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Taking a small bite of food

By Li Yingxue | China Daily | Updated: 2019-02-15 07:56

Zhu Wenting and her team reveal the hidden beauty of everyday cooking ingredients using the magic of micro photography in an online documentary, Li Yingxue reports.

Director Chen Xiaoqing's food documentary Once Upon A Bite has already been played 920 million times on online platform Tencent Video since it was released in October.

Unlike his previous work A Bite of China I and A Bite of China II, the new series explores Chinese cuisine around the world and its relationship with other global flavors.

Another difference is the exploration of food in close-up detail and from angles that most people did not see before - from examining the pattern on the skin of a Sichuan pepper under a microscope to the minute crystals that grow on the surface of frozen beef.

All of the micro photography scenes were shot by one team called Beauty of Science, and most of the work was done by Zhu Wenting, who has been practicing the technique since 2016.

"It was the first time I focused my lens on food. We shot about 10 ingredients, including soybean milk, Sichuan pepper and preserved egg - they are all ordinary ingredients, but they surprised me with their beauty when seen from a different angle," says Zhu.

Zhu thinks the shooting of each ingredient is like a voyage of discovery - the skin of the Sichuan pepper looks like colored glass and the crystal of preserved eggs has pine needle patterns in it.

Born in 1994 in Dalian, Northeast China's Liaoning province, Zhu started to explore micro photography when she was studying for her bachelor's degree at the department of visual communication at the Academy of Arts and Design at Tsinghua University.

"At first I just took photos and used them as source material for my designs, but over time, I wanted to shoot photos with more detail and from a closer angle, so I bought my first microscope," Zhu says.

Zhu shot a collection of videos called Envisioning Chemistry in 2017, which recorded chemical reactions in startlingly vivid detail. The videos drew the attention of Chen, who decided to invited Zhu's team to shoot the micro scenes for Once Upon A Bite.

"I didn't know if I could successfully shoot the scenes when I took the job, as there was no reference point," says Zhu.

One difficulty for her was to make her scenes fit into the documentary. Her previous videos were simply pure observation through recording, but this time, the scenes had to help tell the story.

Before shooting, Zhu and her team would do a lot of research about the ingredients and hold discussions with the documentary directors about how to best shoot the scene.

"Previously, I just made sure the shots were clear enough, but this time we had to use the light and the movement of the lens to find a way to tell the story," says Zhu.

In the third episode of Once Upon A Bite, Zhu records the moment when brine is added to soybean milk and veins appear when the two liquids are mixed. The scene can't be seen with the naked eye, but can be seen under a microscope with proper lighting.

The micro photography scenes take up less than 3 percent of the whole documentary, but the failure rate when shooting them was so high that they took Zhu five months to finish.

For example, the growth of penicillium in the fourth episode only lasts for 10 seconds, but it took Zhu four months to capture that moment.

"The shape of the penicillium is random and it needs time to grow, so it took me hundreds of attempts to test and shoot it before finally getting the ideal scenes," Zhu says.

Each attempt lasted about 72 hours and Zhu had to be so careful with the whole process, because one small mistake could cause the shoot to become a failure.

"If a bug flies around and blocks the lens, or dust flows into the scene, all of the previous hours of that particular shoot are wasted," Zhu says.

The final scene was finally captured on one afternoon in August. She started shooting from 3 pm and finished at midnight.

"I had to adjust the focus every several minutes as the penicillium grew as the focal point would keep shifting, and we couldn't use the air conditioner in the lab because the temperature had to stay at a certain level for the penicillium to grow," Zhu says.

Besides micro photography, Zhu also uses thermal imagery to make the temperature visible - she filmed a scene with the tossing of an iron pan to demonstrate how hot it can be when frying ingredients.

"Sometimes we would catch nothing on camera, and then, when we did, the scene was so different from what we expected - the scenes we recorded were random, and there seemed to be no end to shooting them - I think that's the fun part of doing this.

"Shooting things in this way expands not only our eyes, but also our minds," says Zhu. "It can help us see clearer, closer, further, slower and faster than our eyes will allow, and, in some ways, you can also see the past, present and the future."

Contact the writer at liyingxue@chinadaily.com.cn

Taking a small bite of food

Taking a small bite of food

Some micro photography shots by Zhu Wenting and her team feature the combination of brine and soybean milk, the crystals found on frozen beef, and the skin of Sichuan pepper in the food documentary Once Upon A Bite. Photos provided to China Daily 

(China Daily 02/15/2019 page16)