How Food Stylists Make Edible Props for Movies and TV
- Food stylist Melissa McSorley makes edible versions of unexpected objects for movies and shows.
- She created drinkable fake blood for HBO’s “True Blood.”
- She’s also made live insects, chicken guts, and poop out of consumable materials.
- Visit Insider’s homepage for more stories.
The following is a transcript of the video.
Narrator: What you’re seeing here isn’t a real cockroach.
It’s actually a cleverly disguised date, a trick Melissa McSorley mastered for a scene from “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend” where a character picks up a live cockroach and eats it whole.
Melissa McSorley: It’s an opportunity to do something that’s out of the normal realm for me, and it gives me an opportunity to start coming up with ways to tackle it.
Narrator: Most props are meant to be picked up and handled, but some need to be some consumed. That’s where food stylists like Melissa come in and transform seaweed and chile threads into cockroach legs and antennae.
So how can she make everything from live bugs to guts to blood edible? And do they actually taste good?
Joe: The seaweed crunch, right? That’s really smart ’cause it’s going to make crunchy — you got to get them to crunch.
Narrator: Food stylists are used to solve problems like making sure ice cream doesn’t melt or finding a convincing substitute for runny yolks. When it comes to replicating things one normally wouldn’t eat, Melissa has to use edible ingredients that create the same look as the nonedible prop. Likeblood.
Typical fake human blood isn’t toxic, and an actor can even have a little around their mouth. But when Melissa worked on “True Blood,” she needed something safe enough for vampire characters to drink in large amounts.
She started with a mix of cran-cherry and pomegranate juice, great for scenes where a glass or bottle was just sitting out or being held. But she also had to replicate the true properties of blood, like its opaqueness, which is why she added wheatgrass to her formula.
And there isn’t just red food coloring in there.
Melissa: I had to add a little blue because these juices were far more red than blood would normally be. So I just had to tamp it down a little.
Narrator: As a former phlebotomist, Melissa knew that these small details would add to the realism, so she also focused on the viscosity of the blood.
Melissa: If it was a scene where you would see them pick up the glass and drink and put it down, you would want to see the blood adhere to the side and slowly go down.
Narrator: To achieve this effect, she thickened her concoction with methylcellulose.
Melissa: And then if someone were to drink it, we can see that it will slide back down the side of the glass.
This is really good. This is like, yeah, it tastes just like a really fine juice ’cause it’s so thick. If I was on the “True Blood” set, they’d have to — they’d be like, “Stop drinking that. Drink something else.”
Narrator: Sometimes productions want an edible prop even if the actors aren’t planning on eating it, like this scene from the Amazon series “Homecoming.” These two characters would be handling raw chicken guts and other foods and objects at the same time.
To avoid cross-contamination on set, Melissa created edible and safe chicken guts out of carefully disguised food. While sausage casings made sense for the intestines, meat can easily go bad during long shoot days. So instead, she filled collagen casings with bean curd.Chicken blood is also more yellow, so she dyed her ingredients yellow and then switched to pink as the intestines grew pinker the further down they go.
It’s important to use foods that can take many different shapes and sizes. For example, Melissa would use ramen or glass noodles here over spaghetti, as they are more pliable.
Melissa: It takes on different shapes than spaghetti does. It also has different edges to it. Where spaghetti’s totally round, this is probably more like a linguine.
Narrator: Then, by dyeing these turns different colors, they could stand in for both the heart and the liver. On top of all that, you can see cherry tomatoes and kumquats. This is the kind of detail that could only come from the close eye of a food stylist.
Melissa: So, while I was doing my research, I found a few pictures of hens that actually had unlaid eggs inside their cavity. And they basically look like a very, very orange organic egg yolk.
Narrator: If Melissa can’t find a specific food that can stand in for something else, she’ll have to make her edible props from scratch. Like in this scene from the
series “Daybreak” where Ms. Crumble eats a handful of live maggots pulled from the trash.
In this shot, you see actual live maggots who were onset with the wrangler and had to be kept safe. So in this shot, the maggot actors were swapped for fake gummy maggots.
