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2000s Archive

My Life as a Hand Model

Originally Published September 2003
He’s more than a pair of pretty hands. What goes on behind the scenes in television commercials tells us a lot about the food we eat.

The bell peppers need more Vaseline. The Swiss cheese needs more baby powder. With just seconds to go before the cameras roll, assistants are placing hunks of cheese, piles of peppers, and bottles of olive oil around a stand-in pizza. The bottles refract the light and lend long shadows to the scene, as if it’s sunset on a hillside in Tuscany. A brawny prop guy appears and begins brushing baby powder onto the cheese so it doesn’t sweat, and another spreads Vaseline onto the bell peppers, then sprays them with water, forming delicate beads that cling longer to the skin.

“This is called a romance shot,” says executive producer Rick Katzen. “Don’t ask me how come the lighting says sunset, but the peppers look like they’re still covered in morning dew.”

On this bright spring morning, I’m standing in the cavernous studio of 50 Mile Radius [now Nadel Productions], in Manhattan. It looks like a cross between James Bond’s gadget factory and a M*A*S*H emergency room. Director Bruce Nadel, famous for his Red Lobster lemon squeeze, is shooting a commercial for Donatos, a Midwest-based pizza chain owned by McDonald’s, featuring their new Philly cheesesteak pizza. This first setup will be followed by an “appetite appeal” shot, in which cheese drips invitingly off a slice.

In the kitchen, about a dozen food stylists are preparing pies. There are 30 empty crusts, 50 onions, 100 bell peppers, and 3 trays of prebrowned cheese dollops (called scabs or spiders) standing at the ready. Each of the onions and peppers is being meticulously sliced and the winning rounds lightly browned in an oven. Each slice of steak is being sprayed with soy sauce and Kitchen Bouquet, then placed on a small griddle.

The lead food stylist takes a crust covered with lightly melted cheese and gingerly places each individual onion and bell pepper ring on top, being careful to tuck the steak into the peppers to give the pie more depth. Then she takes tweezers and situates about a dozen of the prebrowned scabs in strategic spots. The reason? The pie will continue to cook under the television lights, and everything is deliberately undercooked so it won’t turn gray too quickly.

Finally, the cry goes up: “Hero’s ready!”

Onstage, the assistants step aside, and in comes the perfect pizza. Nadel grabs his handheld camera and begins a near swan dive into the heart of the pie, curving, contorting, and getting millimeters from the tips of the peppers so the pizza looks like the Austrian Alps in The Sound of Music, all colorful, green, and alluring.

Ten seconds later Nadel abruptly quits. “Heat!” he cries, and assistants leap in with heat lamps and goggles, blasting the pie with white-hot light.

Suddenly we’re underneath the space shuttle before it takes off. When the cheese begins to bubble and the scabs begin to ooze, Nadel starts again. Once more we go through this routine; then the pizza is done.

It took 45 minutes to prepare the pizza; it took 45 seconds to shoot it.

Now James Furino walks onto the set. A lithe, forty-something drummer and onetime stand-up comedian, Furino is one of a select few supermodels who command double union scale per day ($839.40) for using their hands. Furino is supposed to chop the steak for the pizza. But there’s a twist: His hands will not be shown. The only thing you will see in the finished commercial is his chopping motion.

Later, Rick Katzen explains. In shots in which the hand is meant to be the stand-in for the customer—lifting the pizza, say, the fingers appear. But in shots in which the hand is meant to be preparing the food, the hand is not shown. To put it bluntly: Advertisers don’t want customers imagining that some minion in the kitchen is actually touching their food.

Nonetheless, hand models like Furino are still hired because they can do almost anything—and be almost anybody. “I’ve been Matthew Perry’s hands. I’ve been Regis Philbin’s hands. Once I was almost Michael Jackson’s hands.”

“Why did you lose the job?” I asked.

He cracked a stand-up’s smile. “My hands were too dark.”

I’d been mildly obsessed with my hands ever since I’d learned how to juggle and do mime as a teenager. The muscle and dexterity I developed stood me in good stead in the early ’90s, when I spent a year performing as a circus clown. When I first started to learn about food, I realized that hand control was a big part of cooking—slicing, chopping, even serving. We learn these skills by watching cooks we love, by watching restaurant professionals, and, if truth be told, by watching television. What better way to find out how television advertising slyly shapes the way we view food, I thought, than to become a hand model?

As best as anyone can remember, the idea of hand modeling for commercials began to gain currency in the 1950s. Kraft regularly used hand models in the 1960s. “It was live,” says Carmen Marrufo, “so if the cheese melted, it was a big problem.” Marrufo, the undisputed queen of the cuticles, has been a hand-model agent for more than three decades. She has watched as the business grew steadily, peaking in the 1980s. The rise of computer graphics, the increase in shoots abroad, and changing tastes have tempered the market. These days, Marrufo keeps only a handful of clients who have the skills to work with food.

“What about me?’ I asked, presenting my hands.

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.

And in the repetition of this gesture, I finally understand what I’ve been doing. This is a frozen pizza I’m cutting. It goes into your freezer, into your oven, and into your mouth when you don’t have time to worry about dinner.

But by putting the object through this complex choreography—pulling it from the flames, sliding it across the hearth, slicing it with a robust thrash—we are taking the most pedestrian item and converting it into a totem of the moment, one that embodies freshness, romance, sex on that Tuscan hillside.

The hands are the element that makes all this possible, because they stand in for the viewers’ fantasy of themselves. And in a world of food sophistication, viewers don’t want to think of themselves as having passive hands that merely receive the pizza already prepared. They want to have active hands, doing hands, the hands of the chef who kneads the dough, the hands of the pizzeria owner who reaches into the fire, the hands of the hunky waiter with the Armani pout who slices the pie at your table.

The hands embody this myth of the moment. They understand the hour even better than we do. In other words, the hands do what they’ve always done best: They tell us the time.