Food Photography Tips from Pixar's Sharon Calahan,
Director of Photography on the movie Ratatouille
Yesterday I published Part One of an Interview with Sharon Calahan, the woman responsible for lighting the stunning computer graphics for the Pixar movie Ratatouille. Today Sharon shares some of the techniques they used on the movie and suggests some Food Photography tips for enthusiasts at home.
In general, what elements do you think constitute really great food photography?
"Great food photography celebrates the food and tries to make its intrinsic characteristics palpable in the image. Find one aspect about the food that you want to showcase and eliminate distractions. Is the photo about the fuzz on the peach? Is it about the glisten on the cut surface? The plating or other props in the image support the food as a frame does to a painting. Variety in the surfaces in the image helps to create lustre and richness. Light that isn't too frontal helps to bring out the color and translucency of the surfaces. And, like a beautiful woman's face, soft lighting doesn't hurt."
The strongest recommendation I hear given to budding food photographers is to shoot in natural light. But in a CG movie you have no natural light! What techniques do you employ digitally to make your lighting look as realistic as possible?
"One thing that really helps is that I'm not trying to make anything look realistic.
I'm trying to make things look like the best memory you have of something. Memories, like Ego's flashback to childhood, are reductive to essential elements. They are stylized and simplified and glamorized. There obviously needs to be enough detail and accuracy for it to be believable, but I stop there. It is more effective to let the imagination of the audience fill in the rest than to show them every wrinkle. Light properties in the computer are extremely limiting, and even with the best of illumination models much needs to be massaged and faked to arrive at something that looks natural. This is probably the most challenging aspect to CG lighting. Again, this is where a goal short of reality is a good thing."
What new lighting techniques did you employ on Ratatouille that you haven't used on previous movies?
"I used less color in the illumination and in the shadows, and instead tried to enhance the local color of surfaces themselves. We also wanted to have a rich patina to the reflective surfaces and needed to develop new ways to simulate accurate soft reflections."
What would be your top three tips for people who want to create mouth watering food pictures with little more than a digital camera and a lot of enthusiasm?
* ask yourself what the photo is about, be specific, and eliminate distractions that compete with your goal.
* use depth of field as one of the tools to help you.
* modulate the light in some way or use the surface characteristics to modulate the light response.
* have fun and experiment, oops that's four!
Do you have any composition tricks that you used to really help show off the chef's plating?
"These are concepts that apply to any image making process. A plated dish
is very similar to a painting...
* Creating a focal point, use size and position.
* Playing with contrasts/similarities in shapes and colors and surfaces.
* Create accents
* Create interesting negative spaces"
I heard that Thomas Keller consulted on Ratatouille. Did you get to interact with him and how did he help bring the magic of the kitchen to life?
"I would have loved the opportunity to meet Thomas Keller, but our paths did not cross. He is a true genius and his passion for cooking did help infuse the film with magic."
Did you start dining out more than usual when you started working on Ratatouille and did you find yourself looking at food with a different eye? Was your enjoyment of dinner spoilt by the work study aspect?
"The biggest challenge was looking at images of food and wine all day and not
being constantly hungry and eating!"
What are your favourite restaurants are in the Bay Area?
"I am a bit challenged because I eat a vegan diet. Fortunately it is possible in the Bay Area to be both a foodie and a vegan, but you have to work at it, and you have to enjoy cooking. I recently spent Memorial Day weekend foraging for morel mushrooms in the mountains of Eastern Oregon. We took a break at lunch, sauteed a generous quantity in garlic and fresh herbs with a backpacking stove, loaded up a baguette and completely pigged out. It was heaven, you can't do that in a restaurant."
And finally what is your favourite dish of all time - camera be damned - you'd be so eager to indulge, this dish would never last long enough for a beauty shot.
"Anything with white truffles shaved on top would have to be at the top of my list."
A huge thanks to Sharon for taking the time to answer my questions. I was tickled when I found out she was a Vegan and that the main dish in the movie is Vegan too. I love it when Vegan food hits the mainstream and nobody even notices. Did you notice? I bet you didn't. I don't know about you, but now I can't wait until the weekend when I hope to try out of some of Sharon's tips to make my food photographs more interesting. Also thanks to my friend Ian who works at Pixar and put the steps in motion to help make this interview happen for me.