May 16, 2024
Arts & Culture

Magic makers

There’s nothing quite like inspiring the creative minds of children and for those working behind the scenes on Adelaide-made kids’ television show Beep and Mort, they are given that honour every day.

Inside a cavernous warehouse-style space in the grounds of the South Australian Film Corp sits a set made of giant hills and textural trees. They form part of the furry village of Mollyvale, a magical place where best friends, Beep and Mort, frolic beneath skies of pale oranges, lavenders and candy pinks while they encounter action-packed adventures together.

It’s a magical place born from the collective imagination of the creatives at Windmill working on the ABC Kids puppet show, Beep and Mort.

In the camera’s lens, this colourful set looks magnificent. As you zoom out a little, the whole story comes into focus: each of the scenes stands about a metre off the ground – and often spaced a metre apart – which allows the puppeteers the height and space needed to bring the characters to life.

Mollyvale can be found at Adelaide Studios, where the landscape for each scene is lit beautifully and dressed with tiny objects.

Hundreds of props are lying in wait in a storage room nearby, ready to be placed and played with, helping to create Beep and Mort’s home.

The creation of Beep and Mort happens with the help of more than 160 people and during filming, the vibrant sets are hubs of activity.

Behind the scenes, there’s a team of people that pulls everything together to create the magic. One of them is Bianka Kennedy, props maker.

Name a Mollyvale prop – from tiny waffles, to large pancakes, to speedy go-carts … even glowing mushrooms – and Bianka has made it.

But not so long ago, Bianka’s nine-to-five had her creating something a world away from Mollyvale – graphs and spreadsheets, while she worked in business development and data analytics.

Then one day, Bianka caught herself telling her sons (now 14 and 16) that when they grew up they could be anything they wanted and she had a lightbulb moment: “So could I!”. From unleashing her creativity in amateur sets and over intricate birthday cakes to completing her theatre design studies in 2017, Bianka began making stage props for children’s shows with the Australian Company of Performing Arts, and when someone remarked how good she was at it, she realised there could be a future in this type of creation.

“I grew up in a regional area where the arts weren’t really visible, so I didn’t even know it could be a career,” Bianka says.

Bianka is now part of creative hub, George Street Studios, and has worked on several Windmill Theatre shows and television, too, including Beep and Mort. This latest show is adapted from the Windmill Theatre Company’s production of Beep, co-created by Jonathon Oxlade, Sam Haren and Katherine Fyffe.

From its on-stage origins, it has morphed into a popular television show with more than 160 people putting their hands and talents to it, including in development, production and post-production.

Bianka says the show had come a long way from the first season to the second.

“In the first season, we were finding our feet and figuring it out,” she says. “Season two has beautiful cinematography and we really pushed puppetry to its limits in terms of what they can do and how expressive the characters can be.”

The show uses as few post-production special effects as possible, letting the puppets themselves shine.

Bianka Kennedy busy at work creating the delicate props for Beep and Mort.

Bianka’s team has about five and a half months before filming begins to create every prop for a 20-episode season. That equates to up to 120 items being made each week – either created from scratch, or by adjusting an existing object.

These months are incredibly fast-paced and the work doesn’t end there.

“While they’re filming, every now and then you get a call on the radio saying, ‘We need three tiny shovels now. How quick can you be?’,” she explains. “And you go, ‘I can do them in six minutes’. Then there’s a rush to find materials and hope the spray paint will dry as you’re running to hand them over.

“It’s such a marathon for us because that props list is long and we’re a team of people who want to absolutely nail every single thing and we hold ourselves to a high standard. It’s truly blood, sweat and tears most days.”

As Bianka chats about her job, a snow globe sits in front of her as a testament to her fastidiousness in the job. The globe has a little appearance in a scene set on a space ship and Bianka put an admirable amount of effort and experimentation into it.

Bianka’s favourite tiny props to make are food items, such as these in Mollyvale’s shop.

“I whittled one of the characters – my son did the other – but I couldn’t put wood in a snow globe, so from the whittling, we made a cast and then moulded the figures in coloured resin.”

She then had to work out the perfect ratio of water to glycerine to fill the globe and went through about five versions of materials that could be used instead of glitter, although, glitter gave the best result in the end.

Bianka’s favourite things to work on are the delightful little food items that can be found in Mollydale’s kitchens and shops. She’s created everything from cakes and crumpets to biscuits and jam jars – and even ice cream that actually looks as if it’s dripping.

Every late hour is worth it for Bianka when you look at the team and the result they all work towards.

“The team is so funny and they make your days really good when it can be stressful and hard,” she says. “I can get behind this show for so many reasons. It’s a show that you know when the kids switch off, they’re going to pick up some material or some crayons or scissors.”

This article first appeared in the December 2023 issue of SALIFE magazine.

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