Tim Landsberg, a German food stylist with 28 years of experience, talks about his beginnings as a professional chef and how that chapter of his career shaped what he practices now. The conversation was led by Rob Payton – a passionate film director with 20 years of experience… and hungry for more.
Rob: Let’s start with (what I consider) a really obvious, logical question – how did you become a food stylist?
Tim: I started out as a chef; working in high-class restaurants. Then I went on to working on my first chef book, in one of the restaurants; with a photographer. I learned about this business, about how it works; and then I worked in my first photo studio as a food stylist. That was in 1992, everything was analogue – they were real pictures. No photoshop or anything like that. I’ve been doing this job for 28 years now… so, a long time.
R: So why did you want to get out of the kitchen? I mean, it’s not a natural progression. Had you, had, enough of the restaurants? What was the reason?
T: I’ve worked as a freelance food stylist and at the same time as a chef in various restaurants. As a beginner, you have to make a name for yourself in the industry to make a living. I loved both jobs: the hustle and bustle in the kitchen and the precise, detail loving work for photos. As a food stylist, you have to take the time to make everything perfect. Those are two completely different things.
R: So do you think one has to be a chef to become a food stylist?
T: Yeah, definitely. Normally, you only get the recipe, and if you don’t know what the end-product is, nor the way to get to it; you have no chance of success. You must be a chef to do this job.
R: How different is it to plate the food in a restaurant, than as a stylist for the camera?
T: The differences are in the angles: the lines, shadow and light. You have to make the two-dimensional photo, have the 3D effect. That’s so different to what you do as a chef. In fact, that’s the breaking point you must get, to become a food stylist- the thing you have to learn. I had this realization after 5 years. Now I can plate a burger that looks 99% perfect in 30 minutes; because I see where the shadows and the light spots are, immediately in my head.
R: Ok, and does styling for stills compare to styling for a moving picture?
T: It’s not so different. Only the speed changes. For a TV commercial, you know you have 20 takes. For instance, when you have a moving camera and a sauce dripping down, the audience might not notice in the final commercial that this is ‘a little too high’, because it’s on the screen for just a split second; while with stills, you can look at them for two hours and notice every mistake. So creating a moving image is a little bit easier, I think.
R: On the other hand, with a still image, if you have to do a clean-up, it’s just one frame to fix. It’s not 25 frames a second, that you have to deal with.
R: I’m sure you’ve worked with many tabletop and live-action directors. How important do you think it is that the director specializes in food while filming tabletop films? Do you think a live-action director can achieve the end-product with the help of a food stylist?
T: I think every tabletop director is in the same profession as a food stylist. It’s all about: details, perfection, one little square of light…
R: Ok, so, without giving any names away; what defines a good tabletop director?
T: Oof, it’s a really hard question.
R: Good! (they both laugh)
T: I’m really in no position to say what’s good and what’s not. I’m a part of the team that tries to make the one shot perfect. In this team everyone knows what we have to achieve. After 28 years of working in this business, I think a good director must: look for the light, for the camera movements, the food; so in the end, they achieve a perfect look.
R: Getting into sort of trends again: can we talk about messy food? Because there was a period of time when everything had to look like fine-art photography – beautiful images that you wanted to hang on your wall, but they didn’t have ‘appetite’ appeal. I would like you to talk a little about the difference between creating a beautiful image and a tasty image.
T: I feel like today, everything can be beautiful and everything can be tasty. In the beginning, in the 90’; I couldn’t use black pepper, because people would say it looks like dirt on the table. Yet now: it’s all about the bread crumbs, salad leaves, red wine drops on the table. I think it’s a learning process for everyone – it’s learning about what looks good for everyone. At the moment, we love these ‘dirty’ tables, the ‘dirty’ styling, because it makes it home-style. I guess, it also depends on the product.
R: Tell me, what are some of commercials that you’re really proud of.
T: I’m really good in fast-food-styling. I’ve been working for McDonald’s for 20 years, for different countries: Germany, Poland, Switzerland, Baltic states, even China. They are a very big client for me. In the beginning, we were doing many, many pack-shots – which were basically – pretty burgers. Now we have so many food scenes with action; and these action food scenes are the ones I like the most. This one moment, when for a second everything looks perfect: the drop, the light, the camera movement. We’re all working together with robot arms now, that are all computer-triggered; which makes it easier for food stylist to create beautiful pictures.
