14 Behind-the-Scenes Secrets of Hollywood Food Stylists

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iStock

Hollywood food stylists are little short of magicians—only instead of pulling rabbits out of hats, they’re turning piles of mashed potatoes into ice cream sundaes. Indeed, making food (or food-like products) appear photogenic and appetizing onscreen is a job for a true illusionist. Mental Floss spoke to a few food stylists working in TV, film, and commercials—from Game of Thrones to Taco Bell—to bring you the tricks of their magical trade.

1. MOST OF THE FOOD BEING FILMED IS REAL.

While food stylists are well-versed in the old-school swap tricks—using a pint of white glue to impersonate a glass of milk, for example—those are being phased out. Now, directors want actors to interact with their food, and high-definition camera lenses have made the fake stuff much more obvious. Plastic food props only appear in the background of scenes today, where they're less visible and susceptible to scrutiny.

“I only deal with real food,” says Chris Oliver, who has styled food for movies including Gone Girl (2014) and TV shows such as Seinfeld and Big Little Lies. “You also have to think about how a character would cook something or put a plate together. Realistic food is not all beautiful and perfect. I make ugly food and burnt food, too.”

There’s a trend in commercial food styling to present dishes that are less-than-perfect, too. Shellie Anderson, who styles food ads for clients including Burger King and Ragù, says it’s the consumers who are demanding food look more realistic and therefore more approachable.

“People are tired of seeing something in a TV commercial and then ordering it in a restaurant and it doesn't look the same,” she says. “You don’t want it to look staged anymore. You want a burger to look like the cheese naturally dripped off and landed on the plate.”

2. THEY GO THROUGH A LOT OF FOOD ...

Bowl of strawberry ice cream
iStock

If a food stylist needs one sprig of parsley for a shoot, they’ll often order 10 bunches. They never know what the condition of the parsley is going to be when it arrives from the produce vendor, or if the shoot is going to require more than they originally planned for. Carving a turkey in a scene? That may require two dozen birds if an actor keeps flubbing his line.

“It really depends on how much of a story point the food is and how important the scene is for the director,” Oliver says.

Food stylists usually have relationships with produce vendors, who can look for products with the specific size, shape, and color that stylists need. No bruises or dents, and no frozen lettuce! But stylists can hide those things if they have to.

Ice cream is infamously hard to keep intact because it melts so quickly. Food stylists have been known to replace the scoops with dollops of meringue, which don’t melt, or butter rolled in sugar. Oliver makes her sundaes the day before and sticks them in the freezer, spoons and straws and all. If they freeze rock hard overnight, they can last a few hours on set the next day before being replaced with another sundae lined up in the deep-freeze. Anderson sprays her ice cream with cold spray, an aerosol can of super-chilled gas used for cooling electronics.

3. ... BUT THE FOOD RARELY GOES TO WASTE.

On film and TV shoots, there are rarely leftovers. In fact, good food stylists often compete with the caterers: Actors usually have to eat the food during their scenes, and the crew finishes off the scraps. While shooting a Chinese New Year scene for the show Fresh Off the Boat recently, actress Lucille Soong told Oliver, who was styling that episode, that she was going to skip lunch because she wanted to enjoy eating her food on camera. “That was pretty freaking flattering!” Oliver says.

Because Oliver works on multiple TV shows in a single day, if an item doesn’t get used on set and never comes out of her cooler, she can just take it back to her shop and recycle it for use on another show. If something can’t be used again, she’ll take it home and make salsa or jam. “When it gets really old, I'll just stick it in vodka,” she says.

Commercial shoots tend to have more unused food. Anderson says anything that’s still edible will be given to a food pantry. “I once donated an entire swordfish when we did a commercial for a fish restaurant,” she says. “We never even used it. So I kept it on ice and took it to a men's homeless shelter. They were thrilled to have it.”

