How do you set the table for a clan of Klingons, or the cloned leaders of an intergalactic empire? For food stylist Janice Poon, making the very real prop food for the fantastic worlds of movies and television can involve everything from molding octopi into a tentacular fountain using wires and mashed potato, to sculpting aliens out of Rice Krispies, to eviscerating and painting 20 turkeys to look like peacocks — all while juggling the dietary requirements and preferences of the actors eating her creations.
Poon has put her talents to work on the sets of Star Trek: Discovery, Foundation, Hannibal, and The Shape of Water, among many others. She shared some of the secrets of her process in a recent interview with Gastropod, for their most recent episode exploring the foods of science fiction and fantasy.
“I read the script and I decide, what are the people around the table up to?” Poon explained. “What is their dynamic? Are they fighting? They’re usually fighting. Are they vying for power? Are they trying to kill each other?” She shrugged. “The usual family dinner stuff.”
With those cues in mind, the resulting food not only looks incredible, but plays a huge role in telling the stories of these fantastic worlds. Poon chatted with Gastropod co-hosts Cynthia Graber and Nicola Twilley about what a food like roast peacock or bloodwine worms can tell viewers about the characters eating it, as well as the dangers of flaky pastry on a set and the challenges of designing food for alien hands. Check out an excerpt from their conversation below.
Gastropod: Are there favorite TV shows or movies that inspired you to start this unusual career?
Janice Poon: Oh, my goodness. I’m very easily frightened, and a little bit paranoid: So I don’t actually watch horror. Just being in an airplane scares me, so I don’t really like to go to space [even in watching fiction]. But I think it’s my sense of deep paranoia that enables me to imagine the worst-case scenarios in these genres. So that’s why I started doing them.
Where does the process of designing food for the screen start?
Sometimes it’s mentioned in the script. It’ll say: “Spock comes in with a dish of spaghetti.” Then there are fine details for me to sort. What kind of garnish, what kind of vessel, is it an abundant amount or is it just a stringy little bit?
Sometimes it just says, “they sit down to dinner.” And then it’s up to you to decide what they’re eating. When I get really desperate, I go to the store and start looking … The idea is you have to look at everything as if you’ve never seen it before. Because that’s where you say, Oh, wait! You and I know it’s a purple yam, but if we didn’t know it was a purple yam, it could be a… whatever. It could be the thing that solves my problem. But then I have to factor in: Do the actors have allergies? I always think it’s hilarious that the food shown on TV is never really what it’s meant to be.
Tell us more about those constraints. What are some things you have to do that are specific to food for a film set?
Everything on the table has to be edible. Even if, in the script, it doesn’t call for eating, that’s the magic of film: the director will have an idea, or the actors will have an idea — “my character might reach out and grab that and start gobbling it down.” And you think, “oh no, you can’t, because it’s made of plastic!” You can’t have that happen.
But often, especially in sci-fi, actors have claws or fins. So that is always a question: Will they be able to actually reach out and grab the food? How will they do it? And you don’t want them to have grease or anything on their hands, because oil is very deleterious to the material they use for prosthetics.
The food has to be bite-sized. It has to be something that disappears quickly. They have lines to say — it’s not about the chewing, it’s about the dialogue. So they have to be able to push it into their mouth and then be able to speak right away without drooling or spinach sticking in their teeth.
This sounds like a nightmare. Can you give us an example of one of your recent triumphs?
Recently I had to come up with a pastry, and it had to be a twist, because one character says, ‘Oh, this is not twisted correctly.” Which is okay, until you find out that a third of the cast is vegan, and a third of them are gluten-averse. And then another person doesn’t like deep-fried food. Plus it has to look otherworldly.
So I layered a blue soft tortilla and a yellow one, twisted them together on a chopstick, brushed it with oil, and air fried it. And then that went into non-gluten bread that I rolled out and cut out in the shape of a flower, so it sat up like a little cup that the twist could sit in.
It’s when you have a problem and you have to come up with different solutions, that’s when your mind really starts to fire on things. I like to complain about the constraints, but really that’s where the source of the creativity is.
How does all of this food help to tell the story on screen?
Food is not just the way it tastes. It is also the memories that it is imbued with. That’s why food is such a great storyteller in and of itself, because it’s not just our own personal histories, it’s also our cultural histories and our relationships with each other.
Dinnertime is supposed to be a truce time. Everybody’s there. The cook is promising not to kill you, not to poison you. The guests are promising not to steal the silver, and everybody is promising not to stab each other to death. It’s kind of civilizing. At the table, there’s an unusual intimacy that doesn’t occur in other places. So it does allow a lot of stuff to come out within dialogue.
What I want to do with the food is reinforce that dialogue and reinforce the personalities involved and what their motives are. So the food can be ominous looking if it’s about status, if they’re infighting. But always, I think it has to be appetizing, no matter what. The viewer has to want to reach out and take a bite.
For more on how we got from the meal pills and stew of classic sci-fi and fantasy to the smoky buns and lamprey pie of today, as well as the chance to explore the role food plays in world building, follow and subscribe to Gastropod.