Etienne Proulx, a Canadian tabletop director, takes us behind the scenes of his career. Describing how his experience with: props, rigs and styling, has helped him film food. The conversation was led by Rob Payton – a passionate film director with 20 years of experience… and hungry for more.
R: To start I guess, one of the things that’s unique to you is the fact that you came into directing from styling?
E: Yeah, I was actually a prop master for many years, for feature films. When I got my American work permit I started working in New York as a rigger and a beer stylist. It became a big and busy business. After a while, I got sick of traveling the world and always shooting the same shots. I would travel for two days and shoot the same stuff I shot last week. That’s how I started becoming a director and shooting my own films.
At the same time I owned my Montreal workshop where I was doing all my testing. During this testing era, an agency creative said “we’re gonna shoot at your place”. And I said ‘oh, ok, that’s interesting. I have a little clean up to do! ’. We shot that beer job at my workshop and it became my studio. I started buying equipment and I always did my own lighting – the studio became quite famous. I decided to close it this year (2022) actually, since I’m enjoying traveling a bit more and working with other crews in different studios.
R: Was it frustrating working for other directors as a stylist – did you feel you could add more than them?
E: Well, at one point I was really into ‘call me if you have a pitch, I’m gonna find you 5 original shots’. I was very generous (with other directors) until 1 day I said ‘ok, I gotta keep my own ideas’. Sometimes I would ask the directors what they wanted to shoot and they wouldn’t know. That’s when I saw the opportunity of directing.
I think tabletop is growing, but it has been misdirected by live-action directors. It’s the part of the shoot they don’t really want to do.
R: Was it that you’d end up with completely dissociated shots that had no context within the body of the commercial?
E: Mixing the live-action together with tabletop is a tricky part. I actually enjoy shooting live-action now. In the beginning you look at shots – individual shots. Then, when you grow as a director you look at the whole film. It becomes natural to shoot the live-action part because it all goes together.
R: Liquid and Food stylists can be so secretive. They come here to Cape Town to shoot and they have a local assistant, but they don’t want to tell the local assistant what they’re doing. It seems almost like a dark art, a ‘magic circle’ of filmmakers…
E: I enjoy showing ‘behind the scenes’. I always do, even if I’m working with the agency people and with the creatives, I always show my tests and I always show my BTS. For some, they couldn’t imagine that it was that complicated or that simple, or even how we made it happen.
My take on this is that you still have to be able to capture that perfect image. That’s the hardest part of the job. There’s a lot of BTS stuff on Instagram and there are a lot of beginners that are looking at it and they go “oh, this is how you do it!”. Yet, you still gotta light it, you still need to find the right lens, you still gotta have the right camera move and shoot the right plate for the post. I think you can view whatever you want on social media, but there’s a very limited pool of people that can produce it and do it.
R: Sure, I think the industry is polarized, because you have this ‘top end’, and then you have a lot of guys sort of struggling in the middle, and then there’s this very active group, of ‘instagrammers’ and ‘vloggers’; who are trying to sell that message in a different way.
E: Right, but I think a good tabletop director should be able to respect all those super specific guidelines from the client and incorporate them in your creativity- which is challenging sometimes. When you succeed, it works. You got all the refreshment cues and all the bubbles are the right sizes. What I actually like to do is always use the real product. Well 99% of the time I made it my styling base. I hated those discussions with clients about whether it was the real product; so I decided to use – THE REAL PRODUCT.
R: Well, talk to me a little bit about the pandemic – everyone has a different take on it. Some people say it opened up new avenues and some people hated the fact that they weren’t able to sit in a room with the client. What’s your take?
E: In the middle of the pandemic we were all confined and all the businesses were closed, but the US still wanted to shoot a lot. My Wife is a 1st AD and my son is a Grip, we were confined together so we moved to my studio when we needed to shoot. We shot the first PepsiCo job of the pandemic; in fact we shot all kinds of jobs. We were shooting one or two shots a day, only the three of us, and it worked! Remote shooting was new and we were kind of pioneers of that.
I really enjoyed working remotely, because it made me more concentrated on what I was doing without the distraction of having 12 more people in the studio. Still, I missed the human contact – that was the biggest problem for me.
There are a lot of clients that I still work with, and never met them in person. That’s crazy! But it worked. It worked really well.
R: Do you find there are now too many voices in the room when shooting remotely – too many people on the call?
In those cases, I have a special breakout room with the creative team, where the creatives and I work together; because otherwise you can’t work. It’s natural that people will talk about other things, so having a breakout room boosts creativity and once we agree we go out and sell – exactly like we would do in a studio.
R: I haven’t heard of that. I’m sure other people have done it; but having that ‘breakout room’, I can see how that would be vital.
E: Yeah, you need that.
I think creativity needs a quiet place. There’s budget, time and stress; going against creativity, right?
So if my set can be quiet, and if everyone there: the technicians and the people on set, are happy to be there – I do much better things. Even my shots are much better. When you’re stressed out, you don’t think right.
R: People will often say there’s only a few ways to pour a bottle, but as soon as robotics came into the picture, it seemed to have provided new opportunities. Is that a big change to your palette- to the way you work?
E: First, film into digital changed everything. I would work on a rig for 3-4 days to make sure it worked in the film days. I couldn’t miss a take, it was 500 dollars of 35mm film per take to shoot and every time I would need another take- I saw the producer looking at me!
Then came robotics. In New York we were pioneers in that. It changed everything. I was very good at pouring with my hands, because time wasn’t an issue- like before robotics. Now it’s a 1000th of a second movement, so it needs to be a robotic rig. If you want to have an extreme move, everything needs to happen on cue. That became my specialty.