4. THEY VALUE FOOD SAFETY.

Another reason food stylists swap out on-camera food so much is because of safety concerns—hot and cold foods need to be kept at certain temperatures that may not be practical on-set. Sushi-grade tuna may be replaced with watermelon, for example, because the fish spoils so easily.

Oliver requires all of her employees to have a food handler’s license. She also only works out of commercial kitchens (including the one on her fully-equipped food styling truck). But not every food styling team does; some prepare food in their homes. “The reason that I get so much work is that everybody knows I'm a chef and I have a real kitchen,” Oliver says. “People trust my food. I’ve done a bunch of movies with Reese [Witherspoon] because she knows that if I’m on set, the food is safe to eat.”

5. WOMEN DOMINATE THE FIELD.

woman styling food
iStock

While there are a few well-known male food stylists, for the most part the key food stylists in the U.S. are women. (Both of Anderson’s daughters are food stylists, too.) The reason for this dates back decades.

Before food styling became its own career in the 1990s, it was up to network employees with home economics degrees (almost always women) to cook on-camera food. Then props departments became responsible. “But props guys can’t even make spaghetti,” Oliver says, laughing. So according to her, these guys would go home and ask their girlfriends or wives to make whatever food was required for the next day’s scene. “Eventually they would just hire their girlfriends or wives to do it; keep the money in the family,” she says. “I know five food stylists who at one time were in relationships with prop masters.”

Also in the 1990s, networks began making more multi-camera TV shows. A lot more food began appearing on screen, and actors openly discussed their dietary restrictions. They were vegan, sugar-free, and low-carb all of a sudden. Oliver trained at the Culinary Institute of America and had worked in restaurants and catering jobs before stumbling into this career. “Because I was a chef, and I understood how food works, I knew how to feed people and make food last on set,” she says. “And I could charge anything I wanted to.”

To get a job as a food stylist today, it helps to know someone already in the industry and have a culinary background. Everyone starts as an intern, and then may be able to work their way up to being an assistant and then a stylist. “Not everybody can be a food stylist,” Anderson says. “You have to be able to cook, but you still have to be creative. And you have to be able to work fast and under pressure.”

6. THEY LIVE OUTSIDE OF LOS ANGELES NOW.

Now that movies and TV shows are frequently filmed all over the world, instead of just on sets in Los Angeles, food stylists can be based anywhere. There is a concentration of stylists who live in Vancouver, British Columbia, for example, because that's where many shows are now filmed. Labor laws also often require production crews to hire locally, so residing outside of L.A. can be a real advantage.

Some commercial food stylists, like Anderson, are flown in for shoots. “Food stylists can make or break a commercial,” she says. “And if you have trouble and you don't know what you're doing, it can be a real problem for production.” This is especially true on out-of-the-country shoots, when stylists don't have the resources that they’re used to. So clients who know her and her skill level, such as Taco Bell, will fly her to wherever they're filming.

7. THEY TALK LIKE CHEFS AND FILMMAKERS.

hand styling pancakes
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Food stylists use a mix of back-of-the-house kitchen lingo and film jargon. Some examples: The “hero” is the food that is written into the script, is being shot, and must appear in front of the actor. “Bite and smile” is when an actor takes a bite of food and pretends to like it. “All day” is the total number of items needed; if they needed five turkeys on a set, they would say “five all day.”

8. NOT EVERYONE WANTS TO BE IN THE MOVIES.

Food stylists usually specialize in different media: film, TV, commercials, or print editorial. Stylists often prefer one over the other. Print editorial is shot in a controlled studio and tends to have more leeway for creativity. Commercials are tied to a brand’s specifications. Film and TV shoots on location are in unpredictable settings and can be physically demanding. But everyone tends to work long, 12- to 14-hour days. For commercials, it can often take three days to shoot one 30-second spot.

When working on a movie or TV show, the actors’ demands usually take precedence over the food needs. After working on one film, Anderson had had enough and dedicated herself to commercial work. “When I do commercials, the food is the star,” she says. “So [the directors] want to make sure I have everything I need. On a movie, they could care less about you.”

