Plexiglas, poop, and penguins: Life behind the scenes on the Puppy Bowl

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Plexiglas, poop, and penguins: Life behind the scenes on the Puppy Bowl

In entertainment, an awful lot of stuff happens behind closed doors, from canceling TV shows to organizing music festival lineups. While the public sees the end product on TVs, movie screens, paper, or radio dials, they don’t see what it took to get there. In Expert Witness, The A.V. Club talks to industry insiders about the actual business of entertainment in hopes of shedding some light on how the pop-culture sausage gets made.

Now in its 11th year, Animal Planet’s Puppy Bowl isn’t so much a sporting event as it is an adorable institution. The sporty homage airs every Super Bowl Sunday—originally only during the game but now on a consistent loop for 12 hours—and drew an astounding 12.4 million viewers in 2013. With a kitten halftime show, furry cheerleaders and commentators, a witty human referee, and a starting lineup of 55 adoptable puppies, the Puppy Bowl has become one of television’s most cherished annual events.

But what happens when the puppies don’t cooperate or, heaven forbid, poop on the field? And who picks the game’s star players? Cory Popp has been a camera operator on Puppy Bowl for three years and has seen everything from penguins obsessed with a laser pointer to Girls’ Allison Williams trying to convince her dad to take home a fluffy little golden retriever. The A.V. Club talked to him about life behind the adorable scenes, puppy kisses and all.

The A.V. Club: How did you get the job shooting the Puppy Bowl?

Cory Popp: I was working on this pretty terrible cupcake show on TLC...

AVC: ...Cupcake Wars?

CP: It wasn’t, although I did do Cupcake Wars. For a little bit I just did cupcake-related things. I don’t know how that ended up happening, but I made a friend on that who eventually left that company and went to work for another company that does Puppy Bowl. And in this strange kind of fluke of the universe shining brightly on me, Hurricane Sandy happened—which is not funny—but it did push Puppy Bowl two weeks ahead, and one of the camera operators couldn’t do it anymore. And my friend that had been associate producing on that cupcake show called me and said, “You love puppies, you would love to do this.” So my love for dogs did actually get me in there. But also a number of freak occurrences, like Hurricane Sandy.

AVC: Do they shoot in New York?

CP: Yeah. It’s a little studio in Hell’s Kitchen. For the three years I’ve been there, it’s been the same studio every year. And they come in and they build the whole stadium in there and everything, and then a bunch of other sets that they use for the extras, like the kittens and the skybox and all that stuff. They build that for a week, and then I come in. Last year, because it was the 10th anniversary, we did three days. But we usually just do two days. Two 10-hour days of shooting.

AVC: What’s the process like?

CP: The first day is all the auxiliary stuff. They have a stage crew that comes in and the art department and everything, and they build all the stuff. I’m not there for that sort of thing, but it’s basically this week of building the whole set.

Then our first day of actual shooting starts. Usually, Dan [Schachner], the ref, comes out first. He’s the best dude. He comes out and he does a lot of his wild blinds. He does all of the calls, and pretty much everyone’s just shouting out really terrible dog puns.

AVC: Is there a writer for him or does he do it on his own?

CP: There’s a whole office.

It’s funny because I’ve worked on a lot of the stuff for Scripps Networks, and a lot of the people from the network don’t usually come out, but for Puppy Bowl, everyone comes out because it’s Puppy Bowl. So there’s this office of all the higher-ups from Animal Planet, because they’re all super stoked and it’s their favorite thing in the world, and so we’re wearing headsets and they have an open mic in that room and you can hear everyone in that room laughing and screaming and having the best time. And they’re all yelling out things for Dan to say that they’ve obviously been thinking about all year long. No one at Animal Planet ever stops thinking about Puppy Bowl.

So Dan does all his lines and then we do the kitty halftime show, which is always on the first day as well. That’s pretty entertaining. They have an immense amount of cats that they drop on the field with all these toys, and they’ve got a couple guys that are running around with GoPros, sticking them in the cats’ faces. It’s the most adorable thing in the world.

We also do the cheerleader stuff on the first day. This year it was baby goats that they brought in from New Jersey. I didn’t know they had goat farms in New Jersey.

