How it had all begun? What’s next, and where the glory of food is. Rob Payton – passionate film director, in conversation with Michael Roulier and Philippe Lhomme, better known as Foodfilm, the iconic duo.
R: How did you start out, what was your background prior to coming into…I don’t want to use the word ‘tabletop’, because it’s too narrowing, but food work. Was there a family background? Was there a passion for food?
Michael: No, no. No previous passion for the food at all. Or rather no views in that regard. In the beginning I wanted to be a reporter. I was always passionate about photography since I was very young …oh and I studied philosophy.
Food Photography came much later. Basically, I was doing fashion, like a lot of young photographers do, then I started to do mostly still life. I found food completely by chance, at a moment, when food was starting to become something interesting – It was in the 90s – 1995 I would say. Some beautiful books were coming out, photography was becoming interesting. Then, one day, there was a call from Philippe who asked ‘would you like to try’? and I said ‘yes, why not’… and I just loved it.
Philippe: I was an art director for a long time; before I met with Michael, a long time ago. We slowly moved to the movies, because we were interested in this kind of evolution of our job. I must say that as an art director, I decided to work with the best food photographer in Paris (Philippe and Michael laugh) – that’s why I met Michael.
M: Art directors don’t really have an idea what to do (with food)… I’m not speaking about Philippe – he was a special art director for food. But most of them had no clue about it. So they were relying a lot on the photographer to propose the shots. There was a lot of freedom. Basically I was being paid to be free, which was very cool. I loved it because there were many interesting things to do – very creative.
R: It’s an obvious question when you work as a directing duo – how do you divide your roles?
P: Well, I must say we are quite complimentary. We talk a lot when we start to create a film. I draw all the storyboards and Michael works more on the words. Yet, I think we have the same approach when directing and thinking about things. We both like elegance and playfulness.
M: We knew each other before.
P: Yes, we were in charge of the visual communication of a major food brand in Paris – Picard.
M: So we knew how we could work together before we started making films. We knew what to expect from the interaction. It is really cool with Philippe. The communication between us is good.
P: Of course, we had a lot of freedom at the time. It was more free then, that we can expect now in regards to certain subjects.
R: Do you find now that agencies are being more prescriptive; that they’re less likely to take risks? What’s your take?
P: I think it’s the legals. The lawyers are everywhere. Sometimes we try to implement new ideas with commercials and the lawyers are telling to cut things out.
M: I don’t know if I would say that there is less freedom today. I would say it depends completely on the agency. Some agencies expect a lot from us – almost everything. With others it’s more prescriptive. Then our job as a traditional director is to make the script more round, giving it a reality and a rhythm.
I think today there is less money and this makes things a bit more difficult. Especially the way we like to work. We like to write very rich boards with a lot of images, and of course we have the production calling us to tell us ‘you have too many images, you have to take out a few‘. And we say ‘listen, it’s important that we show this richness’. We were doing what we call ‘no hands’ films a lot.
We understood very quickly that if we didn’t want the viewer to get bored when they see our films, there needs to be action throughout. It’s not just about watching beauty. It’s action, action, action; activating things, finding ideas on how to animate things – so the films have a sort of inner life on screen.
With the smaller budgets, we are limited. We can only do a certain amount of shots per day. For us, that’s a big problem. The agencies are ready to sacrifice a lot of quality for the budget.
Of course, today, when there’s a global budget for 20’ we say ‘ok, we need two days minimum‘, and they say ‘we have two directors who do two 20′ in a day!‘. And we say ‘listen, it’s impossible for us, we have too many things we want to show‘. In the end they start to understand, because our films work – we know they work for the audience. It’s always a fight on our side, because we want a lot of imagery and we need a lot of time to do the shots. We fight for that on all our films.
Especially now, that there are Instagrammers. There are those who will do films that are very cheap, but we have completely different techniques.
R: When I look at your body of work, it clearly has your stamp on it. Can you give me some of the techniques you deploy to create that visual humour and that playfulness?
