When James Mathers asked me to pen a guest column for the monthly DCS “One DP’s Perspective,” he said a lot of other cinematographers would be interested to find out more about my specialty of shooting tabletop. I get it because tabletop shooting really highlights all of a DP’s skills and artistry. We have no dancers or funny performers or shiny cars to distract from our photographic work. We work in color, light, textures, composition, movement, and context to tell a concise story in what is usually a very limited amount of time.
Allow me to tell you about my background and some of the work I’ve been doing lately. I’ve been focused on tabletop cinematography for more than three decades, after being mentored by legendary tabletop food director, Elbert Budin in the early ‘80s. I spent mornings hovering over Elbert’s Moviola as he critiqued and analyzed his dailies on the quest for extraordinary images, always leveraging the most current technology while staying true to his style. Keeping up on gear and industry trends has also helped me to synthesize art and technology in my work.
I recently shot the Got Milk, “Everybody Wants to be Milk” spot directed by Tony Liu, founder of Laundry. Tony is a brilliant director and very experienced at traversing between live action and VFX generated story telling. This commercial was right up his alley and presented me with a beautiful treatment with visually clear references. Have a quick look, then read on for some behind-the-scenes details: https://vimeo.com/862192042
Some of the gear I have in-house and frequently use at my motion control company, ROBOT-ROBOT, includes Infinity Optics lenses, which I love and are great for micro and macro, a Phantom VEO camera for high-frame rate shooting, and a Bolt Jr+ for motion control. However, regardless of what I own or have easy access to, I will always endeavor to only use the right tool for each job. On this particular spot, most of my gear remained back in my studio.
We did our filming at MsRobot stage in Downtown Los Angeles where they have a permanently installed Motorized Precision Robot. The camera was moving in almost every shot, so motion control was a natural fit, allowing us to export all the motion information for VFX while requiring perfect moves and focus. There were also some lock-off shots with stop motion noodles coming out of the “Noodle Milk.” We didn’t require the extreme high frame rates that my Phantom is capable of since Tony assured me that he didn’t want a super slow motion milk pour. However, having ample resolution was important with the many visual effects, so we used a RED V-Raptor camera and both Gnosis Macro and Sigma Cine Lenses. The V-Raptor has a ton of resolution with enough slow motion capability for this particular spot. As a bonus, I’ve seen billboards made from the frames we shot, another win for the client when you shoot with an 8K camera.
Visually the idea of the Got Milk spot was that content was coming from different clients so that the scenes required different looks. I needed to visually differentiate product personality as much as possible with my shooting style on each setup. Some of the setups were totally real in camera scenes and others would have a range of visual assets, but with only two days, planning and meticulous pre-production were essential.
We had a single pre-light day and the plans all worked. In order to give some different looks, I mixed color temperatures, lighting some very warm and friendly, while others were given a cooler feel. I really wanted the scenes with the Bee and Ugly Sweater Milk to be warm and fuzzy so we lit those with tungsten lights, while the rest were shot with a mixture of daylight balanced LED fixtures and tubes. The shapes of the different bottles really lent themselves to the tubes for highlights while the other LEDs were smoothed with large diffusion frames so as not to have unwanted or blown out highlights. Another piece of essential gear that I used is a color accurate monitor; it saves me massive amounts of time not to have to run to the DIT to check my highlight levels, and it’s a great communication tool with the director and other creatives who may be on the set.
I think the biggest challenge on this spot was planning out the scene with the bees so that it matched the atmospheric reference, (and so nobody got stung.) We needed to build a screened-in set as small as we could to hold the bees but also let the atmospheric smoke flow through. We had rolls of black window screen and clips to hold it together quickly before we brought in the bees. We adjusted the net so that the robot could move around without pulling it apart. Because some crew members were allergic to bees, we couldn’t have both inside at the same point.
Steven Kutcher is a legendary insect wrangler and he did a great job with the bees and he loved our tent. I try to be very efficient with the art department and we were basically building these scenes out of simple elements they had picked out. Judicious depth of field and practical lights worked well as you can see in the BTS photos. The backlighting on the smoke went a long way to selling the space.
Overall I am very happy with the spot and I’ve gotten very positive feedback on it. Tony Liu turned to me after we shot the Bee set and said, “Wow, this looks exactly like the reference I gave you.” I proudly replied, “Yeah, that’s my job.”
My advice to those starting out in this genre is to learn to listen well and try not to ask any questions that you don’t need to ask or answer questions that haven’t been asked. Have patience, and be ready for everything. I recommend that you don’t light beyond a simple work light before the deciders have signed off on your framing, as some clients change their minds quite frequently. Have fun and don’t shoot boring shots, push yourself and take risks.
Steven Moses is a highly experienced and renowned cinematographer specializing in food cinematography, motion control cinematography, slow motion photography, and macro/micro, live action and beauty cinematography. He is also an expert in all things in tabletop cinematography. In 2022, he founded ROBOT-ROBOT, a motion control company that provides a unique range of equipment and expertise, enabling him to execute extraordinary and previously un-shootable scenes. Find out more about Steven and see his work at: https://stevenmoses.com/
While visiting, if you’re particularly interested in Micro/Macro cinematography, be sure to check out three spots featuring Steven’s use of the Infinity Photo Optical MikroMak Lenses: Grown in Idaho Super Crispy Crinkle Cut Fries, Pocket Watch It’s About Time, and Jollibee Spicy Chicken Joy.