9. FOOD STYLISTS DON’T JUST MAKE FOOD.

Laurence Fishburne as Jack Crawford, Mads Mikkelsen as Hannibal Lecter on Hannibal
NBC

Sometimes food stylists are expected to create sci-fi props—what would a person eat in the year 3000?—or fantasy items that they have no experience with. While working on the TV show Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., Oliver made gooey, edible slime from her imagination. “I also had to roll with the [actors’] different dietary needs,” she says. “I had to be able to make vegan slime, sugar-free slime, gluten-free slime, gelatin-free slime … Slime, any way you want it.”

Oliver also has to make items that you don’t really want to put in your mouth. While filming the TV show Big Little Lies, she made green-colored vomit for actress Reese Witherspoon of cucumbers and parsley. She says it was tasty, like green gazpacho. For a war film, she had to make 400 pounds of “dirt” for a group of prisoners of war to eat. She got Pakistani soil shipped to California so she could match it exactly. (Her recipe: ground-up Oreos and graham crackers, mixed with brown sugar and white sugar.)

Janice Poon, the food stylist behind the cannibal-centric TV show Hannibal, had a more challenging obstacle: how to make dishes that resembled human flesh. She refused to do research on cannibalism websites, she told HopesAndFears.com, but she studied a lot of anatomy books. “I’m just like Dr. Frankenstein,” Poon said. “I’m always stitching things, exchanging, putting one kind of meat on a different bone, patching stuff together. ... The key is to let the viewer’s imagination do more of your work.” She transformed veal shanks into human legs, and used prosciutto slices to mimic slivers of a human arm.

10. THEY PACK SOME SERIOUS GEAR.

When shooting, stylists need to be prepared for anything. They carry tools including tweezers, scissors, paint brushes, knives, offset spatulas, wet wipes, syringes, rulers, Q-tips, and spritz bottles.

“Think about your kitchen: all of your mixing bowls and utensils … I have that times 10 in my kit,” Anderson says. She also has a torch on hand for quick-cooking burgers and cold spray for extending the life of ice cream. Other stylists may have glycerin for adding shine or Kitchen Bouquet sauce for adding color. Poon often uses a white ceramic knife so she can see what she's doing on dark sets and work more quietly, so as not to disturb the acting process.

Food stylists sometimes work in erratic environments. Oliver brings her own 17-foot, cab-over truck to shoots. “It has a lift gate and everything's on wheels, so I can take everything out and have a kitchen in the middle of the desert, if I want,” she says. Inside, she has a full commercial kitchen: a six-burner stove, refrigerator, microwave, grill, freezer, prep tables, storage, TV, and a generator.

11. THEY’RE SKILLED AT IMPROV.

When production starts, the prop team sends memos to actors or their reps asking about food allergies and dietary restrictions. As trained chefs, most food stylists are happy to accommodate such limitations, cooking convincing swap-outs. “I find out what they will eat and make it happen,” Oliver says.

For example, Poon once made a convincing vegan “raw meat” on Hannibal using only grains. “I made lamb tongues out of bulgur and water,” Poon told HopesAndFears.com. “It’s like making a Lebanese kibbeh. You mix cracked wheat with water and it makes a kind of mush that holds together. The texture is a little 'nubbly,' so I added a pink food coloring, made little tongues out of kibbeh dough, steamed them up, and they were my little lambs’ tongues.”

Sometimes a director changes his or her mind at the last minute, and what was supposed to be a spaghetti dinner, for example, is now a breakfast spread. So the food stylist will squish down the meatballs and turn them into sausage patties. In an interview with NPR, food stylist Melissa McSorley recalled a time when a movie director suddenly decided to cut open a birthday cake she had made. The problem: It wasn’t real.