One of my favorite moments of the last three years was when the women with the baby goats were standing outside the studio in Hell’s Kitchen, just on the street, and I went out there just to be out for a minute because it was a pretty warm day, and this woman was walking a basset hound down the street, and the baby goats were playing with the basset hound, and the goat was kind of chomping at the dog and the dog was running in circles, and the woman was cracking up. It was the funniest thing to her. And she was like, “This is what they mean when they say ‘only in New York.’” It’s only in New York that you see a baby goat on the sidewalk playing with a basset hound.

AVC: When is the shoot?

CP: We shoot in October or November. There are a lot of cameras, a lot of GoPros, and on puppy day we have two slo-mo cameras. So it’s all of this footage that they have to ingest and get edited and find the best moments. I know people out there kind of take notes about what’s happening, but it pretty much comes down to going through all that footage for several months to try to cut it down into the best of the best.

On puppy day, they bring the dogs in eight or 10 at a time in waves. And there’s a whole host of volunteers in this front room taking care of the dogs, making sure that they’re happy and everything, and then the volunteers bring them in eight to 10 at a time. And then some of them don’t want to do anything.

My job actually consists a lot of me picking the dogs up in front of my camera and setting them back onto the field. The stage is built probably about 4 feet high or so, and we have a piece of Plexiglas across the front of it that the camera shoots through, because the dogs want to run off the field. It’s not a large area, and they see there’s a ton of people on the other side of the field standing there, like the operators and the directors, and all the PAs. So we have a lot of volunteers that come in to help push the dogs back onto the field. That’s a really bizarre volunteer position that you can get at Puppy Bowl where you’re just basically forcing the dogs back onto the field. And so there’s this weird thing where they always want to jump off the field because they want to be petted, so volunteers are there for when they’re not doing much or they’re not looking happy, they pick them up and take them back into the other room. So it runs in waves like that. The Humane Society is also there, making sure all the dogs are good and whatever. They’ll like pick out dogs like, “That dog doesn’t seem happy,” and so they’ll take that dog off the field.

What you see on TV is only the best of the best, but there’s actually like 70 dogs there and you’re never quite sure what they’re going to do. Because they’re puppies, they’re not trained, they’re just doing whatever they want to do. It’s just hoping for the best.

AVC: It seems like there’s always an MVP, though. How does that dog get picked? Is it the most cooperative?

CP: Yeah. Most of them don’t want to play.

The thing is they want the dog to grab a toy and run across the goal line. But there’s only a handful of dogs that actually want to play with the toys, because the dogs usually like to play with each other, and so the dogs that end up picking up the toys are always the ones that make it on TV because they can play like the dog’s making a move for the goal line.

The whole host of Animal Planet people and our director, John, who’s amazing, are all up in the room watching a feed from all the cameras, and it’s funny, because I can hear them in my headset. When a dog picks up a toy, everyone’s like, “Oh my god, oh my god, oh my god, oh my god, oh my god…” They’re screaming and yelling as the dog’s going toward the goal line, and it happens, I don’t know, a hundred times throughout the day where a dog will make it like five yards from the goal line and then drop the toy and start playing with another dog. It’s this big arc of emotion and then it drops because everybody’s really bummed that he didn’t run across the goal line and score a touchdown. They need so many of those to cut the show together, so it’s really funny to hear that range of emotions in that room.

AVC: How big is the field?

CP: When we were doing guinea pigs the first year I was there, I was up there laying on the field, and I’m like 6 foot, and I take up almost half of it, so it can’t be more than 15 feet all the way across. The actual field part. And then they have the stands that extend out a little further. So it probably is almost 20 feet total, but the actual field is only like 15 feet. It looks much bigger on TV.

AVC: How many hours of footage do you think you guys shoot? And what does all that get cut down to?

CP: It used to be three hours and then they cut it down to two, but they just run it 12 hours straight—six times—on Super Bowl day.