Firstly, I design a shot without thinking about camera speed. Then, when it’s approved, when I get the job, we start thinking about how we’re going to do it. We always turn to robotics because it’s repeatable. Occasionally I still do jobs on a slider. I really enjoy that, it’s making a real film. It’s in my blood. I’ve got all these books about techniques of moviemaking. I enjoy bringing all these old special effects techniques into the modern world with robotics. That’s when I feel good, when I feel that we’re making progress, we are making real films; I really enjoy that mixture of eras.
R: When you work with a food stylist, how is that relationship? What defines a good liquid stylist?
E: There are two kinds of stylists. There are the ‘tweezer’ guys and those who just ‘throw it in there’; and they keep on doing it until it looks natural and good. I prefer the latter. I prefer the more natural way of styling. However, a good stylist is someone who’s gonna be able to push the limits and go for it without frustration. It’s a very, very specific job. When I work with other stylists I have huge respect for their work. But on set, in front of the camera- I still do the spritz.
R: It’s just too personal?
E: Yeah, and it’s hard to express yourself talking about macro drops… So that’s what I kept from my styling days. I do my spritz. I’m good at it and I have done it a 1000 times. So then the stylist can do something else. There’s a lot to do behind the camera!
R: Do you remember what was the first commercial you directed?
E: I do!… It was a grocery store commercial. It was funny to see my name on the slate. I didn’t DP that, I was just the director. What’s more, it changed a lot of things in my little town. When I went into the sound session, I wanted to do sound also. Others were like “Huh, what is he doing?”. I went into the sound booth with knives and a cutting board and cut carrots for sound. I did a beer commercial; I went into the sound studio with two or four bottle openers. I didn’t want to use the stock sounds of liquids and stuff. These were my first 2 commercials.
R: We’ve all had campaigns that left us wanting to leave the industry, and lots of campaigns that have made us very happy. Is there a campaign that stands out for you. That went exactly as you wanted when you first saw the storyboard; something you’re really proud of?
E: Yeah, the last Pepsi nitro commercial that just came out. It was a specific look; that I wanted in the lighting, also in the shot, and the set design.
R: I was reading somewhere that you’ve also done some storyboarding, is that right?
E: I do storyboards. Even if I don’t do the official storyboard, I do a storyboard for myself- just to get the feel of the film. I’m not looking at shots anymore, I’m looking at the whole film. To look at the whole film you need a drawing of it- to see it from a distance. My mom was an artist, my dad was a set designer, so drawing has always been in me. Now the iPad is crazy to draw with too.
R: I struggle to find a storyboard artist who can draw food well. I find an artist, they draw something, and I’m the only one who can recognize that it’s an aubergine or an apple. If you find a storyboard artist who can draw food well, you just kind of latch on to them and say ‘hey, that’s the guy from here on!’.
I love that relationship with storyboard artists. They need to understand the lensing and they need to understand the movement.
I find that it’s not too hard to represent food for the storyboard artist. What’s hard is representing the movements without making 30 frames; because then, you can almost do a cartoon of it.
R: The guy I work with draws outside of the frame – kind of going outside the frame and then back in… you know? Then you’ve got that sense of the movement, the speed of the movement and the direction.
E: The pandemic did something good with the remote storyboard artists. I mean, they spend hours on a remote call and they do the drawings as it goes.
R: It seems like you still love what you do.
E: Oh, I do. I love that, I love shooting, actually. As for being on set, I don’t know… it has been perhaps, 36 years.
R: What stage do you think the industry is in now? What do we need to look out for and what do you think is the next thing moving forward?
E: I think social media is becoming bigger than TV, so that changes a lot. Throughout the last few years there’s been more money in social than in the old TV version of things; so I think we have to be flexible.
I’ve developed all kinds of ways to shoot both. I usually double-shoot it; because otherwise you compromise both aspect ratios. I think this is the biggest thing.
Budget went down, in the last 3-6 years – I keep hearing “we don’t have the money”. I just don’t believe it anymore. We still have to make a film. Not having money became the first thing people would say. I think the first thing people should do, is to talk about the film that we’re going to make and then we’ll find a way to do it, right?
There’s always that menace of not having money. I mean, it’s exactly the same thing if it’s a TV campaign or a social campaign – If I shoot a commercial with an iPhone, it’s gonna look like an iPhone commercial. The quality is not there. We need to use professional gear. I spend a lot of time choosing the right lens for the right shots. I don’t have one lens that I use all the time. I just fetch and research; try this and try that.
R: What lens are you loving at the moment?
E: Hmm… well, ones that I don’t like, are those probes – those new probes where the image quality is so bad. I’m into 32mm primes- I love that point of view.
I love the quality of the good glass with the right lens. It really shows, actually. I’ve been testing and testing that theory and it’s always a win. Maybe, it doesn’t matter so much for social, but when you look at your film on a decent screen, then you see the quality for sure.
Furthermore, I think: appetite appeal, craving and good food imagery; comes from the premium high end equipment. As well as the combination of: the highest possible resolution, the best camera and the best lens…topped with good lighting, for sure.
R: I just wonder what else could’ve satisfied you as a career, if you weren’t doing what you’re doing now?
E: Hmm, well, photography would be very interesting. I’ve always liked the calmness of a photoshoot – there’s a little music, and a very small crew. The other job is being a blacksmith. Living in a small village and being a blacksmith for the people of the village. I would fix all their problems with those rigs, right? So that’s my ‘rigging’ career.