About two miles South of New Orleans’ buzzing French Quarter, in the city’s Lower Garden District on the banks of the Mississippi River, sits a giant warehouse that most would deem unassuming. However, inside is a Willy Wonka-esque studio filled with thousands of enormous, colorful props and figures, ranging from familiar Disney characters to outright bizarre creatures.
This is Kern Studios, the largest and oldest builder of Mardi Gras floats. Kern started in 1932 and is in its fourth generation of float building. It has a year-round staff of artists, architects, designers, and sculptors that work 50 weeks a year designing and building new Mardi Gras floats, with the final two weeks saved for actual Mardi Gras.
The first official Mardi Gras parade in 1857 only had one parade and two floats made from rudimentary materials. Now there are hundreds of floats and dozens of parades, but luckily, today’s float-builders have automation on their side to keep up with demand. See how Kern Studios brings Mardi Gras floats to life and uses a CNC milling machine to take Mardi Gras to a new dimension.
Step 1: Design
Each parade crew (funded by local social groups) decides on their individual theme for that year. Their ideas turn into sketches of what their “props” (the main pieces of the float) will look like. These sketches turn into 3D models (either from scratch or a 3D scan).
Step 2: Sculpt with a CNC machine
Using the prop’s design, artists cut out 4-inch-thick Styrofoam sheets that they can stack and glue together around a support base. Then, it’s on to what the designers fondly named “Pixie.”
Pixie is a large-scale CNC router by KUKA that’s also used to mill fuselages for SpaceX. In Kern’s case, Pixie mills intricate patterns into the props. The prop sits on a rotary table, and as the table rotates, Pixie uses seven axes to carve into the Styrofoam, creating a fully 3D sculpture.
Pixie acts much like a human sculptor, moving delicately around the prop and carving in fine details just like human hands would. However, unlike a human, Pixie is extremely accurate in its sculpting, which lets artists be more creative and opens up a world of possibilities for new props.
Step 3: Paper mache
The finished sculpture is covered from head to toe in paper mache, which keeps the paint from damaging the sculpture.
Step 4: Paint
Artists paint the sculpture white for a blank canvas and then add basic colors, final details, and a top coat. Then the team puts the prop and other decorations onto a float bed.
Step 5: Let the good times roll!
Hundreds of floats roam New Orleans in dozens of parades for two weeks. Once the party’s over, it’s time to plan for next year!
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