But I’ve always thought about that. That’s what I was saying about why they shoot it in October or November, because there’s so much footage. Like I was saying, it’s two 10-hour days, and we roll pretty much all the way through both days. I’m trying to think of how many cameras there are. There’s me and one other operator that are on regular sticks, and then there’s a jib, and then there’s the water bowl camera, which is everyone’s favorite, but is unmanned. It’s just down there and they’re rolling on it all the time, and then they add a couple stationary goal-line cameras, and then there’s one out of the back of the end zone, and then there’s the two slo-mo cameras. And then there’s a bunch mounted overhead, and then there’s a whole bunch of GoPros. Over two 10-hour days we’d probably roll six hours of footage, but it’s six hours between 15 cameras. So it’s a hundred hours’ worth of footage. It’s some insane amount of footage that some poor group of assistant editors have to go through. Although, you’re watching puppy footage, so how terrible can that be?

AVC: Is there any way to encourage the puppies to be cuter?

CP: I think they’re always trying to come up with new ways to get them to interact with the toys or whatever, but it’s really just at these infant puppies’ will. And they’re untrained. That’s why it’s always kind of a crapshoot. It’s interesting because it’s very, very different every year. I mean, it’s always the same, but the group of dogs makes it feel different because certain ones don’t interact, certain ones interact quite a bit, certain ones are absolutely insane. We had a sheep dog—I think it was last year—that all it did when it was on the field was it kept splashing all of the water out of the water bowl and then shaking it on all the other dogs, which was freaking out all the other dogs. But that was all that dog did. And eventually they were like, “We can’t have this dog out here anymore.” It’s different every year. And it is just because they’re puppies. They just don’t know what they’re doing with their lives yet.

AVC: Are the puppies out there in consistent groups of eight or so, or do they rotate individual puppies out?

CP: They’re set up in waves, and it’s grouped by size. If we have a bunch of small dogs out there, if there are multiples of poodles or Pomeranians or something like that, dachshunds, they’ll put all of them together and then they’ll put the mastiffs and the husky puppies and all those together.

AVC: The bruisers.

CP: Yeah. Exactly. When they put the big dogs out there, they put them out together and there are fewer of them, because they obviously take up a lot of space. So when they put out the mastiff run, it’ll be like seven or eight dogs, but when they put out the small Pomeranians or whatever, it’ll be like 12, 13 dogs. And then they’ll have them out there for an hour, or until—like I said, with the Humane Society being there, they’re pulling out dogs, like, “Oh, that dog’s pretty unhappy,” or it pooped. They’ll take it into the other room so it can just chill out. But it usually is four or five waves.

AVC: Everyone wants to know what happens when a dog poops.

CP: Oh, yes. That comes back to the volunteer and PA positions. There are always a couple people that have a spray bottle and a thing of paper towels that are on poop patrol, as they like to stay around there. We pause for a minute and the person jumps onto the field and cleans it up. And usually we have Dan get up there and make a comment about it: “Personal foul,” or, “Ooh that’s a foul.”

I can’t remember if they actually show it on TV.

AVC: Maybe if a dog is peeing or something.

CP: Yeah, exactly.

We always shoot it, and there’s always a comment from up in the room, like, “Why are you doing that?” They’re joking around. But every time it happens I try to grab a shot of it because I think it’s hilarious. Needless to say, the room smells a little funny.

AVC: As a cameraman, you’re not really involved in this, but do you know how the puppies are chosen? They’re all rescue dogs, correct?

CP: Exactly. They’re all from shelters.

That’s one of the funniest things every year is that they’re all up for adoption when they come to Puppy Bowl, and every year the people that I’ve been working with will come up to me, or come up to each other and they’re like, “You gonna take a dog home this year?” Because you can, and all the people working on it get first dibs on those Puppy Bowl dogs. I’ve actually tried twice, two times in a row. First, there was a husky puppy two years ago that I was really in love with, and I went to talk to them about adopting it, and the guy who was coming from the shelter with the dog had decided on the plane that he was going to adopt it.

AVC: They come in from all over the country?

CP: They come in from all over. I think it’s Pet Finder that they use, which has shelter dogs on it, and there are actually people that scout or cast for Puppy Bowl that will scour the Internet. They’ll find dogs on Pet Finder and then they talk to the shelters and see about bringing them in for it. I think the shelters are all pretty on-board, because it raises awareness for them.

