- Mardi Gras is a big celebration in New Orleans and the parades include large, ornate floats.
- Kern Studios has been in the business for over 80 years making them.
- We get a tour through Mardi Gras World, the studio’s 300,000-square-foot warehouse to see how they’re made over 50 weeks of the year.
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The following is a transcript of the video.
Narrator: What would Mardi Gras in New Orleans be without the parade? And what would the Mardi Gras parade be without the gigantic, ornate floats? The world-famous floats take a year to make. Well, nearly a year. 50 weeks, to be exact, because for two weeks they’re used to celebrate Fat Tuesday. But once all the celebrations die down, the work for next year begins. And it all starts with a giant piece of Styrofoam.
The most prolific float and prop manufacturer is Kern Studios.
The company has been in the business for over 80 years and now creates props for theme parks, casinos, and corporations worldwide. You can take a behind-the-scenes tour through Mardi Gras World, the 300,000-square-foot warehouse where Kern Studios’ artists and architects build the floats from the ground up. They build the props that will go on the floats owned by krewes, which are local social groups who fund the event.
Lee Curran: Step one of the process is sculpting new Styrofoam props. All new Styrofoam props begin with multiple sketches on sheets of Styrofoam. They will sketch them out, cut them out, and then stack all those pieces together around a base that has some sort of armature or support beam coming through. And when we’re gluing Styrofoam together, we are using a spray insulation-type material called Great Stuff.
Barry Kern: Mardi Gras in New Orleans all comes down to a two-week period, right? So you work all year long, 50 weeks a year, to deliver something that happens in two weeks. So, you know, for the most part, it gets very hectic at that time of year, but it’s part of what we do. It’s telling a story as it goes down the street at three or four miles an hour.
Lee: The large robot-looking arm there, we do call her Pixie. She is a large-scale CNC router. Pixie has seven axes, can move along that rail, create props up to 60 feet long. Step two of the process, our papier-mâché section. Covering all that Styrofoam in small strips of brown paper, using a traditional papier-mâché technique, gives the props a nice, smooth surface so they can apply the paint.
Risa Daigle: It don’t stop. I mean, right after, you know, Mardi Gras, you know, 2018, we start on 2019, and it just goes on. You know, everybody bounces things off one another, or they’ll just tell you what their ideas are to see the big picture, which is great. I feel like this is my family. And I spend more time with them than anybody else, so just as well be my family. [laughs] To watch a prop from beginning to end and to see it on the float is quite amazing. It’s quite amazing.
Lee: So, all these props back here have been used before. They’re waiting to be repurposed again. It could be next year, could be five or 10 years down the line. So, to modify them, we can just paint them differently. We could add additional elements, or we could cut the head off, find a different head that could fit on that body, and then work from there.
Narrator: The props from this repurpose section of the studio are patched and sent to painting. We will send them over to our painters, who are applying that outer coat of paint. And the paint is really a inexpensive interior house paint.
Narrator: To lock in all the hard work, each prop is sprayed with a topcoat that will help with waterproofing before it leaves the warehouse. Then the team will assemble the props and decorations on the float beds. After 50 weeks of meticulous work from the artists at Kern Studios, the floats will roam through the streets of New Orleans for two weeks and return to the artists in the studio, who will be armed and ready to start building them again for the next year.