“So we had to cut the cake that was made out of Styrofoam, and I had to use a saw in order to do it because none of my knives could get through it,” McSorley said. “And then we had to layer in cake so it did look like it was real and then we had to send people scurrying to many markets to find white layer cake so it looked like people in the background could be actually be eating the cake.”

12. THERE’S ALWAYS THE SPIT BUCKET OPTION.

Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, David Bradley in Game of Thrones
HBO

Professional actors will often pick at the food in front of them, but not eat it because they know their scenes are going to require a lot of takes; they could be eating birthday cake for eight hours straight. Others dive right in. For a scene in The Guilt Trip (2012), actress Barbra Streisand had to pretend she was in a steak-eating contest. Oliver says they went through more than 300 pounds of meat for that scene’s three-day shoot and Streisand was totally game.

“But there’s a part towards the end where she has to eat really quickly and do a line without, you know, choking and dying,” Oliver says. “So I switched out the steak with seared watermelon. She took one bite and it sort of dissolved in her mouth, so she could do her line. If you watch it, and you really listen, you can hear the crunch of the watermelon.”

Sometimes, though, the spit bucket is the only option. In season one of Game of Thrones, the character Daenerys Targaryen had to eat a whole horse heart. But the actress who plays her, Emilia Clarke, actually had to eat 28. They were made of solidified jam, which tasted like “bleach and raw pasta,” she told The Mirror. “It was very helpful to be given something so truly disgusting to eat, so there wasn’t much acting required. Fortunately, they gave me a spit bucket because I was vomiting in it quite often.”

13. SOMETIMES THEY’RE SURPRISED BY THE FINAL PRODUCT.

Food stylists who work on multiple projects at a time, like Oliver, can’t always stick around to see how their food will be used. They may later find out that a gorgeous spread was relegated to the background, or worse. For a scene in Seinfeld, Oliver was once asked to prepare a perfect, glistening turkey. “Later I was home watching the episode and they had put the turkey on Kramer!” she says. “I was literally crying I was laughing so hard. Never in a million years did I think my turkey was going to end up with a guy’s head.”

14. THEY THROW EPIC DINNER PARTIES.

Food stylist preparing vegetables
iStock

You’d think that being around food all day would make food stylists tired of making things look nice. But most food stylists love to cook, and on the days they aren’t working, they love to throw parties. “People always expect to have beautiful food,” Anderson says. “And I don't disappoint.”

12 Secrets of Dollar Store Employees

A dollar store in Brooklyn
A dollar store in Brooklyn
Spencer Platt/Getty Images

Discount retailers have probably been around as long as commerce itself, but it wasn't until the 1950s that a string of stores began popping up in the South that shared a common element: Everything they sold was dirt-cheap. In recent years, the country has experienced a wave of frugal storefronts selling everything from stationary to seafood. Stores like Dollar Tree, Family Dollar, Dollar General, and a rash of independently owned stores catering to the budget-conscious now outnumber Starbucks and McDonald's in the U.S.

To get a better sense of the activity that surrounds these wallet-friendly outlets, Mental Floss spoke to three employees of Dollar Tree. Here’s what they had to say about stocking their shelves, fanatical customers, and why they spend so much time filling up balloons.

1. Paper goods are the best deal in stores.

You can find practically anything at dollar stores, including frozen food (more on that in a moment), toys, and cleaning products. Assortments can vary widely by store and by franchise, but according to Brenda, the store manager of a Dollar Tree in the Midwest, customers get the best deal sticking with paper products. At least, that's what employees buy most frequently. “The items that my employees and I purchase at Dollar Tree for value would definitely be toilet paper, paper towels, birthday cards, candy, balloons, plastic ware, paper plates, envelopes, stationary products, and the daily newspaper,” she says. At her store, toilet paper and the local newspaper are the top sellers. While the former is a pretty obvious necessity, newspapers at her location are typically cheaper than in other stores; the Sunday edition in particular is up to two or three dollars cheaper. (Like a lot of their inventory, the chain likely gets a tremendous discount for buying the papers in bulk.)

