If you’ve ever tried to make a single bubble dance across an underwater probe lens, as a robotic arm flies around a (dangerously fragile) glass aquarium at 1000 frames per second, you might know some of the intricate challenges of tabletop filmmaking. It takes a unique skill set, an inventive creative mind, and lots of patience. The only way to find out if you are cut out for this niche profession is by doing it.
Picture the scene: a creative brief lands on your desk that requires the slow-motion drip of coffee, a chocolate vortex, or the perfect drop of foundation on glowy skin. Cue a producer’s concerned frown, because the type of filmmaking that can capture these specific motions in astounding detail—known as tabletop—requires specialized knowledge. It’s a very particular nook within advertising and marketing, and that’s why there are only so many people who (can) do it.
Case in point: our Film.Monks team in Amsterdam, which is one of our global film hubs, is one of the few (say, handful) players to offer tabletop services in Europe. On top of that, we have our own robotics in-house, which we need to test ideas and do the actual shoots. This also means we’re in the fortunate position to be able to lower the threshold of entering this field, which is typically hard to get into. That’s why we’ve been welcoming up-and-coming talent into our studio to let them have a taste of tabletop.
Making a tough field to break into more accessible.
First, let’s back it up a bit and take a look at what tabletop is exactly. This term typically refers to the shooting of objects—think of food and drinks, beauty products or other liquids—in great detail. When you are this close up to a product, storytelling becomes focused around colors, shapes and textures. In practice, it’s all about getting the objects to behave in whatever way you want them to, so that their movements tell the story or create character. Naturally, there are some nice pieces of equipment to help you do the job.
As a tabletop creative and director—which allows me to be a stunt coordinator, a mess maker, a prop eater or even an explosion specialist every now and then—you have to think deeply about the dynamics and qualities of products, in more detail than you would even think is possible. For example, let’s say we’re creating a commercial for a coffee brand that aims to spotlight the different strengths of its new line of coffee beans. This means we not only have to think about how to communicate the brand voice and product range, but we also need to consider what consumers want to be told, what would catch their attention, and what appeals to their taste. So, what we would do here is bring in color and shape signifiers, like a rounded, soft yellow for the mildest bean and a bold, sharp purple for the strongest flavor, to visualize these slight differences.
Working creatively within such a narrow scope may be frustration-inducing for some, but highly satisfying for others, and apparently I am the latter type of person. I discovered this when I was given the unique opportunity to explore the world of tabletop—I started as a tabletop director’s Personal Assistant, working as his producer of sorts. After spending many long days assisting on set with no real idea what was happening, writing treatments and even acting in an ad, I finally thought: hang on, I reckon I can do this! Getting such an extensive chance to discover this profession doesn’t come by often, and that’s exactly why we’ve decided that we actively want to make the field more accessible for promising talent.
Carving out a niche for up-and-coming talent and ourselves.
Let’s zoom in on the how. For a while now, we’ve been involving juniors—including both early career employees and temporary interns—in our tabletop work wherever and whenever we can. Our aim is not only to share knowledge and experience and enable our up-and-coming talent to learn by doing, but also to pass on our passion for the profession in all its messy glory.
From ideation to execution, we make sure to include our rising stars in every step of the tabletop journey, while always taking into consideration where their specific strengths and interests lie. Whereas special effects (SFX) interns might like to know how to get products to move in different ways, junior creatives would need to learn how to flesh out ideas so that the camera team understands what they want. By bringing up-and-coming talent from different disciplines together in one studio team, we allow them to learn a range of new skills within and outside their specific field of interest. For example, how to write and develop short-form storytelling, how to operate cameras, how to train your eyeballs to see in high-speed vision, or how to engineer explosions of chocolate nuts (and many other special effects). And guess what? My fellow experienced Film.Monks and I learn a lot from them, too.
The secret to discovering talent? Let them show you what they’ve got.
One of our most successful shared learning experiences so far has been our ongoing Emotional Eats series. This internal initiative, which we started at our tabletop studio in Amsterdam, revolves around producing fun and quirky short-form content that presents the feelings behind your food. Since there is no client pressure, we thought it would be a great way to get our juniors involved.
Grocery Glam - a short tabletop film created by our junior talent here at Media.Monks.
So, on a bi-weekly basis, we organize a test-and-learn day with the aim to scope out new rigs and develop new technologies. We consider it an opportunity to not only improve our creative development and craft, but also hone the creative conceptualization and directing skills of our entire studio team, including juniors, through regular “experiment and play” time. It’s important to highlight that, while we aim to provide creative and technical guidance, we make sure we give our juniors free reign and full autonomy to do what they want.
Thus far, the Emotional Eats series has allowed us to educate our up-and-coming talent on the engineering behind this beautiful profession and show them how far you can push emotional storytelling in tabletop through light, movement and sound design. In turn, our juniors have taken this time and used this space to experiment, ask questions and take note, coming up with many groundbreaking ideas along the way. It’s not about simply getting interns to help us out—instead, it’s about building a culture of learning and experimentation, while helping them take the next step in their professional journey.
Ultimately, our main goal is to give those who are still at the dawn of their careers, but show great promise, a chance to explore new avenues in the advertising industry and take a peek into our tabletop processes and projects. More than just a way for us to put the feelers out and see if people would want to join our tabletop team by letting them experience the work, initiatives like our Emotional Eats series are a means to raising our talent internally by allowing them to expand their palate and grow both vertically and horizontally—safe to say, it’s a win-win for everyone involved.
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