The sun had just set and a snail named Velveeta appeared to emerge from a slumber, perked up its tentacles and began moving around. Aleia Murawski saw the (slow) motion out of the corner of her eye. She strategically placed a cucumber slice at one end of a miniature model of a grocery store, where she wanted Velveeta to go.
Right on cue, Velveeta made a beeline — as much as any snail can beeline — for the cucumber. Ms. Murawski, an artist based in Michigan, knew she had her shot and began filming with her phone. “Yeeesss,” she whispered. Within two minutes, it was over.
The sequence, filmed by Ms. Murawski and her creative partner, Sam Copeland, was part of a photo and video shoot they created for The New York Times’s Culture desk to illustrate an article on the popularity of Mini Brands — tiny replicas of branded supermarket products like Miracle Whip and Skippy. The miniatures, which in normal times might be regarded more as children’s toys, have become popular among adults during the coronavirus pandemic.
Amanda Hess, a Times critic at large who wrote the article and who owns about 30 of the replicas (Lawry’s seasoned salt and Spam are part of her collection), said the video captures the relaxing feeling of looking at brands as you coast down a store aisle. “And it comes at a time when grocery shopping is suddenly not relaxing, fun or engaging anymore,” she said.
The Culture desk’s creative team was familiar with Ms. Murawski’s and Mr. Copeland’s work with snails on Instagram and reached out to the artists. To Tala Safie, a staff editor who helped produce the project, those creatures seemed perfect for the moment. “They sort of ooze around the house like the rest of us right now stuck at home,” she joked.
The artists, former college classmates who began building miniatures six years ago in Chicago, designed four tableaus for the piece: a kitchen scene with Velveeta pushing a shopping cart; a green-tinged living room complete with a miniature conveyor belt that Mr. Copeland built; a disheveled pantry with a pink-and-purple sunset visible through the window; and a scene featuring a curious Velveeta peering into a basket full of levitating Mini Brands. The building process took 10 days.
Their miniature rooms typically measure 8 inches by 12 inches — about the size of a shoe box — and have foam cores and felt carpeting, Ms. Murawski said. She tries to repurpose materials lying around her studio and keeps a big bin of fabric scraps. She also incorporates objects, including little pieces of plastic, that she finds and collects on her walks. “If I find an object with a strange texture, I always keep it,” she said.
Once the sets were built, she and Mr. Copeland adjusted for scale. No one would accuse Mini Brands of being large, but when the central figure of your photo shoot is a one-inch-tall snail, everything is relative. “We wanted to showcase the Mini Brands, but we had to make sure they blended in and weren’t overpowering the snail,” she said. “We had to think strategically about how to create balance.”
While Ms. Murawski builds the sets, it is Mr. Copeland who helps bring them to life. “Sam is really good at the engineering part because he’s very analytical,” she said. “He has a great eye for manipulating movement within a scene.”
The final images didn’t disappoint. “What I loved about the pictures is their eerie quality — they give the quotidian a sci-fi twist,” Jolie Ruben, a photo editor who helped direct the project, said. “Aleia and Sam’s imagery perfectly captured our idea of how life is now: slow, indoors, all about food.”
The real star was, of course, Velveeta, a 3-year-old snail with a fondness for cucumbers and carrots, and inching — er, millimetering? — around miniature living rooms at midnight. (Snails are nocturnal.) They tapped Velveeta for this shoot, Ms. Murawski said, because it — most snails are hermaphrodites — seemed more active than the others.
“We have an idea of what we want them to do, but we still have to work on their schedule,” she said. “It sounds silly, but it’s a true collaboration between us and the snails.”