2. They know you won't be in the store for too long.

The exterior of a Dollar Tree store is shown from a low angle
Joe Raedle, Getty Images

Dollar stores typically have little signage, few frills, and a small real estate footprint (Dollar General's is around 7300 square feet, or one-tenth the size of a Walmart). But having limited space with easily accessible items is by design—the average shopping trip for a Dollar General store is just 10 minutes. “Planning the store around fast trips is one good way to improve the fast experience many customers are looking for, while also keeping sales high by allowing customers to see many products,” says Hank, an assistant Dollar Tree store manager in Canada. Customers “tend to want to get in and out fast. They are often busy and have other plans for the day and don't want to spend too much time wandering the store.”

3. They want customers to feel like they’re on a treasure hunt.

According to Moody’s, an earnings and credit analysis firm, Dollar General rotates its inventory on a regular basis to make customers feel like they need to buy items now in case they’re not around later—perpetuating what it calls a "treasure hunt" feel. That helps the stores compete with online retailers like Amazon, which typically maintains stock of popular products and may not provoke the same sense of urgency in buyers.

Dollar Tree’s approach is slightly different. While new inventory does arrive from suppliers, it’s not as frequently. “When we are doing the truck we get really excited when we see a new product,” Brenda says. “We only see maybe 10 to 15 new things per week out of 1500 items that are coming off of the truck, so when we get something new we immediately cut open the box and examine it.”

4. They catch a lot of shoplifters.

You can walk out of dollar stores with an armful of goods for $20, $10, or less, but that still doesn’t deter people from swiping even the cheapest targets. “The shoplifting is ridiculously rampant,” Brenda says. “We catch someone just about every day.”

Oddly enough, the price may help facilitate the theft. “The thing with the low prices is that there is no real deterrent from people stealing since none of the products have any security around them," Brenda says.

5. They recommend you skip the steak.

A steak sits on a grill
A steak purchased somewhere other than a dollar store.
iStock.com/NightAndDayImages

Shopping for frozen foods at the discount chains can be hit or miss. Some items might be OK: “I’ve had the little pie slices, the sausage and pancake bites, and the Cinnabon bites are amazing,” Brenda says. “The frozen dinners are good as well. People also love the frozen vegetables and fruit.”

But when it comes to unprocessed food, like meat or seafood, you should probably consider a visit to the local grocer instead. “I don’t eat any of the frozen fish or rib eyes because I don’t trust frozen seafood or meat that costs a dollar,” she says.

Nate, a Dollar Tree manager in Minnesota, agrees. “I would never buy the steak,” he says. “I’ve heard from more than one person that it doesn’t cook [well] and it feels like rubber.” In 2016, television affiliate WCPO in Cincinnati attempted a taste test, serving up the four-ounce $1 ribeye along with a butcher's and supermarket cut to some area firefighters. Among the responses: "I guess it was meat" and "It's not terrible."

6. Other stores use them to stock up.

When most everything is a dollar, it’s easy to see why discount chains find themselves acting as a warehouse for local small businesses. Hank says that he’s observed independent proprietors coming in to stock up on items. “There is one man who runs a convenience store and buys boxes of chocolate bars and bottles of soda,” he says. “We also get plenty of event organizers buying supplies in bulk, sometimes hundreds of items at a time.”

7. They dread the sight of Hot Wheels toy cars.

A Hot Wheels toy car is pictured
iStock.com/CTRPhotos

While many toys at dollar store locations are of suspect quality, there’s at least one bit of inventory that causes a lot of excitement in aisles. “We get a lot of the infamous 'Hot Wheels Hunters,'” Nate says, referring to collectors of the popular die-cast toy car line from Mattel. “I guess they scour the internet and find out when stores are getting shipments. I’ve had people show up a day after my 2000-piece truck [arrives] and demand I go find the one box of Hot Wheels I got so they can be the first to buy them.”

