Brewing the perfect Yuengling TV beer ads in Canton

Jim Bartolomeo, founding director of Baltimore's Protagonist Films, considers how the Yuengling bottle that stars in the latest series of Lager ads will look on camera.
Jim Bartolomeo, founding director of Baltimore's Protagonist Films, considers how the Yuengling bottle that stars in the latest series of Lager ads will look on camera. (Karl Merton Ferron/Baltimore Sun/Sept. 21, 2012)

It's 1:15 on a warm and sunny fall afternoon in Canton, and the downstairs bar and lounge area of the Fork & Wrench is packed with about 30 people.

No, it's not an office party or a surge of late lunchgoers waiting for a table upstairs at the Boston Street hotspot.

There's a TV commercial being made, and instead of the usual cool, dark ambience, the scene is one of lights, cables, clutter and a large camera standing in the center of the room locked down and focused on a bottle of beer in the middle of a spectacular wooden bar.

Standing alongside the camera is Jim Bartolomeo, the camerman/director whose resume includes working on the first season of HBO's "The Sopranos" and Barry Levinson's feature film "Sleepers." Scattered throughout the room in blue jeans, T-shirts, work shirts and baseball caps are crew members who have earned their stripes on Baltimore-based series such as NBC's "Homicide: Life on the Street" and HBO's "The Wire."

But all that matters here is the beer. The bottle of beer on the bar is the alpha and omega of the next four hours at the Fork & Wrench. That and the dozens of replacement bottles that will be dressed, made up, back-lit, side-lit, primped, primed, misted and beaded with an eye dropper before being brought in front of the camera to take its place.

Bartolomeo is making a series of ads for Lager and Light Lager from Yuengling, the Pennsylvania brewery founded in 1829. And Bartolomeo says he's crystal clear about his mission.

"I was charged with making the beer look awesome," the 46-year-old head of Baltimore's Protagonist Films said. "That's what came all the way down from [brewery owner] Dick Yuengling: 'We're going to strip away all the acting, all of the artifice from these scripts. And we're just going to keep the focus on the beer itself. So, the beer has to look awesome every time it's on screen.'"

A lot has been written in this column about the revival of the local TV production community in Baltimore and Maryland since HBO started making "Game Change" here in the summer of 2011. And that was followed last year by the premium cable channel's "VEEP" and Netflix's $100 million "House of Cards" setting up shop.

But while not as rich or glamorous as prime-time productions featuring Hollywood stars, the kind of TV commercial work being done at the Fork & Wrench for Yuengling is part of that comeback, too.

Bartolomeo says he hired 30 to 35 workers for three days of work on the shoot — most of them from the Baltimore area. He could have shot it in Philadelphia, which would have meant that few of the people in the room would have worked. The Yuengling project is one of 23 Protagonist is working on this year, he says.

And though it's smaller in scale, the skills are not all that different. Instead of all the lights, lenses, talents and brain power of workers directed toward, say, Julia Louis-Dreyfus, as she walks onto the "VEEP" soundstage in Columbia to shoot a scene, here it's on the bottle or glass of beer sitting on the bar as it's being carefully lit and made ready for its close-up, Mr. DeMille.

In the world of TV advertising, the path to a perfect-looking glass or bottle of beer has less to do with just the right balance of hops and barley back at the brewery than it does precision-cut plexiglass and a turkey baster in the hands of a skilled liquid stylist.

And so, when Bartolomeo was hired for the new Yuengling lager spots, one of the first things he did was seek out Jonathan Lee, a prop master and tabletop food stylist from Los Angeles with his own pouring machine, and Kent Eanes, a gaffer from Virginia, who "has a great eye and employs unorthodox approaches" in the "use of light."

"Part of our goal was to make Yuengling stand apart from other beer spots," Bartolomeo, a Loyola University Maryland graduate said. "So, we decided to try to create the feeling of an inner glow, with the light appearing to be emanating from inside the bottle or the glass out."

Cue the plexiglass.

Much of the set-up time between shots at the Fork & Wrench involved Eanes cutting white plexiglass into the shape of glasses or bottles. The cutouts had to be slightly smaller, so that they would be invisible to the camera.

"And we would then strategically place that behind the bottle or glass and hit it with a special light off-camera, so that it would create this nice clean glow that would transmit through the bottle or glass," Bartolomeo explained.

The lighting angles and the "special light off-camera" are part of the "bag of tricks" that Eanes and Bartolomeo are not sharing.

But the rhythm of the room for much of the afternoon was: cut plexiglass, place plexiglass, light the beer and look through the camera. Then: talk, trim plexiglass, replace plexiglass, re-light the beer and look through the camera some more.

The director did explain how they modified the strategy using thinner diffusion paper instead of plexiglass and attaching it to a glass of lager so that they could get the same kind of inner glow with a glass as it was filmed sliding across the bar for another Yuengling spot shot later in the day.

But the biggest bag of tricks at the Fork & Wrench belonged to Lee.

"He travels with a lot of gear," Bartolomeo said. "I think he asked us to ship 14 cases of gear through Fed Ex from L.A. He had a special truck, and he had a pneumatic tank, or some sort of air-gas tank, so that he could launch the beer into a glass rather than just pouring it out of bottle. And that was done from a special vessel he had that the camera could see into."

If Lee isn't a perfectionist, he does a pretty good imitation of one. He asked Yuengling to send him six cases of its best-looking plain bottles, and then, he spent a day upon arrival in Baltimore affixing special labels he had made out of a paper that would look better on-camera when the plexiglass-juiced light was pouring through it.

For all his technology and endless array of bottles and glasses, though, he spent a lot of time at the Fork & Wrench working the beer with what looked like a simple turkey baster.

"There are a number of ways to 'activate' a beer," Lee said, laughing at the baster question. "I told these guys that my way of activating a beer and making it look good on camera is to work with room temperature beer."

When you pour a cold glass of beer, he said, the glass gets frosted from its own condensation. But for camera purposes, it's sometimes too thick and diffused to see the beer clearly. It can't be controlled.

"But if I start with room temperature beer and add the condensation to the proper level [externally], that's all under control," he explained. "But I don't put a head on it until camera's rolling."

Cue the turkey baster.

"When they say they're ready to roll, I stick the baster in, I pump it up very slowly so I can control the shape and the height of the head," Lee said. "And that way you can get a certain thickness and height in that specific glass because it varies from glass to glass and product to product, beer to beer, et cetera."

Within that one "et cetera" from Lee, there seems to be at least a million more variables involved in creating the perfect TV image of a beer — a video illusion so vivid and compelling that you can almost taste the smooth, rich lager passing over your tongue and into your throat.

"You know, beer is the product, and you can never forget that," Bartolomeo said when asked about special challeges in making the ads that are expected to debut in January.

"You know, how some axioms in Hollywood say never work with children or food, because it just consumes extra time. Well, liquid has its own unique challenges beyond that. Yeah, its own very unique challenges beyond that."