Although movies have long relied on half-cooked turkeys colored with motor oil, fruit made of plastic, and ice cream carved from Crisco, food in film is increasingly edible and even delicious.
“Everybody thinks it’s all shellacked,” said Colin Flynn, a New York-based chef and stylist who worked with food stylist Susan Spungen on the film "Julie and Julia."
“In the ’70s and ’80s it was more like that. Food looked more like Plasticine. Nowadays it’s almost always real food.”
For food stylists, most of whom began as cooks, it’s a welcome change. It’s also good for audiences, who have become more sophisticated about food and expect more realistic images. And directors believe that well-prepared food can improve the actors’ performances and the look of the final scene.
“The challenge always is making it seem delicious and hyper-real,” said John Lyons, president of production for Focus Features. “If it doesn’t look hyper-real, it doesn’t work in the movie.” That means a dish needs to be fresh-looking and well-prepared to begin with, and then enhanced with a bit of oil here and a little fake steam there.
There are a thousand little ways to make it easy on the actors.. Parsley needs to be used sparingly so it doesn’t get stuck in teeth. Toast can’t be so toasty that it crunches too loudly. Low-fat options like apple slices need to be tucked on top of a high-calorie dish that an actor has to nibble on repeatedly.
Of course, there are plenty of times a food stylist has to employ tricks. Cherry pies are filled with mashed potatoes, poultry is partly roasted and painted with Kitchen Bouquet, glycerin and water make beads of sweat on glasses, and ice cream is wrapped around dry-ice nuggets so it won’t melt.
When Amy Adams, who plays blogger Julie Powell in the movie, drops a fruit Bavarian on the sidewalk, she is actually dropping a special breakaway mold filled with whipped cream and raspberry purée. And the stuffing in a chicken that she drops on her kitchen floor had to be doused in heavy cream so it splatted properly.
On the set of “Julie & Julia,” the lobsters posed a special challenge. Ms. Adams appears to plunge two live lobsters into a pot of steaming water. The steam is actually a cool mist, and just off camera representatives from the American Humane Association monitored the creatures’ health.
All of the effort paid off, Ms. Powell said. “The food is so much prettier than anything I ever made,” she said. “It’s like other aspects of watching your stuff go into the movie. It’s all much prettier than me.”