If they’re polite, Nate will try to accommodate them. Some of the nicer Hot Wheels fans even deputize themselves as de facto employees. “The one guy that is a frequent visitor will take the boxes I have and stock them neatly on the shelves while he looks for what he wants," Nate says.

8. They sell pregnancy tests. And they’re reliable.

A home pregnancy test shows a positive result
iStock.com/nazdravie

If you’re wary of the accuracy of a home pregnancy test kit that costs $1, well, you probably should be. But according to Nate, his store stocks a reliable brand. “The pregnancy tests we sell are the same ones used in most hospitals,” he says. Most all pregnancy tests detect a hormone called human chorionic gonadotropin, or hCG, which is produced during pregnancy. More expensive tests can detect lower levels earlier in a pregnancy, while cheaper tests—like the ones in dollar stores—might not register a positive until a woman is a little further along.

But they're still effective. And according to Brenda and Nate, they're also among the most-stolen items in their stores.

9. Balloons keep them aloft.

Most Dollar Tree and many other dollar store locations have a counter devoted to mylar balloons intended for birthday parties and other events. That’s because the low cost and easy storage of the un-inflated balloons makes them a very profitable endeavor. “Balloons do a ton of business for Dollar Tree,” Brenda says. “A ton. Especially for big events.”

In a given week, her store might sell 150 to 200 balloons: “If you think about it, every day is someone’s birthday, baby shower, graduation, or anniversary.”

10. They might warn you away from a bad deal.

Shoppers browse the aisles of a dollar store
Spencer Platt, Getty Images

If you’re on the fence about whether or not a dollar purchase is worthwhile, you can always ask an employee. They might tell you if it’s worth the cash. “I know that the quality of our products is not always the best and I obviously am not going to constantly bring this up to customers, but I am not afraid to give them a bit of heads up when I know a certain item is especially poor, or could be found much cheaper at a competitor,” Hank says. “I know that the company will survive without those couple sales, and I prefer to make customers happy over adding a few more dollars to the wallet of the company.”

11. The store manager is often overworked.

Dollar Tree, Dollar General, and other chains have come under fire in recent years for tasking store managers with a lot of responsibility in order to keep the costs of staffing low. According to Nate, that checks out. “In my district they are trial-running having the stores unload the semi-trucks instead of the drivers," he says. "But they won’t give us the hours to add an extra guy, which means I’m the manager on duty while being in the back of a semi throwing 1800 cases."

12. They can’t keep Donald Duck on the shelves.

Bottles of Donald Duck orange juice line a store shelf
Ted Eytan, Flickr // CC BY-SA 2.0

In stores filled with a lot of unfamiliar brands, customers like to see one recognizable face: Donald Duck’s. The Disney character is front and center on Dollar Tree’s orange juice, and his smiling bill is one of the most popular items in the stores. (The drink is produced by Citrus World, which owns the Florida’s Natural label and licenses the Donald imagery and name from Disney.) “The Donald Duck orange juice is our third most-sold item,” Brenda says. “To be honest, I’m not sure why it’s so popular. A lot of people stop at our store on the way to work or wherever, so it’s kind of a quick pick-up.”

11 Secrets of Hollywood Science Advisors

AMC
AMC

The work of a Hollywood science advisor can be hard to spot. Rather than shoving science in the audience’s faces, it’s their job to make the world of a movie or TV show feel believable, from the physics of fight scenes to the theories that characters scrawl on the blackboard.

Science advisors are usually regular scientists working in fields like physics, astronomy, and chemistry; the main thing that often sets them apart from their peers is a passion for film and TV. Whether they're meeting with actors, checking equations, or shaping plot points, here are some of the ways they contribute to your favorite pieces of pop culture.

1. Science advisors are usually volunteers.

Most of the Hollywood science advisors that Mental Floss spoke to were doing the work pro bono. Donna Nelson, a chemist at the University of Oklahoma, learned that Breaking Bad was looking for a science advisor while reading an interview with the show’s creator, Vince Gilligan. According to him, the series was in need of guidance from a real scientist, but there wasn’t enough room in the budget to hire one. So Nelson volunteered to lend her knowledge.

