There’s a sweet spot at the crossroads of food and pop culture. A nexus where bold ideas are king and creativity rules. Put creative taste and actual taste together and good things happen. This is what David Ma and his team of young and ambitious filmmakers thought when they tackled the crossroads where flavor meets film. The results are a vastly entertaining take on modern food porn.
Ma spent years working in food through styling and branding before he stepped out to become a commercial director. A focus and love of food remained through his career changes. Like us, Ma spends a lot of time looking at food online — absorbing what’s fresh and what’s stale. This love of food presentation led Ma to a sizzling hot idea, “What if famous movie directors made food videos?”
Ma assembled a team of like-minded filmmakers and a month later they had four shorts posted up on YouTube — a testament to ingenuity, ambition, and risk. We sat down with the visionary creative to talk about food, films, and how the two mediums collide. It’s a story about bold risks. It’s a story about setting your own path. In the end, it’s a story about a family (of hungry filmmakers) following their dreams.
Let’s start with the job title ‘food artist.’ How do you become a food artist?
You know, I don’t know. I put that in my Instagram bio. My dad still doesn’t know what that means. And I’m still figuring it out. As a food artist, I work with a lot of brands that to make social content or food commercials or installation pieces. They come to me to create projects for their brand that aren’t conventional. They’ll give me a brief and say, “Hey can you make something out of this?” Then I’ll come back with some ideas.
Did you ever work in a kitchen?
I’ve never worked as a chef. I consider myself a pretty decent home cook, but I fell into food kind of by accident. I was just putting really shitty photos of my pictures on Instagram and making original recipes. Then I got published in a few ‘Top 10 Foodies You Need to Follow.’
Where were you working when all this was starting?
I used to work in advertising as a copywriter. We were often short on set for these social food related shoots. I learned food styling just so we could get the shots we needed to look right. I Googled a bunch and assisted some stylists outside of work and found that it was really interesting. I really enjoyed the process of being responsible for making the food look good. I loved using tweezers to move chives on a plate and all that stuff. It let me explore a visual side that I’ve always enjoyed.
Do you have a film background?
You know, I’ve always been a film nerd I guess. Not a film nerd, I’ve just always enjoyed watching movies.
You’re a ‘cinephile.’
Yes. That’s right. I never went to film school. I went to art school in Atlanta, Georgia. I’ve always just enjoyed art and movies. I’ve watched a ton of movies. I really enjoy taking things that I see directors doing and applying them to places where they wouldn’t be expected — like in the food world.
Can you walk us through the inception of the idea to do this homage/ parody of famous directors directing food porn?
I was on Instagram one day scrolling through my feed and watching a lot of food accounts to see what’s being done and, more importantly, what isn’t being done. There’s been a huge trend in the last couple of years of recipe videos that are all over the place. I think they’ve kind of reached the saturation point. A lot of them are shot from the same overhead angle. They’ve all got the same hyper-lapsed footage. They’re paired with stocky music and very blocky titles.
There’s a lot of repetition and lack of artistry in that part of the industry for sure.
For me coming from a design and art background, it’s a little bit abrasive to the eye. At the same time, they are very hypnotic and it’s something that as a format, people have really gravitated towards. However, I think it’s become a bit ubiquitous and reaches this line where we just feel like we’re looking at the same video over and over again.
So, you’re fighting against conformity?
As a director, I’m constantly looking for ways to show things differently and to be original with stuff and shoot things and present things in an unexpected way. I thought to myself, ‘if someone had a huge budget’ — which I didn’t have by the way — ‘how would they approach this? How would a big Hollywood director tackle a simple recipe video?’ From then, I just started thinking about my favorite directors and what we could do with that and started drawing up storyboards that same evening.
How long was it between you having this idea to actually executing this and getting it up?
I couldn’t wait to get this going. So, the very next morning I called my team at 6 AM LA time, which was 9 AM New York time so I knew they’d be up. I was like, “guys, we’ve got to do this. It’s going to be awesome.” And we were shooting it three weeks later.
That’s a really fast turnaround considering all the props and costumes you have in these shorts.
I have a great core team that I work with a lot and they’re very fast. They’re all equally as passionate as I am when it comes to these side projects. We’ve done quite a few together in the past and I think we all really saw the merit of the idea and really wanted to get on this because it’s something so fun.
In a lot of food photography and production they use fake foods. But your films had a viscerally real look. Did you have any problems with the actual food performing for you?
Let me just first say that food is the biggest diva I’ve ever shot. It doesn’t do well under hot lights. It’s very tough. Since I came from a background as a food stylist before I got into directing, it was really important to me to have a strong food stylist. So I hired Hannah Kirshner. We’ve worked together in the past. She’s a great food stylist. I told her from the get go that we use all real food in these.
How did you accomplish the real look with real food?
