How Hollywood's Sci-Fi Food Stylists Create Futuristic Meals
The opening line to Gene Roddenberry’s iconic Star Trek series, “Space, the final frontier,” is as catchy as it is true, particularly when it comes to futuristic storytelling. Whereas horror is about imagining the worst of what we know and fantasy is about believing what has seemingly never been, sci-fi is planted firmly in both spheres, the final and farthest place human storytellers can go.
The genre not only forces us to expand beyond our present knowledge but to imagine and then realize what we don’t. It’s a tricky task, both creatively and technically, as writers, VFX editors, makeup artists, costume and set designers work to build worlds. Advances in technology have made some of the grander aspects of sci-fi storytelling easier (and more believable) than they once were, but TV production, in particular, is still heavily reliant on the practical. The future isn’t all about CGI aliens or green-screened mountain ranges. It’s also about the clothing, medicine and the food we encounter.
Getting even the smallest details of your imagined world right, like alien noodles and space station cutlery, ensures your story’s authenticity, believability, and continuity. When it comes to what we see people (and extraterrestrials) eating and drinking on screen, food stylists are often at the center of the effort, which, sci-fi food or not, begins with doing your research. However, unlike like a family sitcom or medical drama, futuristic styling can be a bit more involved, especially when it comes to how your future looks. Some universes are entirely out of this world, but others—like a future Earth—need to be more familiar.
According to C.C. Buckley, the food stylist for Allie Wist’s Flooded photo essay, a lot went into determining what foods we’d see in the future when climate change has dramatically impacted available food. Buckley says Wist’s extensive research—which incorporated a list of threatened and potentially more environmentally resilient food—helped her translate a concept that could seem daunting or obscure to some into something familiar.
“It worked for us to imagine an environment based on one with which we’re already familiar,” Buckley tells Food & Wine. “The dishes [became] kind of an abstraction of things we ate as kids or eat now.”
Buckley admits that she would have eaten anything on the photo essay’s menu, which incorporated “foods that thrive in wet, and salinated or even over-salinated environments” like mushrooms and seaweeds, which imitate coral and other ocean life. The food of Flooded’s future grows in both urban and rural areas around the world, Buckley says, and is found everywhere from oceans to forests and backyards to parking lots. Much of it—oysters, jellyfish, mustard greens and dandelions—is already being eaten, whether in a home kitchen or restaurant.
Buckley relied on data to help shape her future food, but when chef, food stylist, and co-owner of the C'est si Bon! cooking school Dorette Snover was tasked with producing Star Trek recipe cards back in the mid-90s, she turned to scripts and episodes. Before there was ever a Star Trek cookbook, Snover devised the menu for the SkyBox Star Trek Voyager recipes project, relying heavily on character backgrounds and location descriptions to select or create colors and shapes for ingredients. For her “Macaroni and Brill Cheese,” Snover went through several rounds of testing using colored water to get the yellow, green and orange cheese and noodles not too pale or too dark.
“It had to look visually different so that while eating them you might feel comfortable, but also a little intrigued,” Snover tells Food & Wine.
For Janice Poon, one of TV's most popular food stylists and a frequent collaborator with Bryan Fuller (American Gods, Hannibal, Pushing Daisies), food styling for the future is as much about taking cues from the script or the world around you as it is about pushing your imaginary limits—within production capability, of course.
Poon refers to the script, pulling the tone and character motivations from a food scene, before brainstorming alongside her showrunner (and sometimes even a cinematographer) on how a spread will look. However, Poon says that “because it is sci-fi, you can do just about anything really.” To do just about anything, Poon uses conventional tools like wet wipes and syringes, but also “an ability to problem solve” and a four and a half inch white ceramic santoku knife that enables Poon to work in the darkness of a set.
“The way you work on film, they just have a little task light in my work area and its right by the set,” Poon tells Food & Wine. “So I can't have a ton of light because there's too much spill, or I'll screw up the lighting of the set. Plus I have to have stuff that's quiet, so a ceramic knife is much quieter than a metal knife.”
Before she and her food even make it to set though, the stylist considers the constraints and possibilities of storytelling. For example, if you’re styling for a planet of people who don’t have hands like humans, their anatomy can end up influencing the food you envision.
“[Aliens] are covered in prosthetics, of course,” Poon says. “[The actors’] hands can be in gloves that are not rubber but carved silicon, cast to look not human. You have to be careful what you are trying to serve them because they can't really use their hands. They're eating with mitts.”
She also admits “strange textures” are an excellent way to make food seem less than human.
“Anything that's got like a bumpy applicator kind of texture is good,” Poon tells Food & Wine. “Lots of fruits—tropical fruits—have that kind of texture that’s off-putting and yet appetizing in a way.”
Ultimately, every food stylists noted that creativity is vital, and that whether it’s Earth’s future or the future of the galaxy, if your styling for something that isn’t real or happened yet, you use what you know and find a way to make it so.