That was in Season 1, and over the next several years Breaking Bad exploded into a massive success. But even as the budget grew, Nelson never once accepted a paycheck for her advising work. “I was a volunteer from beginning to end,” she tells Mental Floss. “I was delighted to do it because my goal was to help the scientific community.”

The same usually holds true even when the advisors contributing their expertise to a high-budget Hollywood blockbuster. James Kakalios, a physicist at the University of Minnesota and science advisor on such films as Watchmen (2009) and The Amazing Spider-Man (2012), tells Mental Floss, “All the consulting that I've done has been volunteering.”

2. Geeking out gets them noticed.

Before she became advisor on the TV show 12 Monkeys, Sophia Gad-Nasr, an astroparticle physicist at UC Irvine, was just a regular viewer talking about the episodes on social media. "I really liked it and I tweeted about it, so the showrunner reached out to me and let me know they were in need of a science advisor," she says.

Meanwhile, Kakalios was a comic book fan who had literally written the book on the physics of superheroes before he was asked to work on the Watchmen movie. "[Warner Bros.] contacted me and said 'We're making a movie about a comic book. Have you ever heard of this graphic novel called Watchmen?' And if you're into comic books, it's like saying 'Have you ever heard of this movie called Citizen Kane'?" he says. "So when I was done vibrating like a gong, I said 'Yes, I've heard of Watchmen.'"

3. They're sworn to secrecy.

Sean Carroll, a theoretical physicist at the California Institute of Technology, did some consulting on the upcoming movie Avengers 4—the entire plot of which has been kept tightly under wraps. He says, “I know things about that I’m not allowed to tell anybody. And they do make sure that you understand that.”

For 12 Monkeys, Gad-Nasr was hired to help introduce the Hartle-Hawking state—physicists Stephen Hawking and James Hartle's theory that prior to the Big Bang there was only space and no time—into the show. Her work ended up being one of the biggest spoilers of the series. “[In 12 Monkeys] you keep getting hints about this 'red forest,' and that red forest was actually the Hartle-Hawking state I worked on. I had to sign an NDA.”

4. They need to be on-call 24/7.

Scientists who sign on to advise a TV show shouldn’t expect normal working hours. The makers of the show might reach out to them whenever a science question comes up during filming, which can be any time of day or night. While working on Breaking Bad, Nelson knew that being able to answer emails quickly was crucial. “I tried to put myself in [the filmmakers’] place and thought of them being on set, and you know they’re not going to hold up filming for a science advisor,” she says. “They’re very busy … so if they don’t get an answer it will be easy for them to write the science out.”

5. They sometimes meet directly with actors.

A science advisor mainly works with writers, producers, and directors, but occasionally they'll meet with members of the cast. While consulting on Watchmen, Kakalios chatted with actor Billy Crudup to help develop his character, Dr. Manhattan, who’s a nuclear physicist. "We were talking about [Dr. Manhattan's] attitudes of being cut-off from humanity and I was talking to him about how as a director of graduate studies I often saw students get overwhelmed by graduate school," he says. "They can kind of shut down but the one thing they focused on exclusively is their work—it's the one thing they have control over. Later on he said he thought that was helpful."

6. They help make fictional scientists feel human.

The makers of Breaking Bad often asked Nelson what a chemist might do in certain situations, from the words they use to the way they interact with their students and peers. One of her insights into the psychology of Walter White became a major plot point in the series. “They asked, ‘If there was a person who was working alongside another person and one man would go on to be a Nobel Prize winner and the other would go on to become a high school teacher, what is something that could happen to make them take different paths?’ And I said, ‘Is there a young woman involved? Have the successful one take the girlfriend away from the other one and that would devastate him.’ And that’s exactly what they did.”