R: When you do these live-action scenes, now I suppose you have to use real burgers. It’s a very different thing than building a burger for a pack-shot. How do you make a burger that’s gonna be eaten and still look pretty? There’s nothing worse than a burger that’s been bitten into… you know?
T: Sure. It’s easier to build a burger for the pack-shot, because there I can put my salad leaves wherever I want and fix it. In the eating scenes, we have to work faster. If you grab a burger with two hands, you can only see 40-30% of the burger- so it’s actually easier.
R: So you’re also a choreographer – you have to teach people how to hold a burger, not just make them.
T: Yeah…how to hold it, how to prep it; making sure the pinky is not too high. It’s a part of my job too.
R: How have things evolved over 20 years? Essentially, they’re the same products, but the style of advertising them has changed so much. Can you tell me how working with McDonalds has changed?
T: When we started, we were shooting two burgers on one day; for pictures – every layer had to be absolutely perfect- everything had to be perfect. That attitude lasted for 10 years. Then, after 10 years, came the new idea, where there could be crumbs in shot; the seasoning could fall more messily. We started to throw cheese and pickle slices in the air. As for the pictures, I remember a creative director coming up to me and saying “We’re going crazy today! We’re going to off centre the top bun a little bit” and I said “What?!” (laugh). This was around 2005-2006; it changed everything. Although, it also depends on the country. In Switzerland, for example, they’re loving more strict; in Germany, they liked it more the homestyle way. So the burgers don’t look really that a food stylist had done them. Although the colleague has also put a lot of heart and soul into it. (Tim and Rob laugh)
R: Yes; ‘Can you style it, as if a food stylist, hasn’t done it?’. I’m sure you’ve had that request a few times.
T: Of course, such requests come, especially when you have to produce more “content”.
R: Ah, perfect link to my next question actually. The advertising model is changing constantly. How does social media creatively affect you? What’s more, how does it affect the business side of your work – the budget, etc.?
T: Usually, when we have the product, we put it on the pack-shot table for the TVC; and then we take it to a photographer to do the social media content stuff. Everything is possible, everything can be worked out, but we need minimum 5-10 minutes for every picture; and if you have ten products to do, it’s two more hours of work. So I think it’s really important: for the production house, for the food stylist – for everybody; to add a little bit more time to make the end-result, 100% perfect.
R: Ah, yes, the golden thing – ‘time’. Do you think that in the future, you’ll have more food stylists on one project; or that you’ll have more assistants on set; as it’s getting more and more like a production line?
T: Yes, I think that’s the future. For me, it’s so normal to have two or three sets in one production house. We test the lights here; we make the test shoot there. I cannot fix all three sets, so, going into the day, you need a team, to shoot easily and professionally.
R: Are you tempted to direct?
T: No, no. I’m not a director and I wouldn’t know how to be one. As a food stylist, I can collaborate with the director and we can work together on finding the right shots; seeing what’s possible, what’s not. On my most recent McDonald’s shoot; in the Baltic state. I had a chat with a director; basically, we talked about what we could do in the time-period we had; with the amount of equipment we had. We did two shots that I’d recommended; and it worked; but I’m not a director. I’m focusing on my work and on doing it perfectly.
R: These days there are so many legal requirements, and compliance issues; how do you deal with those?
T: I like to style the product on testing day and present it to the client and the agency for approval. So then, we can discuss if that’s the original product; or is there too much over-promise; is it too nice; does it need to be natural. But overall, I think we’re doing a commercial, not a documentary.
R: What’s the strangest thing you got asked to do?
T: I’ve had an agency ask me “If I’d teach lessons for other food stylist, to give them all my secret tricks for styling”. To which, I replied, “Would you go up to a magician and ask how he does his tricks?”. Obviously, I didn’t do it. But that, was the strangest thing an agency has ever asked me to do.
R: Would you work for a competitor; like if Burger King came up to you? Or do you feel like that would be a conflict of interest?
T: Not now. Back in the 90’ we told it „unwritten laws“; so if you shot McDonalds, you couldn’t do Burger King; but now it’s different.
R: What would be the perfect job for you, an offer that would make you smile?
T: I think it wouldn’t be about a certain product, but rather about a scene or a trick; that would make the impossible possible.
R: As a professional, when you’re looking at a commercial and the styling is bad; how do you react to it?
T: I try not to judge, because I don’t know how the situation was during their production. Sometimes, you have more time, sometimes you have less time. But, in my experience, you don’t see a lot of bad stylists. You simply see, that sometimes, they don’t get enough time.