I think the whole point from the beginning was that they were going to raise awareness for shelters. Everyone thinks shelters are about older dogs, but there are also these adorable puppies that are up for adoption. You don’t have to go to a mill to get dogs. You can get them from a shelter as well. I think it’s kind of great on that front.

AVC: So you got thwarted on the husky and then what about last year?

CP: It was a brown Doberman this past year that I was absolutely in love with. We had a couple growing up. My brother and me have been talking for a long time about how we want a brown Doberman. And so he’s building a house right now and can’t really have a dog, and I was sending him pictures of it and he was very mad at me, like, “You’ve got to bring that dog home. But I can’t exactly have that dog, but you’ve got to bring that dog home.” So I went and talked to the shelter, and the same damn thing, where it was like, “Oh, that’s already been adopted.” It’s like, how? The dog’s been up for adoption for like six hours at this point. And somebody’s already chosen it.

My love for that dog was so immense that the lady from the Humane Society kept referring to it as “Cory’s dog.” They were like, “Oh, here’s Cory’s dog.” And then it was swept out from underneath me.

AVC: Everyone has their favorites.

CP: Oh, yeah. Without a doubt. I’ve already had a couple friends send me pictures they’ve saved of from the lineup on the website, like, “Is this dog good this year?”

Also, last year I had friends that did the fantasy Puppy Bowl thing where you could pick a free lineup—I’m going to out a couple people here who were in pools with their family who called me for insider tips for Puppy Bowl fantasy. I will say that I gave good tips for two people to win their pools with their family. I felt like, “This is just too cute to be cheating,” you know?

AVC: Have they ever had puppy fighting on the field?

CP: Yeah, that happens. It gets a little nippy on occasion. They watch how the dogs interact in the front room before they bring them in, and probably don’t bring the dogs in that are too aggressive to begin with. But occasionally you get out there and there’s 12 dogs on the field and a couple of them don’t like each other. They’re taken off pretty quickly, I’d say. They’re given a time-out for their nippy behavior.

AVC: Do you guys have special filming techniques?

CP: It’s definitely a different sort of deal. Some of the guys come from sports, and I actually haven’t done a lot of live broadcasts, like sports or anything, but it’s hard sometimes to follow the puppies because they’re really unpredictable. I’m set up on a tripod and panning and tilting and focusing, but it’s really hard sometimes if the dog’s running from end-to-end to try and track them perfectly. They’ll be running really fast and then just stop and run the other way. I’m tracking them to run all the way across the field and then all of a sudden they’re out of frame because they’re running the other way.

I think the main technique that we use is where we’ll pick them up and set them five yards back into the field because they’ll basically just want to fall asleep in front of the lens. And then a dog laying in front of your camera is taking up most of your shot. The first year I learned to always to have a chamois in your pocket so you can wipe off your lens because a lot of dogs will come up and start licking the lens for god knows what reason. They see a reflection in it, maybe? I’m not sure. But I get a lot of dog slobber on my lens every year.

AVC: That’s probably a cute shot, though.

CP: It is super adorable.

Some guys will take the GoPros in the waterproof cases and they’ll smear peanut butter on the front of one and stick it out there so a bunch of dogs are licking on it, and you’ll see those shots in the show.

AVC: Are there any tricks for the kittens or the goats or the guinea pigs?

CP: I feel like they don’t care.

Actually, there was one trick for the penguins we had—I think that was last year—and it was a laser pointer. Penguins are bizarrely like lemmings. If one starts doing something, they’ll all kind of line up in a row. They had these penguins from the Columbus Zoo come in and the people that brought them from the zoo were basically like, “If you put a laser pointer down, one will follow it and all the others will follow behind.” So we had someone with a laser pointer leading one penguin, and then all the penguins would line up behind that one, and they would basically follow this laser pointer like a cat, but it was weirdly methodic. Like they were marching after this laser pointer in circles around the field. It was really bizarre.

AVC: They could have been the marching band.

CP: Exactly. It was bizarre. I guess I’ve never really seen penguins do anything other than sit around at the zoo. It was funny to watch them line up. It looked choreographed to a certain extent.

