In the cutthroat world of food stylists, cupcake and cheeseburger artists are a dime a dozen. “Live action liquid pour specialists,” however, are harder to find. Jonathan Lee is one of them. In fact, with a portfolio of work that includes Budweiser, Bud Light and Coors Light, he’s one of the best beer stylists in the nation.
Last week, Pavone worked with Jonathan on a three-day shoot for five new TV spots for Yuengling. (That’s him above ensuring labels are perfectly centered and straight.) When he wasn’t frothing lagers and making bottles sweat, he sat down with us for an interview about life on the set of one beer commercial after another.
Tell us a little bit about your background in food styling. How’d you get started?
Oddly enough, I started as a set decorator in 1978. I stumbled into being a prop master and I worked with a guy who shaped me into being a food stylist, but mostly a liquid stylist. We did a lot of beer commercials in the early 80s and I’ve continued on as a liquid specialist to the present day.
Do you mainly work in TV and video, or do you also style beer for print and photography?
I do some print, but mostly video and motion work. Print is a different atmosphere. I prefer motion because that’s where I started and the pace of it, for me, is a lot more interesting. The print world is a little too laid back. There’s a lot of standing around, and I don’t like that. I prefer to be busy.
In terms of working with Yuengling, is there anything different about the beer compared to some of the brands you’ve worked with in the past?
You mean those “other ones?” (laughs) It looks really gorgeous in the light, and I’m not just saying that. I’ve handled a lot of beer, but when you pour Yuengling – that color – it’s very rich. It’s not hard to make it look good. That’s not really my doing; it’s just the product and the way it naturally looks.
What effect do you think your work has on a consumer? Why do you think that shot of the “perfect pour” works?
It’s more than a subliminal message. The beer has to look delicious. It’s all about achieving the perfect pour. When you get the head of the beer to crest just right, followed by a perfect resolve, it just increases the appetite appeal of the product.
Food stylists seem to be obsessed with perfection. Is that true?
Somewhat. I think a lot of food photography and liquid photography is about macro shooting. You’re so up-close-and-personal that if you see the tiniest bit of lint, the shot is ruined. The process may seem obsessive at first, but when the finished product comes out, you realize that it’s worth the effort.
Your official title is “Live Action Liquid Pour Specialist,” meaning you specialize in beverages. How is working with beer different from working with cheeseburgers and chocolate cake?
Beer is much more particular because it’s so lively. You have to know how to treat it. The bane of the prop master’s existence is something we call “fish eyes,” which are the bubbles that stick inside the glass, which is a sign that the glass is dirty. Over a long period of time, I’ve developed a cleaning method that has been very successful in eliminating things like fish eyes. It’s a matter of using only filtered water, not being heavy handed, and not putting contaminants back in the glass before you pour.
Most people try to separate their work lives from their personal lives. At the end of a long, hard day on the set, can you still enjoy a cold beer at home?
The ironic thing is, I don’t drink anymore. I haven’t had a beer in 30 years! But I’ve asked my sons, who both drink beer and assist me on shoots, “Now that you’ve worked with me, when you go into a bar and you see fish eyes in your beer glass, what do you think?” And they tell me, “That glass is dirty.”