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Director Charlie Stebbings has a way to get an audience reaction that very few commercial makers can match.

The truth is, when a Stebbings-directed ad is on the TV, the viewer may quickly feel compelled to head to the kitchen, open the fridge and reach for the cookie jar or… anything to alleviate the hunger pangs they are suddenly experiencing.  

It is not exaggerating to say that the ad caused a minor sensation in the UK back in 2004.

The reason is that Charlie Stebbings is an undisputed master of the art of the food commercial. Over the years his outstanding craft and technical skill has been responsible for tabletop masterpieces for numerous big-name food and drink brands – including Nestle, Hovis, Guinness, Haagan Dazs, Mr Kipling and more - and supermarkets such as Tesco, Aldi and Waitrose. 

Marks & Spencer – This Is Not Just Food

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Above: The original M&S commercial that spawned a new way of advertising food. 


Not just directing

Most famously, Stebbings directed the ads for M&S that indisputably changed food advertising. The first one, This Is Not Just Food is the stuff of legend: lingering close-up shots of tantalising fare, accompanied by a sultry voiceover uttering the famous “this is not just…” copy, with blues-era Fleetwood Mac on the soundtrack.

It was that ‘melt in the middle’ chocolate pudding in the first ad. That commanded lots of column inches in the press.

It is not exaggerating to say that the ad caused a minor sensation in the UK back in 2004. There was the astonishment and amusement at the suggestiveness of the commercial, prompting countless parodies, and the instigation of phrase that gained cultural currency ‘food porn’.

“It was a stroke of fate,” says Stebbings, reflecting upon what he considers the crucial moment that caused the ruckus. “It was that ‘melt in the middle’ chocolate pudding in the first ad. That commanded lots of column inches in the press. It was fantastic free publicity for M&S.

If it looks that good that close, then it must be good.  That is the maxim that I have worked by. 

That chocolate pudding shot is indeed a classic in food commercials: the spoon hits the top of the pudding, it breaks open, and the liquid chocolate spurts through the crack – exactly the right amount, at the right speed. This also has an obvious Stebbings signature: it is viscerally close-up, and entirely in focus. You can almost touch it, smell it and taste it.

“If it looks that good that close, then it must be good.  That is the maxim that I have worked by,” he confirms, talking on the phone in early February while on a winter break in the Maldives. “I think a lot of my reel is to do with being right in there amongst it, and not being frightened of it.”

Marks & Spencer – This Is Not Just Food...This Is M&S Food

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Above: Stebbings' recent M&S campaign, co-directed with Guy Manwaring.


Recently, he has added a new M&S campaign to that reel, one which explicitly recognises the place that Stebbings’ original ads have acquired in British pop culture. It is also an example of him collaborating with another director, who does the ‘people’ stuff: Guy Manwaring directed these mini-comedy dramas, where characters paraphrase the famous voiceover copy as they prepare to eat M&S food – then cutting to luscious close-ups, shot by Stebbings, of the food itself.

The surgical approach

Furthermore, his Food Love Stories campaign for Tesco in 2018 takes the meta-level appreciation of his craft even further. In a series of ads, comedian Sarah Millican’s voiceover talks about Tesco produce and comments wittily (and accurately) about the sheer beauty of what we are seeing.

I just love shooting those rather abstracted food shots, where you are trying to get the absolute essence of the carrots or tomatoes or chocolate or fruit juices.

For example, in Fresh Berries Hand-Picked, plump and glistening strawberries, raspberries and blackberries, tumble from a colander as Millican says: ‘you’re thinking it can’t be possible to want these any more’, before they are slowly topped with double cream, and she adds: ‘Wrong, very wrong…’.

“The Tesco campaign is my favourite sort of project,” says Stebbings, “There's the wryness of Sarah Millican taking the piss slightly out of the reverence for the food. But at the same time, I just love shooting those rather abstracted food shots, where you are trying to get the absolute essence of the carrots or tomatoes or chocolate or fruit juices. You just make it as visually striking as possible.”

Tesco – Fresh Berries Hand-Picked for Ripeness

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Above: Tesco's Food Love Stories, with VO by Sarah Millican. 


How does he do it? Evidently by being completely hands-on, rather like a surgeon at the operating table. And although preparations of both the food and the lighting before the shoot are methodical, when it comes to the shoot itself, speed is of the essence. His comment about ‘not being frightened’ of the food makes perfect sense.

I'm poised with a sprinkle of pepper, or whatever is being sluiced over it.

“I've already done the lighting, and I know exactly how I want it on the plate as a landscape, where the higher objects should be – the broccoli or the spuds or whatever – and then the lower-lying fillet of beef, where the gravy's going to be poured, for instance. And I’m usually doing the pouring…”

I'll have something teetering on the point of falling.

Usually working with home economist Pete Smith, Stebbings works fast, normally with agencies and clients who have very strong ideas about how they want their food products to be marketed, in close attendance. “With the final plate I compose it out of the lighting, then we rush it into where the light is. I'm poised with a sprinkle of pepper, or whatever is being sluiced over it. The camera's running at 100 frames, 150, 200, whatever it is to give it that lyrical look. And you just go for it.”

