Lights, camera, eat (+recipes)

By Grant Allen

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Grant Allen goes behind the scenes in the Shortland Street kitchen

Bonnie Kells, 'Shortland Street' food prop creator. Photo / Doug Sherring
Bonnie Kells, 'Shortland Street' food prop creator. Photo / Doug Sherring

Bonnie Kells gets to cook some unusual things in her kitchen. She makes food that has to look delicious and edible but is never eaten. She has to "fake" half-eaten dinners and at times she has to whip up batches of fresh blood, liquid and congealed. It's all in a day's work at the Shortland Street studios.

Bonnie works in the art department and is part of the roller-coaster team that pumps out New Zealand's favourite soap. Other demands on her skills might be making "food stunts" happen. Cakes that have to be dropped and fall a certain way or pastry that may have to fall off pies. Actors have identical costumes on hand if they are likely to get messy in a food scene as there is no time to stop filming for a clean up; the show must go on.

Bonnie also has to come to the party for specific storylines. A character may be on a special carb diet, a Samoan family may visit with Pacific dishes, a Biggest Burger competition may be held and need entrant burgers to be made, some of which need to topple over, cue more food stunts.

Actors can't say their lines when eating, so food needs to diminish on the plate over a dinner to look like it has been devoured.

If the scene has to be re-filmed later, Bonnie will need to come up with identical food, whole or partly eaten. All these details are in the interests of continuity.

There's no alcohol allowed on set, so apple and grape juice substitute for wine. All labels must be faked on wine bottles, beer cans and drink bottles.

The art department delivers labelling and signage that looks credible to the viewer but is not actually a commercial brand. And so The IV Bar, the Sugar Cafe and the hospital canteen become familiar spaces for viewers.

As a fast-moving, contemporary show, trends in social attitudes, world affairs and major events must be woven into storylines. Filming episodes before the Rugby World Cup final required two opposing segments to be recorded, one showing New Zealand losing and one showing the home team taking the Cup.

Interiors, fashions and food styles change in the real world, and these must also be reflected to make the show feel "now". Today, Bonnie is serving meatball sliders in the Sugar Cafe, right on trend.

Now in its 21st year of production, filming for Shortland Street happens from 7am until 7pm.

The soap's wing of the South Pacific Pictures' complex in West Auckland has its own staff cafeteria to feed the many cast and crew working on the programme. The rabbit warren of offices, art department, film sets, technical and camera departments, costume and prop storerooms are workmanlike and worn in, the glamour is all on screen.

The mood behind the scenes is one of cohesion and family. Backstage, "stars", extras and production crew hover and huddle, waiting for their cues.

The sets move, collapse and fold. Three cameras are continuously filming the takes and editing takes place in tandem. There's no mucking around here, they are filming the equivalent of a feature film every week.

Bonnie and the art department need to keep pace, scanning scripts in advance of filming to know what kind of food or drink will be required for each segment.

As I left, Bonnie was off to prepare for the next day's cafe shoot - calamari, wedges, bread and dips were required. The food aspect, essentially incidental in the show, is considered with as much care as the rest of the production. It was a fantastic insight to get behind the scenes.

Bonnie shared a couple of recipes which are are not only edible but also delicious.


Blood splatter recipe
Layered panna cotta
Meatball sliders

Happy 21st

Shortland Street's winter tradition kicks off tomorrow with the return of the winter one-hour episodes every Monday. Keep an eye out for some intriguing new characters, a family scandal and the possibility of a marriage or two. The soap celebrates its 21st anniversary on May 25, and is gearing up to shoot the 90-minute episode to screen later in the year.

- Herald on Sunday

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