oriented mind and an eye for detail to be an SFX specialist, but also lots of patience.
Robotics, the strawberry on top.
Without specialized equipment, such as our custom-made rigs to move materials in specific ways and our high-speed cameras, tabletop wouldn’t be possible. But there’s one more tool that our team can’t do without: our robot. Tabletop requires you to get each element under control, and motion control is key. Mo-co refers to computer controlled motion and can be used to move the camera, the object you are shooting, lighting or all of the above simultaneously. In tabletop, this gives us repeatable and precise accuracy and speed, which helps, since it often comes down to the millisecond. A robotic mo-co arm can travel smoothly at a speed of 1 meter per 0.5 seconds, meaning that you can repeatedly follow your wiggly strawberry and move the camera around the fruit as it falls.
A human hand will never drop something in the exact same place and at the exact same time. So, you have to limit all your variables to not only achieve a certain effect, but do so in focus, in the right way and at the right moment. You're engineering a product to do something that it wouldn't naturally do, which is a challenge in itself. But people in the field say the real challenge is fighting gravity, because tabletop is where creativity and physics meet. Fortunately, our team of food creatives, directors, engineers, editors and producers is tight-knit and trained to work closely together, from exploring taste identity with a brand’s marketers, to using high-end equipment to deliver delicious and distinguishable commercials—and all the messy moments (literally) in between.
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