Ronald Koetzier, definitely one of the masters of tabletop, sits down with us to share his insights for a perfect food commercial, as well as his angle for achieving the ideal close-up and his legendary suitcase of gears. The interview was conducted by Jakub Laskus, founder of Bites, and Agnieszka Celej, editor-in-chief of Director’y.
Agnieszka Celej: Ronald, how do you feel as a director whose stills land in almost every brief as the mood board?
Ronald Koetzier: That is what happens a lot nowadays – agencies and clients are looking for examples. You can’t just say ‘oh, the chocolate’s flowing from left to right and in the meantime there are hazelnuts flying in the air‘. They need to see examples. They end up looking for examples and they see my work and go… ‘ah!‘.
But, to be honest, I do the same. I also look at someone else’s work and say ‘that’s nice’ and sometimes, if it was done with yogurt and strawberries for example; you can use the same good trick, but with chocolate and hazelnuts. You just change it a little bit and you have something new.
The only thing that’s not-so-nice, is when the client insists on doing something exactly the same way someone else has already done it. So agencies are looking for examples, and once it’s approved by their bosses, the example becomes a 1:1 reference. It’s a pity. There is less freedom nowadays.
A: Do you see such a tendency? On one hand we are surrounded by tons of images, but the result is the opposite? Instead of having a broader imagination, do we end up with less freedom?
R: It’s rather that the companies are getting bigger and everyone is afraid that they’ll make the wrong choices. They’re looking for examples, they test things and they change the storyboard. Run tests again, till, finally, after 3 months, it’s a perfect storyboard. The director is called; and as a director, if you want to change something, it’s not possible. In such situations I always tell them ‘ok, I’ll be a cameraman then – it’s much cheaper‘.
A: Are you suggesting that the director should be involved in the creative process prior to the brief?
R: That would be nice. It happens, but rather rarely. Sometimes I feel sad for the agencies, because it’s tough to come up with something new. Doing something completely differently is super hard. Then again, sometimes I’m happy that I get the ready idea, or 80% of the idea. If I did it all myself, it could take a lot of work and a lot of frustration.
A: Having such vast experience and shooting so many commercials, is there any product you’d still like to shoot?
R: What I like about shooting is lighting, the composition and movement – just making beautiful pictures. That’s the reward for me, when you go ‘wow, that’s fantastic!‘.
It can happen with any product. A bottle of perfume, flowing chocolate; literally anything.
A: And how often do you feel rewarded after seeing the final result? How many times is it exactly what you’ve imagined?
R: Oh, yeah, that’s a funny question. The thing is, on set, especially when you do a lot of special effects, things change. Plan A never works – you always end up with plan D or E.
Sometimes, you see the storyboard and you think, ‘oh, that’s gonna be fantastic‘ and then in the end it doesn’t work out like that- the effects don’t really work well. Then sometimes you see a storyboard and you say ‘it’s gonna be boring, but let’s do it’- and it turns out to be great.
A: What would be the perfect recipe for a good commercial?
R: What I always suggest is a combination of spectacular, appetizing shots. For me that’s the perfect commercial. For example, if it’s a chocolate commercial, you can explode the chocolate rock and fly around it and you see the chocolate parts crumbling; you see power. That’s spectacular, but not appetizing. After that you need beautiful dripping chocolate which is mouthwatering. Then of course, if you have interesting live action in there – I think that’s the best recipe for tabletop.
Jakub Laskus: That’s interesting. I’ve come to the realization that some DoPs and directors are looking for something that is very cinematic, very moody, ‘dirty’. Then again, as you’ve said just now, as long as it’s food, something that’s supposed to be eaten, it needs to be mouth watering. Maybe it’s impossible to create commercials that sell food by using just artificial and ‘dirty’ work. Very interesting aspect.
R: No, you need beautiful, appetizing shots for sure. Often in a lot of cases they are close-ups, because then, you get really close to the product, you see how it behaves. How it stretches, how it reacts,… how it crashes. The moment you get farther away, it’s not appetizing anymore.
A: So the trick is to be close then?
R: Yeah, to be with the food, with the product.
J: But why do we have to be close?
R: Perhaps, it’s similar to when it’s close to your mouth? You can see it, you can smell it.