Happy accidents

Stebbings is always on the lookout for ‘a happy accident’ that he will try to engineer. “I'll have something teetering on the point of falling, so that when the cream hits it, it then knocks it over so there're more things happening within the field of view.” Then, once that is achieved he will attempt another ‘accident’ – a crumb falling, perhaps, steam rising, or a swish of cream on the plate.

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Marks & Spencer – Christmas Favourites

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Grossman – Mushroom Soup

Above: Stebbings' work for Llpyd Grossman and M&S.


Each time, Stebbings is creating more elements that can contribute to his final objective – a composite image. The final shot in the ad is rarely one-take but is built from separate takes in post. These days technology allows him to do that while still shooting. His editor, usually John Mayes, is on set, layering the takes together for the benefit of the attending client. “I see [that] frame as something that needs to be occupied with detail.” he says. “I'm all for inundating the brain with lots of information.”

Huge lights will be trained upon an area the size of a plate in order to get the results he wants. 

That is the art of it, more or less. But that would not be possible without the technical knowledge that Stebbings has gained, not only as a director but from having been a top food stills photographer before he ever shot a metre of film. So, on his set, huge lights will be trained upon an area the size of a plate in order to get the results he wants. 

"[Irving Penn is] an absolute hero of mine. He understood how detail really draws you in and seduces the eye."

Stebbings began his career in the 1980s, in still life photography, often shooting small subjects that required him to get very close, including beauty products, and jewellery. He was, and remains, a devotee of Irving Penn. “He’s an absolute hero of mine. He understood how detail really draws you in and seduces the eye, and if you're looking at an image of his, you're drawn in by the sharp detail everywhere. You can feast on it.”

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Above: Photography by Irving Penn, a hero of Stebbings'.


The insatiable tsunami

Having picked up a camera at university he started working as an assistant to still life photographer Jake Wallace, then set up on his own. He never expected to gravitate towards food, but during a still life shoot for a book for Vogue the art director asked him to do a few food shots, and he agreed. From that point he was confronted with what he calls “an insatiable tsunami” of demand for food photography from publishers like Octopus Books. “Within a week they said: ‘Can you do a book?’ And then the next week: ‘Can you do another book?’. It just started from there.”

I made sure I had a lighting cameraman who knew what they were doing because I hadn't got a clue about film.

At a time when food photography was not quite the mainstay of weekend newspaper supplements it has since become, Stebbings’s forensic approach to cuisine soon attracted advertising commissions. Then his break into film happened; “I was doing a stills campaign for Perrier. They had a still life-like campaign to do on television and asked if I wanted to have a crack at it. I made sure I had a lighting cameraman who knew what they were doing because I hadn't got a clue about film.” 

That first commercial for Perrier came as the company were experiencing a crisis. Benzene had been discovered in some bottles and Perrier responded by removing every bottle from sale. “By the second shoot day they were running around like headless chickens. What I was doing became utterly irrelevant for them - but I loved it.”

By the second shoot day they were running around like headless chickens. What I was doing became utterly irrelevant for them - but I loved it.

He was immediately won over by “the complexity of film”, and the collaborative aspect. He has established a very close-knit and loyal team around him, working with his producer Dom Seymour for many years, editor Mayes, and food stylist Pete Smith, among others. Based at Park Village for 12 years, he and Seymour moved to Rogue two years ago.

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Aldi – Favourite Things

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Tees Valley – Look What We Found

Above: More delicious-looking commercial work from Stebbings. 


Doing it differently

Having established himself in food ads, the famous M&S campaign began as a brief sent out by Y&R London comprised of a single question: ‘what would you do to be completely different?’.

He recalls that it was a time when TV chefs were fronting commercials for supermarkets – like Jamie Oliver for Sainsbury’s – with plenty of fast editing. “There might be 40 cuts in a 30-second film. So, I thought [about] doing the exact opposite, and letting the food do the talking.” Ultimately, the first 40-second ad was comprised of just five shots – four food shots (including the chocolate pudding) and a swirl of wine in a glass, each several seconds in length. “It was an absolute nightmare to shoot,” he says. “And it painted me into that particular type of shooting.”

I thought [about] doing the exact opposite, and letting the food do the talking.

It is not surprising that his compelling signature style has never been out of fashion, and Stebbings says he is “strictly all about advertising”. But after his wife, Deborah Hutton, an editor at Vogue, died of lung cancer in 2005 - even though she had only smoked as a teenager - he also started Cut Films, a film programme to deter teenagers from smoking. “It’s so interesting, how creative kids can be; from naïve animations by 8-year-olds, to serious films by teenagers. We had some pretty raw stuff. 

Retailers are now under unbelievable pressure so risk is put to one side. You just hope it doesn’t affect what you do.

Now, food advertising has his full attention once more. Loving the process of what he does, he remains intrigued by the changing aesthetic of portraying food and how food photographers, more than ever, want to break new ground. But in the age of Instagram there are new challenges – mainly economic, he says. “Retailers are now under unbelievable pressure so risk is put to one side. You just hope it doesn’t affect what you do.”

But the fact is, no one does it quite like Charlie Stebbings. His work, a remarkable blend of art and science, is rather like great cookery itself.

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