P: To start with, maybe it’s because we were the first ones to look closely at the food. To look at the details of foods: the textures, the colours, the shapes and all of those things.
M: I think we were the first to do ‘no-hands’ films. This is for sure.
P: That too.
M: Our secret, before technique, is that we invest ourselves in all aspects of the film – not only the writing and the filming. Also the post-production and all those moments after the filming; where there’s actually a lot of space for the magic to happen.
I think in the regular work flow, directors just do their films and then they leave it to other people. We don’t do that. It’s quite difficult to explain to people the way we work. Simply put, we work on our material a lot in post. When we accumulate a lot of material, we can do a lot. Then we control what we do with the material.
It comes down to the tricks; it’s more about the aesthetics that Philippe and I have. It is also about being very graphic with our images. We take a print approach to the images – they’re like photographic tableau.
I remember a small anecdote. When we started doing films, we were working for a coffee brand and there was not a lot of money; which also meant more freedom. Philippe said: “listen, we’re not going to make films, we’re going to make tableau (you know, just animated images)”. From there, we’ve developed a whole grammar scheme; which we have tried to refine over the years. It’s getting harder and harder though, because you really notice more beautiful stuff all around.
For instance, we have a robot – there’s a lot of robotic imagery in tabletop. It was a painful development actually; because people don’t give away their secrets. When you buy a robot, you have to write an algorithm, you need to find someone to write how to make the robot work. So we did all that, but in the end; we’re not really using our robot. There are 2 reasons for that – robotic image means time, secondly people who use robots have no ideas!
If you want to show your ideas with a certain turbulence, with a certain joy; a robot shot takes at least 3 seconds out of your commercial. Then there are images that are very short, but really powerful. We want shots really short and we want them to accumulate those impactful images. I think it’s a good frustration for the viewer, because it makes them want to re-watch the film. Every time they watch it, they find something new. That’s also the richness of our scenarios.
R: One thing (we can talk as fellow food film makers) that constantly frustrates, is this inability to use the two key senses that we associate with food. How do you get that visceral pleasure across when people can’t taste or smell the product?
M: We know from experience, from doing so many visuals of food, where the glory of the food is, where the emotions are.
No matter the subject, we know what to show to make people drool. So we try to mix it all together with beauty and art. Food is something really difficult, because it needs a very specific methodology.
R: Is there a brand or a product that you wouldn’t want to shoot, or do you see everything as a challenge?
M: What we don’t do, actually, and what we’re very lucky not to do, is, demos especially – the 4’ at the end of the film. People come to us wanting a whole film. Doing demos is not my favourite way of working.
Basically, we do a lot of things ourselves. We have the technique because there’s a lot of technicality to our work. I’m quite a geek. Philippe also has a lot of ideas about creating little systems – much more than me actually. When we look for how to create something, he usually finds a simple way.
When we have to work with SFX guys, they’re really expensive – I mean, super expensive. So the problem is that when we integrate them into a shoot, we know it’s going to eat part of the budget and that maybe we’ll have less time for the film. So we try to limit the use of SFX guys, as much as possible and have a lot of in-house little tricks.
We also have our own studio, which, you know, not all the directors have. We have all the tools, so we can create our own rigs.
R: Despite the name, you work a lot with beauty products and wellness products. Do you treat a beauty shoot fundamentally the same way you treat a food shoot, or are you trying to evoke different emotions?
P: Most of the time, I think, for the cosmetics, we have to create things that don’t exist. So, it’s more abstract in a way. The SFX guys are really necessary in this case. At the same time, it’s always the same environment: bubbles and things dripping. Thus, we have to find new ideas. Abstraction is not that easy. Sometimes it’s complicated to create something new.
R: How often do you involve model makers for food?
M: As little as possible, but we have a really good model maker in France. She’s really, really good. Still, I would say as little as possible. Model making, for me, anyway, is not very rewarding. Now, when you do chocolate, it’s good, but when we used other models; personally – I was always disappointed. Food is something organic and it can’t go through resin or things like that.
