A foodie to foodie conversation: on creating visual feasts, favourite production stages and tabletop, in the era of social media. Alberto Arellano, a Navarre-born filmmaker, with a focus on storytelling and a multidisciplinary approach; dishes out a tasty talk with Robert Payton- a passionate film director with 20 years of experience.
Robert: Where are you at the moment Alberto?
Alberto: I’m in my hometown – Navarra… It’s in the northern part of Spain. I wanted to say that I’m based here, because recently I became a father – but it was 4 years ago (Alberto and Rob laugh).
Before that, I was living in Oslo, and before that, I studied and lived in Barcelona. I think the time in Barcelona was my ‘key’ moment… you know? First I started studying engineering, then I moved my little brain to study film and audio.
R: And where did the desire to film food come from? Culturally, You grew up in a food region. Navarra is a gastronomic centre. Was food an important part of your family culture?
A: Absolutely. I think food is impregnated in everything. I’m so passionate about it. For this reason I think I enjoy my job a lot. I consider food a vehicle to articulate stories.
My grandfather was a farmer – he cultivated vegetables to sell – and I have great memories of that. They awaken, depending on the season. I remember special vegetables for winter, special vegetables for spring and special vegetables for summer. I feel bold about them.. Here in the south of Navarra, the vegetables are the stars – vegetables, wines and olive oil. Oh – and chistorra – it’s similar to chorizo, but it’s sweeter and I really love it.
Later on, I found a way to communicate stories via food. It’s a versatile element to transmit emotions and messages.
R: Olives – yes I remember one of your early works was about olives. It was almost like a complete olive feast. I saw the commercial and you used what looked like a borescope; and it took the audience on a journey across the table around every kind of olive.
A: Exactly. In the beginning, the brief was just to show the ‘Longest table in the world‘ from overhead.
To me, it seemed a bit monotonous for 30 seconds, to see the same perspective. In our job, I really love to take on the challenges; so I decided to go traveling overhead first. Then, in the next shots, introduce extreme close-up and camera movement; with the borescope too. I wanted to give a feeling of two different perspectives. On one hand like a graphical narrative view and on the other hand more sensitive; creating a more dynamic storytelling. So, you have the product, the story and you also have the flavours.
R: I wanted to talk to you about this actually, because I find that, because we direct food, our relationship as food directors is much closer to the client than it is with many other forms of advertising. Do you find that to be true too?
A: Yeah, I think so. Ultimately a successful film is based on cooperation between the people involved.
In terms of our speciality: tabletop, it’s so technical. There’s a kind of distance, but at the same time we remain close to the client. The client really wants to see their products as the main star – as something amazing and appealing. And we are directly responsible for that. However, I also think it has changed a lot lately.
Agencies, creatives and marketing departments are taking tabletop more into consideration. They realise that food and tabletop is a good seller; and it’s a perfect tool to connect with the audience.
R: We have a problem (as food film makers) that the two senses that are most related to food – the sense of smell and the sense of taste – are not available to us. So we have to try and develop techniques that will allow us to get that visceral pleasure.
A: I love this part. When writing treatments, we use a lot of words like: ‘mouthwatering’, ‘stomach rumbling’ and ‘tempting’. It’s really tricky, because these organic feelings are really difficult to communicate. I absolutely love the moment when the words become visuals. This is of course the part that involves many factors – one part is based on technical elements (lenses, camera movements, light, art direction ) and the other part is food styling. The most interesting though, is mix all those things together to create something tasty. To awaken the senses…
There is no one right answer or a secret formula, like, ‘you have to use this macro lens or that one’.
R: You use a lot of stop motion in your work. What appeals to you about stop motion and why is it good for advertising?
A: I really love the technique. My first TVC was a shoot in stop motion and I’d love to come back to it. I think it’s a perfect technique for the imagination. It gives you a lot of freedom and makes the storytelling unexpected and surprising.
It speaks directly to the audience; warm and tactile. By seeing the stop frame, you see mistakes. Mistakes make the image charming and closer to the audience; because it’s not perfect. And when it’s not perfect, you feel this kind of closeness to it.
R: Almost the sabor…( flavour)
A: Yes! The sabor is almost perceptible. I tried to convey that organoleptic feeling by using tempting macro images; and of course, as the director you need to explain those ideas to the agency and client. Thus, involving them with that vision.
R: If I go back and take a look on your Instagram page, the first thing I get from this body of work is that your work is thought-provoking. Whether it’s a bendy banana or an Amazon-shaped coffin. It’s thought-provoking, and that is the essence of advertising. Ultimately, you want to provoke a purchase from the viewer. While provoking some sense of appreciation… Do you see that link between some of the more abstract images that you have on your instagram and advertising?
A: Yes, absolutely. I want to suggest questioning, maybe even provoke; but I consider my Instagram as an everyday routine. It’s letting me clean up my thoughts. Images are straightforward I try to communicate the message as clearly as possible, with the smallest set of tools possible.
