2000s Archive

My Life as a Hand Model

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Marrufo held my hands delicately in hers. “Your hands are beautiful,” she said. “But the key is not their appearance. It’s how well you move them.”

“But will they work?” I insisted. “Am I qualified to goose the Pillsbury Doughboy?”

Marrufo looked at my hands again. She smiled. “I can make you a star.”

My big break came the following week, at the studios of Arf & Co., in Hoboken, New Jersey. Director Alex Fernbach was shooting a commercial for Freschetta Brick Oven Pizza. A gentle, philosophical man who was born in France and raised in New York City, Fernbach, 52, could be the Jacques Derrida of food commercials.

“The challenge of food photography,” he said, “is that fundamentally the equipment doesn’t scale with the food. If you want to take a picture of a car, or two people, you’re far enough away that you won’t interfere with the attitude or lighting of your subject. But say you’re looking at a wonton.”

For decades, he noted, food was presented in commercials in a direct way: Here is a sandwich; here is a bowl of soup. Today, that food has to be presented laden with emotion, whether surprise, or comfort, or sophistication. But the emotion must not be overt—it must be subtle, communicated ineffably by the image on the screen.

“A big part of commercials used to be the ‘bite and smile,’” Fernbach said. “Someone had to register the delight of biting into the food. Nowadays we must convey that emotion in different ways.”

In this commercial, even though you’re eating a pizza pulled from your freezer, you must feel as if you’re eating a pizza pulled from a brick oven. To do that, Fernbach’s team built a brick oven, which they filmed first. On top of that, they layered in some flames. Today, they are shooting a baker’s peel sliding into the oven, retrieving the pizza, and lifting it toward the camera.

To do this, they need a hand model. Furino was hired for this job, too, but after a few takes, it was time for the understudy. I step into place, standing directly underneath a 1,000-pound film camera mounted on a computerized rig. In front of me is the pizza, put on a blue screen that will later be replaced by the oven, shot the previous day.

The choreography would go as follows: Fernbach would cue the lights and launch the camera, which would swoop into place, making the kind of noise that trucks make when shifting into reverse. To avoid being decapitated, I had to kneel. As soon as the camera brushed my shoulder, I had to leap to my feet, grab the three-foot wooden peel, slide it under the pizza, jerk the pizza into place, then follow the camera to three spots that corresponded to oven, hearth, and camera. All the finger exercises in the world could not have prepared me for this contortion—or this pressure. At roughly $100,000 a day, this crew clocks in at $10,000 an hour.

“Ready,” Fernbach cries, and a technician snaps one of those slate time stamps.

“Lights.” I feel as if I’m tucked into a metallic cocoon.

“Camera.” I’m staring into a tunnel directly at the pizza.

“Action!” The camera whizzes by my head.

“Now!” I rise from my knees, grab the peel in my hand, slide it under the pizza (yes!), make the slight jerk, and it leaps into place (“Is it crooked?”), pull it to the first stop (“Did I hit it?”), slide it toward the second, then lift it slightly toward the third. Suddenly I’m done and the place erupts into applause.

“Not bad!” Fernbach cries, patting me on the back. “Not bad. Look at that smooth turn. A little bit slower to point A, but not bad ...”

I do another take, and the pizza falls off the peel. In my third take the entire gesture seems smooth. Hardly practiced elegance, but I’m reminded of the advice Fernbach had given me earlier: “If you’re comfortable, you’re not doing your job.”

The next day, the pizza is ready for its closeup, as am I. The pie is nailed to a board as I am charged with taking a pizza cutter, slicing through the crust, bisecting slices of onion and pepperoni, then lifting my arm as Fernbach goes sliding under with the camera.

The big challenge is making the pizza look piping hot. Among the hardest things to shoot in food photography is steam. Food photographers talk about shooting steam the way mountain climbers talk about scaling Everest. Fernbach even outfitted his studio with a hyperpowered air conditioner so he could drop the temperature 20 degrees in an hour, thereby requiring less heat to make steam.

In the old days, photographers made steam by combining the vapors of ammonium and hydrochloric acid, but steam made that way doesn’t dissipate and it looks chemical. Later, they began hiding calcium smoke chips around the food. In recent years, they’ve tried dry ice, cappuccino makers, even theatrical foggers. Fernbach found that one surefire technique of getting steam from, say, a baked potato is to stuff it with a moistened tampon. “The mixture of concentrated moisture and heated surroundings produces the most gorgeous steam,” he said. Now there’s a tip for the next dinner party.

For the pizza, Fernbach uses an industrial clothes steamer. I position myself on one leg. He calls for the shot, and I cut the crust, slice the onion, slide through the cheese. Then we do it over and over again.

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