R: We’ve all been spectacularly affected by Covid, I just wonder, how has the pandemic affected your work? How many of the changes that were implemented because of Covid will you be carrying forward? Were there positive lessons learned from it?
M: Well, there’s one positive thing, one very positive thing. The PPMs are happening on Zoom. We’ve gained some time. The negative part is that the shooting is more complicated. However, it works – we did a lot of them – but it’s more complicated. We lose a lot of time explaining the shots, people are not there, so the approvals are more tedious. The whole process is heavier- but, you know, it works.
P: It works quite well.
R: Your style of filmmaking would seem like a natural one to shoot remote production.
M: I like clients, I like being with them; making them feel out the vibes of the studio. It’s super important for me. Now that Covid is going away, we try to bring back clients into our studio. It’s about the contact, the warmth, and we lost that warmth. It’s much colder over the internet.
I think that we do better stuff when we feel pushed by the energy of the clients.
When a client is happy, it really pushes you (pushes me anyway) as a director, to really please them even more and to be more creative. It gives us wings… you know.
R: You work as a small team, that is something of a ‘cottage industry’ about your work and I don’t mean that in a negative way. I sense your preference is to provide a ‘script to screen’ including conceptualization ?
M: Are you saying that we like controlling everything? That we’re a little bit of control-freaks?
R: I don’t think that it’s about being a control freak. I think it’s about authorship.
M: Yeah, I think it’s very personal. As far as I am concerned when a post-production is not done by us, I am disappointed. Maybe, that is because the people in post-production are less interested in food. They’d prefer to do big fashion films or whatever. To me, the role of post-production is to bring the images to a certain level, to make them more beautiful, more powerful.
But, yeah, I think that part of our success is that we try to control the whole process… maybe we’re wrong to do this?
M: What I know, is that sometimes when we go to work in foreign countries; what we’ve been told by production houses, is that… we have a very strange way of working – we try to do the post-production during shooting as much as we can. It involves long days of work. We film and then we stay late to look at what we’ve done, to start ‘de-rushing’; trying to introduce the effects if there are any involved and so on. That way, we can show it pretty quickly to the clients.
For me, after the first day of shooting, whether you are in for a week or four days of shooting; I like to immediately show what we did that day to the client – already coloured. Even if it’s not perfectly post-produced – we want to make them feel like ‘ok… I’m really comfortable with these guys’. That gives us a lot of freedom later. If people are cool with you, you can really push them into your ideas. So, this is a way of working that is very specific, I think, to us.
Clients love that. Agencies too. So we work that way.
R: What would you love to be shooting tomorrow? If the phone were to ring after we finish this call, what’s the perfect product or the perfect job for you next?
M: Ah, that’s a question!
R: It’s giving Philippe time to think before I ask him. (Philippe laughs)
M: Tomorrow? … I would love to do a small personal project with Philippe, you know? Sort of creative research. We started a series that we called ‘ugly’, with just one film, with an octopus. I like that film very much. So for me, tomorrow I would like to do something like that. That would be my best, next project.
P: Maybe the next one we are going to be briefed for. We have been interrogated for a film only on body and on skin. So it’s a ground that we’ve never been exploring before.
M: It’s actually quite scary Philippe… no?
P: It’s a bit scary, but it’s a new adventure and I think it’s one of the things that I would like to explore. Body as a landscape – could be very interesting.
R: Do you think it is possible to be a food filmmaker and not cook?
M: Yes, I think it could be. Doing food films does not make me hungry. I have a completely different relation with food when it’s an art object, than if I’m eating it. It’s very strange. There’s a complete dissociation. I don’t try to make people drool (with my films). If they drool, good for them, but it’s not my first purpose. My first purpose is to bring out the ‘inner beauty’. I probably have too much of an aesthetic approach.
All the same, it doesn’t make me hungry – making food films. I’m sorry if that disappoints you (Michael laughs).
R: No, I think your clients are very happy. They don’t want to make you hungry, they want to make the audience hungry.
M: Yeah, exactly.
R: That’s perfect. I really enjoyed our chat, thanks guys, it’s been fun.