Joe: Well, I mean, I know they’re fake, but, I mean, they look exactly like maggots. So there’s a part of me that’s just like, “Eugh!” You know, especially when I look down the bowl, you got a couple stuck to the side there.
Narrator: To get the correct form, Melissa started off with a mold of plastic grubs that she found at a bait-and-tackle store.
Melissa: And they were very, very close in size and shape, and they had the same ribbing as a little maggot.
Narrator: She filled the mold with gelatin, which made them naturally wiggle. More movement can be added based on how you hold the bowl full of them.
Melissa: Oh, so it’s just — they start — It’s just — they literally —
Joe: So they kind of start cascading down.
Narrator: Even though they were so tiny, they couldn’t be uniform in color.
Melissa: Over the course of the life of a maggot, they change colors. So when you actually see the maggots in “Daybreak,” you’ll see that there’s a range going from translucent to white and then leaning in towards a beige and then to a brown.
Narrator: First she added coconut pudding, followed by caramel coloring and almond milk to make them darker as they aged.
Joe: Wait, let me also act like I’m actually eating maggots. If I was on “Fear Factor” or something.
Yeah, these taste great. Have you guys had these? They’re like fruit snacks.
Narrator: The little details Melissa had to get right in each maggot pale in comparison to the cockroach from “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend.” Edible props are frequently shown in close-up form, meaning Melissa couldn’t get away with using a date on its own. It also needed legs, antennae, wings, and a head.
Chile threads replicated floppy antennae, and dry seaweed was sturdy enough for its legs. As for the body, Melissa sorted through an entire container of dates.
Melissa: The first thing that I look at is the size and to make sure that it’s not too big or too small for the final cockroach. The second thing that I look for is that they’re not too wrinkled, they’re not too shriveled. Some of them are too broken up to actually use, since the wings need to be all in one piece and look like they’re attached.
The reason that I picked these three dates to start with is they’re all about the same uniform size, and the skins are perfectly intact.
Narrator: This allowed her to filet and flatten the dates, as she noticed that roaches are typically flatter than that of average dates.
Melissa: So, taking out as much of the meat in the back part of the date as I can. And that leaves the wings separate and hollow. And then the second date that we choose is the one that I use for the head. I usually look for ones that have a little smaller and pointed top, and that are a little bit darker than the actual cockroach body we’ve chosen.
Narrator: Meanwhile, the natural stickiness of the dates acted as a glue when piecing the two together. Making sure everything fit together was why choosing the exact right pieces of seaweed was so crucial.
Melissa: It’s just looking for ones that have a slight curve to it so that they can actually fit into the body and leave the legs straight.
Narrator: The monotonous task of choosing the right strands pays off on camera. In the final shot, the flexible chili threads naturally move with the wind like real antennae would. Plus, they add the crunch missing from the date.
Joe: It’s so nice, I don’t want to ruin it. But got to do it. The seaweed also gives it a surprise salty fishiness to it, so even that reaction was a bit authentic. ’cause I was like, well, I know what dates taste like, and then when I had this salty, fishy taste of seaweed, I’m like, “Uh-oh.”
Narrator: It’s these minute details that make the most convincing edible props and get the best reactions.
For “Judy Moody and the Not Bummer Summer,” Melissa created edible pieces of Bigfoot’s poop, which the characters accidentally eat. Using peanut butter and chocolate for color and texture seems obvious, but there’s more than meets the eye.
Joe: The nuts are a nice touch.
Melissa: Well, it’s not just poop, it’s Bigfoot poop. So we have to assume Bigfoot lives in the woods.
Joe: yeah wow
Melissa: He eats nuts and berries.
Joe: I figured his poop would’ve been a little bigger.
Also would have would’ve accepted corn.
yeah It’s like a brownie. It’s a brownie, right?
Melissa: Kind of like.
Joe: Mentally, I’m just being like — it’s still like — this looks a lot like poop. poop, poop, poop, poop, poop, its going on your mouth, stop putting it in.
I’m like, “Mmm, supper.”
Oh my God, this piece of poop ain’t going to hold me.
I’d be like, “Ahh, mwah, mwah, mwah!” [laughs] “This poop is fantastic.”