by katiy heath
They are setting the table like it’s Thanksgiving, hands reaching, moving in and out, arranging to a perfect fit, with direction from above:
Lower the backlight.
Chocolate is sweating.
Pinky is in frame.
Drop the thumb, the entire right hand is giving too much attitude.
Bend and pull… make the nougat look like it’s smiling.
Now, think coy, but not too omg-don’t-you-want-to-just-take-a-bite-of-me cute. This is a candy bar that likes to live in the moment, playful, but not flippant.
While the crew rehearses with the confectionary understudy, left of the sound stage the stylist is busy primping the real star of today. She prefers the 5-Prong Excel Pick-Up Tool. The one used to build train sets and old western landscapes, except instead of tinkering with the spokes of a miniature stagecoach, she is stuffing the middle of a Snickers. Model-T Pins keep the bar still as she maneuvers layers of roasted peanuts, increasing the caramel by seven-fold. Freezers line the back wall, yet her hands are steady as she preps our lead for its big debut.
Her assistant tells me she hasn’t slept, and that they’ve, ‘they’ meaning the stylist and the Snickers bar, have been in the kitchen nearly twenty four hours without a break. She likes to bond with the talent as much as possible beforehand. The stylist was born with intuition, she can sense when the talent is camera-ready, her mother was a food stylist, as was her mother’s mother, and so on and so on. You remember when Cheesy Meat Pockets first came out in the 90s? Remember the beauty shot at the end of the commercial when the young boy breaks open the crust and ropes of mozzarella stretch across the screen? You could lasso and hogtie Mr. Twinkie himself with the cheese ropes from that shoot. That scene changed how everyone in the biz treated cheese filmography, it birthed the creative direction for the caramel jerk today. That was all styled by her grandmother, same production house, all on this lot. Those hands, her hands, nothing gets by them.
I nod and say something about how strong the stylists’ fingers look, attempting to hide my scheduling anxiety with enthusiasm. In order to buy the stylist more time, the assistant redirects my attention to a cart of naked sundaes arranged in neat rows. Don’t worry, it’s mashed potatoes, she says, to slow oxidization under the lights - plus it doesn’t melt like real ice cream.
Legally, it’s ‘soft serve,’ I correct. The final product doesn’t contain enough milk fat to pass for anything other than qualified marketing lingo. Manufactured authenticity, the appearance of what is desired, what satiates our mass consumer appetites, that’s what we’re here to do. All of the consumer-packaged goods big timers get it: CHEEZ-IT, Frosted Mini-Whos, Iced Electric Blue drink. Made from sugar so it tastes like sugar. We may have been in the midst of a housing crisis, and a global financial meltdown, but we had also just bought into an anthem of Yes, we can, with hope now served in the form of the new, Snickers Soft serve Candy Blast, brought to you by blah-blah-blah American quick-serve-restaurant chain. *Available for a limited-time-only.
She shows me the cherries, hand-painted in olive oil, so they pop onscreen. And that’s when I know we’re ready. My voice sounds snakelike as I hiss a let’s do this, and I become thankful there are no mirrors in my vicinity.
It’s a two-day shoot, but I wish it were longer. I am on the cusp of a promotion, and if all goes well, if I put in enough time here, I may finally move from assistant to “Account Executive,” whatever that means. Titles and formalities aside, my job today is to remain the eyes and ears of the clients who are too busy to travel to Atlanta for this shoot. And the taste bud watchdog for the public, making sure what is on camera looks good enough to slurp.
Unread texts, emails, missed calls vibrate inside denim against the top of my thigh.
One from a representative at GAP credit card processing.
One from Sallie Mae, one from WellsFargo, both regarding student loans.
Several from my landlord.
Distractions welcome, I try to count how many times my parents’ house could fit inside the studio. There’s an issue of Garden & Gun, the same way there’s barbequed ribs and scalloped potatoes in the greenroom.
Hundreds of cherries fall, as the Phantom Flex clicks in super slo-mo.
What if I moved back in with my parents? Packed up the Contour, straight down I-29…
Wait. Stop. I motion the Director. Where’s the straw?
Do we really need it?
Yes, without it, consumers won’t know if this is meant for drinking or spooning.
More back and forth with the director, pocket buzzing, and obsessive thoughts of how little time it will take to clean out my desk when I get back, before I’m escorted out of the agency. My tombstone shall read: if only she remembered the red straw.
Post panic attack, we finally settle on re-shooting the last frame: A simple pan over of the red plastic cylinder.
The Snickers is the star here, the Director reassures. And we got our money shot. Nothing else matters.
Hundreds of cherries now cascade into the trash.
I thank everyone on the way out and tell them I look forward to seeing them next month, when I’m back to film the new Dollar Menu.
Katiy is a Brooklyn-based writer and MFA candidate in the Creative Writing Program at Sarah Lawrence College. Her work has been featured in The Paragon Journal, Breadcrumbs Magazine, Psychology Today, and Campaign Asia. Prior to pursuing an MFA, she earned her Master’s in Psychology from Columbia University-Teachers College, and a Bachelor’s in Journalism from the University of Missouri. When not writing, you'll find her fixated on how to bake the perfect Swiss roll.