Spring 2017

If You Can't Stand the Heat…

On cooking competition shows, the action is frantic and the directing is far from cookie cutter.


Director Eytan Keller conducts an equipment check for Iron Chef America; (Photo: Courtesy Eytan Keller)

In the high-stakes realm of cooking competition shows, the majority of the action doesn't always take place in the crampted confines of a kitchen, and the vogue for rigorously composed beauty shots (think Chef's Table) isn't a given.

For example, during a field challenge on an episode of MasterChef, director Brian Smith needed to shoot six military helicopters swooping in from one direction, two Army transport trucks kicking up clouds of sand, exploding puffs of scarlet smoke, a chow line of hungry soldiers, and a handful of amateur cooks frantically trying to put out a winning meal from grills plunked into the middle of the Mojave Desert.

In the end, Smith aced the segment using a combination of drones, camera ops embedded with aerial units, and a ground unit shooting the challenge as well as the dusty surroundings. Amidst all this activity, Smith found time for a stunning bird's-eye shot with a 5D camera mounted on an octocopter drone, looking down on 500 soldiers scurrying like ants as they broke formation to run toward the team they thought cooked the best food.

What Smith recalls is less about the actual day than the hours he put in beforehand meticulously planning out every detail—from his 3:30 a.m. on-site meeting with the aerial crew to pinpointing the exact moment the camera operators should pop into "hides," so their presence remains invisible to home viewers.

"In non-scripted, you only have one take," says Smith, whose credits also include MasterChef, MasterChef Junior and Food Revolution. "So when you have so many moving parts going at the same time, the only chance you have is in the preparation."

When it comes to cooking competition shows, and how tricky food preparation actually is, just pitting contestants against each other and tweaking the variables—the ingredients, the equipment, the time constraints, the difficulty of the challenge— provides ample drama.

Eytan Keller, who has directed Iron Chef America, The Next Iron Chef and the franchise's newest iteration, Iron Chef Gauntlet, likes using close-ups to capture the tension of world-class professional chefs problem-solving their way through culinary minefields.

"Rather than cutting to an interview bite, then cutting to random footage where you see people in a cooking show, running around, grabbing a pot, stirring something, then dropping something, I like to use the camera to enhance the narrative," says Keller. "You'll never hear anyone on Iron Chef say, 'This is the most difficult thing I've ever had to do,' or 'I had to run from here to there to get that.' You have to show that, show it on their face, you have to see that an accomplished chef like Bobby Flay is nervous, that he's sweating, that his hands are shaking."

While some details of Iron Chef America, which was based on the Japanese reality show Iron Chef, have remained unchanged—the Kitchen Stadium set, a trio of judges, a host and roving reporter providing commentary, and a secret ingredient revealed by a mysterious ringmaster called the Chairman—part of what heightens the drama, says Keller, is approaching it almost like an over-the-top sporting event. This is reflected in the special effects-heavy opening credits, fog machines, swirling stage spotlights and introducing contestants as stern-faced warriors.

In addition—unlike on MasterChef and Top Chef—crew members are in full view.

"We acknowledge the fact that there are cameras," says Keller who, for Iron Chef America and The Next Iron Chef, used anywhere from 12-16 cameras, two of them on dolly tracks; fixed cameras in the rafters; and a Techno-Jib that allows him to telescope up to 24 feet. As for the singular style of Iron Chef coverage, Keller says, the most important thing is to convey immediacy.

"It's not sanitized," he says. "It's a live event, and it's edited and covered that way, to make you feel you're in the moment. In most shows, they wait for the focus to be perfect and then they cut to it. In our show, we mix it up so you get a subliminal message of 'This happened just now!' and the Iron Chef has as much chance to win or lose as the challenger."

(Top & Middle) Director Brian Smith shows solidarity with the U.S. military during a large-scale production of MasterChef, while contestants serve the troops; (Bottom) Director Paul Starkman keeps the action on track on Top Chef. (Photos: (Top) Courtesy Brian Smith; (Middle) Everett; (Bottom) Courtesy Paul Starkman)

If the vibe of Iron Chef is Gladiator with food, then Top Chef is more of a glossy documentary. "What I like to do is to follow the story of what's happening," says Paul Starkman, who started in reality as a camera operator on The Real World, worked his way up to DP, then transitioned to directing. By the time he came aboard Top Chef, it was in its third season cycle.

"I think the training ground of that vérité single camera from The Real World is what kept me [focused] on the story aspect," he says. "I love cool, fancy shots with great angles at the exact right time of day. But, for me, on a show like Top Chef, where someone is putting their passion on the line, I feel it's the most exciting part. The tools are there to help you track the journey."

That said, a hallmark of Top Chef is that every contestant's challenge dish—from the plate of warm chocolate cakes with marscarpone cream and brandied cherries to the sadly cratered soufflé—is shot with the Sony 800 or a Canon 5D camera and is as meticulously lit as a '40s-era glamour photo of Rita Hayworth.

Though the technique is constantly evolving—"In some seasons, we spin the food itself; in others, we move the camera"—Starkman also credits the enticing quality of his insert shots to a behind-the-scenes Top Chef mandate: Rather than interrupt the action so that a camera operator can try to lovingly portraitize a culinary creation, each competition dish is made twice, once for the judges and once for a special staging area where it is given proper close-up care by Starkman and his team. "It's not re-created," says Starkman. "It's fresh, it's hot, and shot as quickly as possible."

In pre-production, Starkman studiously pores over the dossiers of each contestant, looking for strengths and weaknesses, unearthing clues that can suggest where a lens should be trained. "Let's say there's a vegan challenge and a person owns a vegan restaurant; learning what the cast is known for or what they want to prove can guide how you're using the cameras," says Starkman, adding that as the season progresses, whom he follows might be also determined by taking note of who cracks under pressure and who remains unruffled. "It's not always about how good you can cook. Battling it out against other people has its own stresses and challenges."

As much as the look and tone of their shows can differ, Smith, Keller and Starkman all feel that on cooking competition shows, limiting interactions between cast and crew is paramount.

"We try to keep it very, very clean—I'm in the control room, sitting beside the showrunner, and an AD team is on the floor," says Smith about MasterChef and MasterChef Junior. "You want [contestants] to react to what's going on [among one another] or, if they're having an issue with the cooking, go right to the judges. You don't want them talking to the crew." Instead, he busily tracks nine to 16 feeds, communicating via an open line where multiple conversations can be buzzing simultaneously. "It's basically a radio show all day long," he says.

When Smith's father, a retired supervisor of air traffic controllers, once came for a visit, his first comment after he removed his headset was how directing planes through airspace and multi-cam directing were so similar. "There's a dance you have to do, just moving things around, communicating with everyone, keeping calm and just keeping everything moving forward," says Smith. "When there's an issue, you have to deal with it as quick as you can without getting people excited."

In the end, though, it is the magical nature of cooking—what dish succeeds, what flops spectacularly—that is the beating heart of every culinary competition show.

"People say to me, 'Don't you get bored?'" says Keller, who began directing Iron Chef America back in 2008. In response, the director points to "these people [who] cook at this level in an hour of what essentially looks like chaos, and then—in the last 10 minutes—these amazing works of art start to materialize. And [all the contestants are] working from the same ingredients—five dishes, the same protein or vegetable—and they're always so different. And the presentation, the plating, the concepts that they bring to it—it's just thrilling. I'm always blown away by [what] comes out of the kitchen at the end."


Feature stories about the craft and challenges of directors and their teams in episodic television, movies for television, daytime drama, reality, sports, news, variety, childrens, commercials and other television genres.

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