J: Maybe it’s about giving the product a different look when it’s much closer?
R: Yeah, but then you also have to be careful not to get too close. Like when you have a piece of meat too close; it’s not nice. But you learn it throughout the years, you develop a special sense for it.
A: How many years exactly did it take you to develop that sense?
R: If I say, it’s gonna be known that I’m from the dinosaur age (Ronald laughs). I walked into the first studio in 1986. And I haven’t left since.
A: When did you first hear the term ‘tabletop’? Was it obvious back then?
R: I started in live action, did car commercials and everything. Then I did one nice food commercial – a very nice food commercial for the United States.
After getting another one; you think ‘oh, that’s nice’, and then you put another, and another in the reel. Your car commercial gets too old, and then, …suddenly, you become the ‘food guy‘. (laugh).
With food commercials, you need a lot of experience; and, that’s what I got over the years. For me, it’s also relaxing; shooting food in a studio. When you shoot cars, or generally, when you film outside, there’s always this panic of ‘oh no, this is the last minute before the sun sets’. And in the studio? Well, if it’s not finished, you just keep going. The sun never sets.
A: Surely, it’s not the most relaxing job in the world…
R: I always compare it with playing music. When you really know how to play, when you master the instrument, it’s not so difficult anymore. It’s also not so stressful anymore. When you’re only starting, it’s difficult, it’s frustrating.
Just like with making music, you always need to develop, you need to find new things. In tabletop, you need to look for what’s new. What are the new trends in food; 10 years ago it was definitely different.
A: Any major changes over the past years?
R: Now we have amazing robots that can do beautiful movements. I also see them as musical instruments – in the beginning you make a lot of mistakes with the wrong moves, that don’t work. But after a while, you get used to it. I use them a lot. For me, it’s an extra creative element.
J: And food, is usually the best when filmed in high speed.
R: Yeah, food is good when it bounces, crashes into one another, when it breaks; because then, you can see the structure. The moment you’re scooping yoghurt and you see it stretch or fall, you understand the product. That’s what makes it interesting. On the other hand, it makes it more complicated for the lighting. The lighting needs to look good from any position.
J: When is tabletop lighting the most spectacular? Could you somehow describe the most beautiful light?
R: Well, I have a sort of trick in my head. I treat the light the same- with every object. Take, for example, car commercials; if you want to have a reflection at the front of the car, the light needs to be shone from that side. It’s the same with a tomato – if you want to have a reflection from a particular angle, you need to light it from there.
In my head I have a system. I treat every object the same and it helps. For me, lighting is super simple. When you look at my reel, it’s one look; and it’s sort of ‘my look’.
J: Still, there are certain shots in your reel that stand out; that are super cool. You can feel it especially in chocolate shots. There’s an extra layer of something there.
R: Yeah, but it’s always the same three-step rocket: it’s the lighting, the camera movement and then, it’s the grading. In grading, I also have a few tricks to make it pop. For me that’s also super important. My way of lighting really helps later in grading. But the lighting is super difficult and quite crucial. When you light food and it’s too flat: it loses the depth and the texture. However, when it’s too contrasting: it becomes too rough and also not appetizing. It’s critical, especially with high speed- it’s very difficult. A lot of DoPs cannot do it.
J: The majority can’t; I know it all too well.
R: Well that’s the thing. If you just do it once a month or once every two months; you never become good. You need to do it every day, every week.
You need to make a 1000 mistakes and learn from them – then you become good.
When I look at car commercials now, they are super specialized; it’s the same with food. Because now you also need to know special effects. You can ask an actor to jump a little bit higher, whereas, you can’t ask a tomato to jump higher. I need to make the tomato jump higher.
J: There are also a lot of ways a tomato can jump.
R: Yes, it can jump and rotate for example. There are a lot of tricks. I travel with a lot of tricks in my bag.
A: Yeah, I’ve heard some stories about that secret suitcase you travel with. Is there a piece of equipment that you can’t imagine coming to the shoot without?
R: Well, I started taking my gear with me, because usually when you come into the studio, the smallest thing they have is a magic arm; it’s way too big. You have to have tiny little things with you, as you work with: hazelnuts and strawberries; and rig them. After so many frustrating days, I now buy my own things and travel with them. Then it adds up; you end up traveling with 80 kilos, but sometimes it’s worth it.