People often use faces in images to communicate emotions or thoughts. I choose to use food, objects and material elements; to spice them up with some reflections and humour.
R: I find your website a visual feast, there’s very few words on there. Does that translate to your commercials as well? Do you like to work with a minimal script; where you let the pictures speak for themselves?
A: I’ve worked as a creative director, art director, film editor and as a musician. For this reason I feel comfortable when I receive a brief or a script. I also feel ok when the agency calls me and says “hey Alberto, we need something”; while not giving me anything to start with.
I prefer to have a long meeting with the client or the agency to receive their thoughts and messages, that they want to communicate. It’s key. It’s not my personal project – it’s their brand, their product, their baby; and I want to do my best with their insights to achieve our goals.
R: So just to go down this route a little bit, about receiving a brief, is there a product that you’d love to work with?
A: I would love to receive a brief that involves more people.
R: And is there anything you wouldn’t make a commercial for?
A: It’s funny, because I once made a commercial for a toilet brush. I did it! And I think I did it properly, because it was a charm; funny and a pretty graphical commercial. It was nice.
R: Very true! If you can make a good commercial for a difficult product, then there has to be some skill in that. Which of your work, are you most proud of?
A: Oh, it’s hard to say, because I think in my… I don’t want to say the word, but in my ‘career’. I think, it’s all about step by step. We learn from each job. If I have to choose one though, …a TV commercial for Schweppes; because we found an attractive way to tell the story. Creating a mysterious atmosphere with high-end images.
Still, honestly, I think the best is yet to come. I try to put all my effort into the ‘next one’.
R: You talk about being multidisciplinary and, because of your background, you can call yourself a storyteller as well. Is there a part of the production process that you prefer?
A: I’m not sure. I enjoy any part of the film process, I try to have a holistic approach. I guess the right answer would be that I love to edit, because that’s when the ‘baby is born’. You see its arms, you see the legs, you see the eyes, and now you have to try to feed the baby, try to bring it to this world. Editing is where the thing becomes a reality. But I think the first steps are crucial. If you don’t make a proper pre-production, share info and briefs with all departments, the editing won’t mean anything in the end.
For this reason, I think the early stages are really important. You develop your thoughts, you create the boundaries and atmospheres…
R: Almost like the heart, the corazón…
A: Exactly, the heart – the core, you need to create the theme. Even in the treatment process. Now, based on my experience, I’m always trying to improve the concept, adding my approach to enhance the message. As you can imagine, before I appeared in the bidding process, there was a lot of talking between the client and the agency; so I respect that previous work.
But otherwise, those very early stages are the moments to use our audacity, to be bold. That’s when you have to create the environment that you want to achieve later on the shoot. The Japanese say “before doing, you need to think a lot”. I prefer to think a lot first, and then put it together.
R: Is there anybody whose work stands out to you? Is there anyone who makes you go… ‘wow’?
A: I open Director’y web page and I thought ‘wow!’ or ‘fuck me, another one!’ hahaha. But this is a cool thing. I’m – you could say – a middle-aged man. Over the last 7 or 8 years, there’s been this new tabletop movement. When I started in this business, tabletop directors were more like executors. Sure It was still about making something tempting, good looking, appealing; but it missed some kind of ‘soul’ some aesthetics. Now there is more art or personal visions in tabletop.
My work is based in an aesthetics-oriented and modern gaze approach.
I believe in the combination of colours, perspectives, sound design and art direction. Not just for the aesthetic value, I also believe these things can improve the message.
R: You’ve mentioned this “New wave” for the last 5-6 years. Is that as a result of new equipment and techniques being available to us? Or do you think it reflects a change in thinking?
A: I think there are many aspects involved. Of course, one of them is the technique. Four years ago there was one motion control studio in England, and now you have 20 just in London. The other thing is the change of mindset, for example: Lurpak. I receive a brief and it’s always Lurpak – the typical reference for everyone. Yet, this was a remarkable change in the storytelling mode.
Now the food is used as a medium to tell a story. There are also more film schools, and more film schools means more professionals. That, also changes the market.
R: Punto! Ok, What do you think is going to come up in the next couple of years? Are you seeing a trend?
A: My personal experience is that things are cyclical. It comes and goes; and we, as the directors, are in the middle of it. Hard to say what will come next.
R: The pandemic changed the way we work. Do you think those changes are going to be there for good?
A: For me things didn’t really change that much. Even before Covid, I did pre production, the calls and the presentation of the treatments remotely; just like now. So my own personal process is pretty much the same. At the same time, I feel that now we are more dependent on technology.
R: I’m running through the questions because I’m conscious of the time. You like to use lots of different techniques. However, I’m curious – is there one piece of equipment that you wouldn’t leave home without?
A: Yeah, people!