Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Food Photography Tips from Pixar's Sharon Calahan,

Director of Photography on the movie Ratatouille
picture photograph Thomas keller recipe for Confit Biyaldi the ratatouille recipe used in the movie by Pixar 2007 copyright of sam breach http://becksposhnosh.blogspot.com/
This Ratatouille made using the Thomas Keller recipe for Confit Biyaldi that was behind the dish in the movie. Ok - mine doesn't look as good as the one in the movie but it tasted really great!

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."

picture photograph Still from Ratatouille of Remy and Linguini used in the movie by Pixar 2007 copyright of Disney and Pixar used with permission by sam breach http://becksposhnosh.blogspot.com/

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"

picture photograph Still from Ratatouille of Remy and omlette used in the movie by Pixar 2007 copyright of Disney and Pixar used with permission by sam breach http://becksposhnosh.blogspot.com/

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.

Local Resources
Vegan Recipes for Appetizers
Vegan Recipes for Main Courses
Vegan Recipes for Dessert

2006 | A Recipe for Summer Pudding
2005 | The Five Cookbook Meme

© 2007 Sam Breach
Food Photography Tips from Pixar's Sharon Calahan,


  • At 16/7/07 22:30, Anonymous Anonymous said…

    Sam, I have to ask. Was the ratatouille in the film REALLY vegan?

    No butter in a French restaurant?

    I didn't watch from a vegan's point of view ("Did they have to use butter?!") or an anti-vegan's point of view "("Ha! They used butter! That proves it!").

    But did Thomas Keller really devise a dish of that unctuous appearance WITHOUT BUTTER?

    : D

    Great interview. Thank you, Sharon, for your educational and entertaining responses. I love it when vegans are not preachy. Well, I love it when anyone isn't preachy, but fun and accessible and promoting tasty things.


  • At 16/7/07 22:42, Blogger Sam said…

    Hi Tana

    The ratatouille in the film was 100% pixel. Local sustainable pixel, of course. The recipe I followed which is allegedly the one behind the dish in the movie is made with olive oil. It is a recipe from the South of France (so Fred tells me without me googling it to confirm) where they are more likely to use olive oil than butter. I have never made a ratouille with butter in it and I have been making it for more than 25 years by now.

    Despite being a carnivore I also have a mile obsession with cooking vegan food without people realising they are eating vegan food. We shouldn't necessarily even have to call it that. We are just eating great vegetables! I just had the pictured ratatouille for dinner and it was truly delicious topping a baked potato. I thinkI am about to go through a little ratatouille phase...

  • At 17/7/07 00:31, Blogger Pille said…

    That was quite helpful, thanks, Sam! I'm really keen to see the movie, but it's only launched here in Estonia on August 10th, so I still have a few weeks to suffer :)

  • At 17/7/07 02:52, Blogger Barbara said…

    Thanks for bringing us this interview Sam. I'm really looking forward to the movie arriving in NZ.

  • At 17/7/07 06:03, Anonymous Anonymous said…

    Thanks for this. Wonderful movie, wonderful interview, great photo tips!

  • At 17/7/07 07:05, Blogger Kalyn Denny said…

    Sam your ratatouille looks wonderful in the photo. Thanks for a very interesting glimpse into how they made the food look so good in this movie.

    I'm a bit curious about the olive oil vs. butter thing with ratatouille. I make my version with olive oil, which is what's used in most of the recipes I've seen. However, when I wrote about ratatouille for Blogher recently, someone with a very French-sounding name left a comment saying she was shocked to see olive oil, and that her mother would have never used anything but butter. It surprised me how adamant she seemed about it.

  • At 17/7/07 07:09, Blogger Casey said…

    Thanks for an intriguing interview,Sam.

  • At 17/7/07 08:51, Blogger Hillary said…

    I'm so glad I came back for part 2 of the interview! Your questions and Sharon's answers were very helpful (especially the one about taking great food photos with nothing but a digital camera and enthusiasm :) - that's me!) And by the way, the whole time I was watching the movie I kept thinking about how real the animation looked. Aside from the characters, everything looked real - from the glasses of wine to the food. Thank you for this Sam and Sharon!

  • At 17/7/07 11:03, Blogger meathenge said…

    Hey Sam,

    Thanks for laying down the most fun thing I've read in quite a long time. The boys have seen the movie, I have not. I may just go by myself! (They loved it).


  • At 17/7/07 11:10, Anonymous Anonymous said…

    Thanks so much for the interview, and especially for these great photo tips. I've been having trouble taking good photos for my blog - I never thought to look at it all like a painting!


  • At 17/7/07 11:33, Blogger Zoomie said…

    Most interesting post and advice! Thanks, Sam! I'm gonna make ratatouille tonight! I loved the movie! My version uses olive oil, too.

  • At 17/7/07 14:57, Blogger A Few Reservations said…

    Thanks for this, Sam. So many subjects close to my heart!

  • At 17/7/07 19:00, Blogger Heidi said…

    Having stumbled onto your blog, I have to say I'm looking forward to reading more of it. What an awesome interview...

  • At 17/7/07 23:52, Blogger Jocelyn:McAuliflower said…

    Wonderful scoop! A great angle to a subject we all love.

  • At 18/7/07 08:45, Blogger Gemma said…

    This is very interesting, I am a total amateur when it comes to taking photos but trying hard! I saw a trailer for the film last week and once again looks like Pixar are on fine form.

  • At 18/7/07 17:40, Blogger Chubbypanda said…

    Thanks for this article, Sam. Cat and I loved the visual aspects of the movie. I thought the plot was a little weak. Cat disagrees. =)

  • At 18/7/07 19:45, Blogger cookiecrumb said…

    I loved these two installations of your interview. Yay!

    Also: Cannot *imagine* butter in ratatouille. Aren't you supposed to be able to eat it cold or at room temp the next day? Ee.

  • At 18/7/07 21:42, Blogger SteamyKitchen said…

    Oh I love it love it love it! Off to read the previous post

  • At 19/7/07 07:22, Anonymous Anonymous said…

    Fantastic interview! I loved it!

  • At 19/7/07 10:52, Anonymous Anonymous said…

    oh good god, I came here to read the photo tips and couldn't get past your photo. that is absolutely gorgeousht.

  • At 19/7/07 10:53, Anonymous Anonymous said…

    see so gorgeous i couldn't even type straight.

  • At 21/7/07 14:18, Blogger Catherine said…

    fascinating interviews. thanks for sharing this.

  • At 23/7/07 09:29, Blogger Parisbreakfasts said…

    THANK YOU for giving us this excellent interview!
    Much appreciated :)

  • At 15/10/07 09:10, Anonymous Anonymous said…

    Wonderful interview!

  • At 6/2/08 00:13, Anonymous Anonymous said…

    Hi... nice blog... Hehe.. That's one of my favorite cartoons.

  • At 28/1/10 03:06, Anonymous Term Papers said…

    Thanks so these tips, It was a great help to me.


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