A: A perfect illustration of a hands-on approach.
R: I always liked to do it; I need to understand what happens. I need to pour things myself, because in my head, I already have the final result.
A: You’re a director who travels a lot. How does your work look like now, after the pandemic? Has it come back to normal?
R: I’ve never worked from home. I don’t know how it happened; simply, I’ve always traveled. During the pandemic, however, I was very lucky; I kept working remotely, a lot. It seems this year I’m back to traveling like crazy again. It’s nice to see people again too. To have interactions; I guess that’s how everyone feels. It was very frustrating to me to direct through Zoom. It was so hard to tell people what to do. Since I usually set my own lightings; and it makes a difference if I set it a little bit to the left or right. I made sure to tell agencies, ‘ok, if we do it remotely, it’s going to be like 80% of what I could do before‘. They said that it’s fine and we went forward. Now, I’m back on the road.
A: After so many years shooting, do you still have a craving for experimenting?
R: Yeah, I don’t have a lot of time for it, but I actually have the luxury of being able to experiment during the paid jobs sometimes. They let me try new things – I can do almost whatever I want.
J: I feel like you are quite often asked to create something new. Maybe not on the shooting day, but before, once they show you some references.
R: Yes, agencies leave a lot of things up to me. I always get nervous when during a briefing someone says ‘we want something new, something we’ve never seen before‘.
It’s always funny.
Everything has been done before. Maybe not for your market, or not with that product. We live on planet Earth – when something goes up, it has to fall down.
The combination of live and CGI can be quite interesting, because you can be surprised with how it turns out; but I prefer to shoot everything ‘for real’. Except for the introduction of the robot a couple years ago, I have not seen anything new or that I haven’t seen before. The style of editing is different and you can do more editorial stuff nowadays. Where the shot doesn’t have to be perfect: crumbs can be everywhere, the cheese can be dripping – that’s all fine. However, that’s also not completely new.
A: How do you see the future of tabletop?
R: Well, a few years ago I thought CGI would catch on and everything would be CGI, but that didn’t happen; because even CGI is very difficult. A lot of people will say they can do it, yet, for CGI: we need to have a keen eye for good composition, good lighting. If you don’t have it, it looks terrible.
I think tabletop will always stay unique. I recently heard a story, where a company did a lot of live-action shots, and they didn’t sell at all. On the fact that, now they can trace and track when they air the live-action commercial; they can see how much it sells. The moment they did a food commercial, however, the sales went up. Beautiful food sells. I think it will always stay, one way or another.
A: What about the social media? Did the evolution of digital media affect your work?
R: For me, it doesn’t matter where they air the final commercial. What’s the most essential for me, though, is that it needs to be beautifully framed for the vertical and landscape at the same time.
J: And on the visual level, do you think there’s a need to differentiate the approach between TV and social media?
R: I don’t know. Food needs to be good. Of course, with Instagram, you need to make a point in 3 seconds and you need to add the branding, so, yeah, it’s different, but it’s more agency’s thing. Not my cup of tea.
J: And what we do – tabletop – is good for short forms, so…
R: Yeah, we’re used to doing 5’ demos and making a point in 5 seconds. So there’s a good future there for tabletop.
A: Do you have a professional skill that you value the most in your job?
R: Patience. Because you need to do it over and over and over again.
A: Is it patience for people or patience for robots?
R: Both,… both. Patience and communicating. Also, patience towards agencies and clients, if they have another request or want to try another option and so on. It all takes time.
J: Multitasking is also a very important aspect I think. Some directors I know can work on two or three sets simultaneously. It’s insane.
When you master it, it becomes easy. Then you can concentrate on other difficult things; as it’s quite hard work being a cameraman and a director. I definitely always shoot two sets, sometimes three, sometimes four, in a day; all in one studio. So you really have to be multitasking. I’ve mastered the lighting, so I don’t have to think about it anymore and I can focus on the movements and talking to the clients.
A: So what would be your favorite phase of the production process?
R: I like being on set. I like working: with different people, being in different environments, in different parts of the world, different foods, different cultures. To me, that’s the best part. To go to the same building everyday seems boring to me.
A: It’s a lot of fun being Ronald Koetzier. (everyone laughs)