David Ma is a New York–based commercial/short film director and a food visualist.
Recently, David has been gong viral on TikTok for sharing TV and film tricks used on set, like how tampons are used when styling food:
The tampons are put in boiling hot water and placed in whatever they want steam to come out of, such as a cup of coffee or a bowl of soup.
He has even shared interesting info about props you probably didn’t even think of — like film ice:
Film ice feels like clear jelly — it’s super squishy and can bounce. The “ice” doesn’t clank around in the glasses while the actors deliver their lines, and it doesn’t melt!
BuzzFeed spoke to David, who said that one of the biggest realizations he’s had working in the industry is that people don’t actually eat the food in their scenes — they spit it out. “Because we sometimes need to do a dozen takes for a particular scene, the actors could get sick from overeating or eating food that’s been on set for too long. So there’s usually someone from the art department with a bucket for the actors to spit the food into after we cut.”
He added, “Through some clever editing, we never actually show the food being swallowed, only chewed. Once you know this, you see it all the time on TV and in films!”
“Despite all the prep and planning with storyboards, blocking, rehearsals, and more, surprises will always happen. I always head to set expecting something unexpected to come up,” David said.
“Maybe there’s a line we think of on the spot that’s funny for the actor to say, or there’s a ‘happy accident’ in the way something explodes in slow motion that creates a visual we didn’t expect to see. These natural moments in the performance of our actors or how the food naturally behaves on camera are things I’ve learned to embrace and run with, because you never know what you’ll get in camera. And it often results in something more unique/interesting/beautiful than what I had in my mind going in.”
A common thing people may not know is how much is shot without the use of CGI or computer technology. “When food is floating through the air in slow motion or a product is immersed underwater, many times those are real-life, intricate set builds,” he explained.
In addition, there are so many roles on set beyond the traditional ones that come to mind. “We have animal handlers, pyrotechnic experts, prop masters, stunt coordinators, and more. We have engineers working alongside food stylists to build complex rigs that make food fly through the air or manipulating/controlling liquids to splash, swirl, tsunami, and defy the laws of gravity. These ‘food stunts’ are spectacular visual displays that are only shown for a couple seconds on TV, but take weeks of engineering to perfect and finesse.”
David also talked about how he is a self-taught filmmaker — he never went to film school. “I had to put in countless hours testing, trying different methods, and making mistakes all so I could show up prepared when the day finally came for me to lead a set. There weren’t many behind-the-scenes accounts at the time, so I want to share these moments to demystify the process of filming, both for educational purposes and to hopefully inspire others in the process,” he said.
“Whether someone sees the video and uses it for a tutorial to start shooting at home or hears my story and finds inspiration to get into filmmaking, it’s been a great way to connect with my community,” added David.
And sharing the behind-the-scenes moments on TikTok pushes David and his crew to keep being innovative. “I’ve learned that a big part of filmmaking and visual storytelling is infusing your own unique life experiences and knowledge into the process.”
“I can’t tell you how many times the basic chemistry I learned in middle school and high school has influenced how I create a particular effect in camera using dry ice or combining chemicals to create a simulated smoke/steam effect,” he said.