7. If you want to spot a science advisor’s work, check the blackboard.

One of the most common tasks science advisors are given is something most viewers never notice. If a movie or TV show contains a scene with a professor (or scientist, mathematician, etc.) in front of a blackboard, it’s the science advisor's job to make sure that whatever equations are behind him or her make sense.

“I spent three days on the set of the TV show Bones because they had a long set of sequences with writing on blackboards,” Carroll says. The character writing on the chalkboard in that episode was also a theoretical physicist, and Carroll was responsible for making sure the work was accurate.

Gad-Nasr was also called to set to double-check the math she had come up with for 12 Monkeys. “It wasn’t me who wrote it on the blackboard, but I just came by to make sure everything was cool.”

A blackboard full of nonsense can also be a sign of a film or TV show that doesn’t have a science advisor. Before signing onto Breaking Bad, Nelson noticed some bogus equations on the board in Walter White’s classroom in early episodes. “There were parts that weren’t accurate and I would have stepped up and said something,” she says. But she was able to make up for it later on when the makers of the show asked her to draw some alkene structures to feature on a blackboard. “A person who’s not paying attention might not see that, but a student who’s just had alkene as an undergrad in class or as a high school student taking organic chemistry—they may feel great to be able to look at the correct structures and not see something different from what they learned in class.”

8. Their advice can lead to rewrites ...

Much of a science advisor’s work boils down to small changes in the dialogue, but occasionally their input leads to more significant cuts. When working on Thor (2011), Carroll advised against one scene that depicted a character pushing another off a disc-shaped planet. “The problem is there’s no gravitational pull to pull you off the edge of the planet,” he says. “So scientifically that doesn’t quite make sense.” (On a disc-shaped planet, gravity would actually be working to pull you back to the center.)

9. ... But they usually try to keep changes minimal.

A scientist and director may disagree over the intricacies of superhero physics, but at the end of the day, a science advisor trusts that the filmmaker knows what’s best for their movie. When looking over scripts, Nelson says she made it her mission to keep the dialogue as intact as possible. “The [writers] knew how to write a successful script and I didn’t, so the number one thing I did not do was rewrite the page. So if there’s an incorrect word that’s a three-syllable word that starts with P, I would try to correct the sentence by substituting a different three-syllable word that started with P, because they in their writing might have a certain cadence in the sentence or alliteration or something like that that other people might miss, and I would always try not to destroy any of that.”

10. Their suggestions don’t always make it in.

No matter how much a filmmaker appreciates a science advisor’s input, they rarely choose science over story. “Very few movies or TV shows in the science fiction world try to be 100 percent accurate,” Carroll says. "Really they’re trying to tell a good story more than anything else.”

Nelson experienced this first-hand when she was asked for her opinion on one of the most famous examples of inaccurate science in Breaking Bad: Walt’s blue meth. “Vince [Gilligan] came and asked me, ‘What do you think about making the meth blue?’” she recalls. “And I said I wouldn’t do it, because meth is not blue, it’s white. He said ‘Isn’t there any reason why it might be blue under some circumstances?’ I said no, it will always be white. And as you know, they went ahead and made it blue because it was necessary for them to have a trademark for his meth. It was a plot device.”

11. More filmmakers are using them.

When the makers of Breaking Bad first brought Nelson on as a science advisor in 2008, hiring her was a bit of an experiment. "When I first started working, I was told in so many words that there was a rumor in Hollywood that you couldn’t have a hit show with a science advisor," she says. Today, working with a scientist is standard even in movies and TV shows with minimal scientific themes. Part of the job's growing prevalence can be credited to the Science and Entertainment Exchange, a program that connects entertainment industry professionals to scientists.

Another explanation is that today's media consumers hold filmmakers to higher standards. "I think there’s an increasing sophistication among the audience and you can’t just have any old thing happen," Carroll says. "We live in a generation post Cosmos and Brief History of Time where there are a lot of moviegoers who are very smart about what is plausible, and they want their plots to make sense."

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