Being that I’m a commercial director in the food space, clients are always looking for their food to look appetizing and drool worthy and look real. That was the challenge on our project. One, we had tomatoes that when we cut the tops off would spray tomato juice high up in the air. My props animator, Ryan Haims, worked very closely with Hannah to ensure that all his props and rigging could be done with real tomatoes or the explosions could happen with real flour.
What were some of the biggest challenges?
We had to shoot these things fast because that pile of pancakes wasn’t going to look very good after five takes under hot lights. It was a challenge, especially with the S’Mores. We had special chocolate bars made along with custom marshmallows that were in the color palette of our Wes Anderson film. We had to be a lot more curated and meticulous about the process.
One of my favorite shots was actually in the Alfonso Cuaron pancake film. When the syrup explodes horizontally across the screen and it looks sort of like a tubular web in slow motion. I was just sitting there thinking how it was either one take or you were there for two hours trying to get that perfect shot.
I wish we had had two hours to do it. We actually nailed that on the first take so your first instinct was right. The way we did that one was pretty crazy. We purchase a sub-woofer and removed the speaker lining, poured syrup inside, and then played dubstep music. We shot that at 2,000 frames per second and the syrup splashed up and we magically caught that somehow. It was some good ingenuity by my prop master.
That’s the magic of film right there.
Why Tarantino, Cuaron, Bay, and Anderson?
You know, I think they were the first four that came to mind. That was really crucial because I’d always envisioned this being an ongoing series. I knew that the first four had to be ones that had something in it for everyone.
Walk us through that rationale.
Whether you like Michael Bay or not, you know his stuff. Even if you’ve never seen a Transformers movie, you know from just the trailers that he over sound designs them. You know that he loves lens flares and shooting things from below and giant explosions and repeating shots.
Wes Anderson was for the film buffs. There’s a very cult following for him where people really love his style. There are countless YouTube videos that analyze his style. There’s such a dedicated following to him. I also saw him as a really daunting challenge to take on given the level of curation alone.
I’m just a huge Tarantino fan. Kill Bill is one of my favorite movies so it’s just one of those things where I thought, ‘we’ve got to try to do it with food because it’d be such an interesting world to play in, to get violent and visceral with it.’
Cuaron’s Gravity is such a beautifully shot movie. I wanted to apply that to the food world and see what would happen. I thought there was a really cool challenge in creating this world of zero gravity and weightlessness. It was one of the films I was most excited about when I was drawing up the story boards.
Who’s your favorite director?
Oh man. You know I don’t have a favorite director. I do enjoy Scorsese. I like Tarantino. Baz Luhrmann is great too. Christopher Nolan is awesome as well. I really enjoy a bunch of different works.
Where do you see this going? Do you already have some more in pre-production?
We’re already gearing up for pre-production on the next five or six films. The whole team is excited. Everyone online has been sending me emails and DM’s about directors they’d love to see next. It’s really fun to hear that because it’s cool that people are as excited about it as I was when I first came up with this idea.
Nice. Are you going to hit Scorsese next?
I’d love to. I think it’d be really interesting to do it. It’s a hard balance because we need to pick directors that not only are known but also their tropes or their styles translate well. Someone like Scorsese with his long shots would be something we could do.
Who doesn’t translate well?
Hum. I think Woody Allen with his neuroticism and dialogue don’t always translate to food as easily.
It’d be more like a stand-up shtick.
Exactly. Whereas, one of the directors we’re going to be tackling is Christopher Nolan and channeling Inception. We’re really excited about this one because we’re building a modular set that’s actually going to fold up, like the walls of the countertop, and it’s going to spin on a 360 axis. We’re definitely upping our production value on these as much as we can to really bring something new to the table for the next season. I hope people are going to be really surprised and excited by what we come up with.
Okay. I’ve got to ask you this, how are you funding this?
I self-funded these and the future of the project is still TBD. I have a team of really good producers who I’ve worked with for a long time. We’re talking to some production partners at the moment, but yeah… Hopefully, this won’t be another self-funded version or else I won’t be able to afford my apartment anymore.
You’ve got to roll those dice sometimes, right?
Exactly. I have no regrets about funding the first season. It was a really good learning experience and I met a lot of great people who volunteered to help us out on set.
If you were just a fan, which director would you love to see parodied next?
I’d love to see Tim Burton channeling some Sweeny Todd would be really cool. If we hadn’t just done Gravity, I would love to take on Kubrick for 2001: A Space Odyssey.
There’s a lot of material in the Kubrick oeuvre to draw from.
Absolutely. He’s just one of those greats that you’re almost afraid to touch because you want to do it right. That was my fear with Wes Anderson. My art director was so confident that we could pull it off, but I had some serious reservations. Anderson is so beloved and does such great work that I knew it was going to be a challenge for us to shoot that in half a day — which was what we did that in. It was a daunting task. And we pulled it off!
That must have been a very busy half day.
I can’t take credit for all that. It was all my crew. It’s really good communication and just being on the same page and being on the ball. Everyone was really pulling their weight, all the way down to the PAs. We came together and made it happen because we believe in this and decided to take the jump together.