But other than that, it’s really hard. Even the cats, sometimes with a laser pointer, they just don’t care. They just lie around. They have a bunch of toys our there for the cats, and some of them are a little playful, but a lot of them just lie around. They’re very lazy when they get out there. Cats, you know—they do whatever they want. The puppies will mostly interact with each other, but the cats, you never know.

AVC: How do you feel about the upstart Kitten Bowl, which is obviously an attempt to steal the Puppy Bowl’s thunder?

CP: It feels like a personal jab. [Laughs.] No, I think that’s amazing. My mom is a crazy cat person, and she only really cares about the kitten halftime show. She’s like, “Yeah, that’s great, you’re doing the Puppy Bowl… but how was the kitten halftime show?!” Every year. So, there are people out there that need the Kitten Bowl, and I’m glad that they’re filling that niche.

AVC: They might have a harder job than you if kittens are that difficult to shoot.

CP: That’s what I’m saying. It’s got to be kind of miserable to shoot the Kitten Bowl at some point. I don’t know how you’d get them going.

AVC: Do you ever wish you could just stop working and have all the puppies lie on you?

CP: I feel like I’ve tried that before. I’ve definitely gotten up there with the dogs before and just hung out for a minute. I’m always jealous because Dan, every year, does a pile-on with the puppies, and it always makes me a little jealous. He gets to get up there, get on the ground, and have all the puppies pile on him. It’s kind of wonderful.

AVC: I’m surprised Dan doesn’t have 40 dogs by now. If I were him, I’d fall in love with three dogs a year.

CP: As many years as he’s been doing it, he should have a whole host. But I think he exercises an amazing amount of restraint. I feel like most people that work on it do, because every year somebody’s like, “I want to take this dog home, and I want to take this dog home, and I want to take this dog home...” And usually no one leaves with a dog. Or the volunteers leave with some dogs. I know some of the crew have adopted over time, but it’s hard. It’s hard to look at all those adorable, adorable animals and not want to take every single one home.

AVC: Well, they probably have a better chance of getting adopted than a lot of other dogs, both because they’re puppies, and because now they’re famous puppies.

CP: Exactly. You get those bragging rights, that your puppy was a Puppy Bowl star.

AVC: Do you have any other Puppy Bowl secrets? Any tips this year, like “keep your eye out for the so-and-so”? There are two boxers this year, and those guys are always little maniacs.

CP: I’m trying to remember what the boxers were up to this year. I feel like they get distracted very easily. Just as a breed, they’re not very intent on playing with the toys. They get distracted as they’re playing with the other dogs.

This year we had Janeane Garofalo come in. I don’t know if she asked her agent or something to come hang out at Puppy Bowl because she’s in love with it. And it was really funny—I turned around at one point and she was just standing around watching, just like, a bright shining face lit up from being at Puppy Bowl.

It’s funny that people have that sort of love for it. Every year people ask me, “Can you get us in there to watch it?” And I’m like, “Well, there’s not really an audience or anything—it’s just the crew working on it.” This year they tightened up security because I think that happened last year, where people were just wandering in. But every year it’s one of those things. I actually ran into Fred Armisen outside of the studio this year. He was walking down the street and I said “hey” to him, and I was like, “How’s your day going?” And he’s like, “Pretty good, how about yours?” And I said, “We’re shooting Puppy Bowl in here right now,” and he was like, “I love that thing so much.” It was a really surreal moment.

AVC: There are probably a ton of celebrities that love the Puppy Bowl. It feels like one of those events that Tom Hanks would ref if you asked.

CP: Yeah, it’s true. Colbert came last year to do a bit. I don’t know if you saw his Puppy Bowl bit, but it was really funny. But he came last year, and the year before that, Brian Williams came with his daughter, Allison. He was hilarious. He was making so many good jokes about it. It was funny to watch him interact with the dogs and whatever. And actually, Allison was trying to get him to take one of the dogs home. She was carrying a dog around all day—I think it was a golden retriever, just the furriest little golden retriever, and she was begging him to let her take it home. And I think he ended up not taking it. But then on his bit for NBC Nightly News he went and visited the dog. I think it was living in New Jersey or something like that. It was really adorable.

I’ve had friends who have introduced me as, “This is my friend Cory; he shoots Puppy Bowl.” I’ve been shooting freelance for five-and-a-half years and we had a movie that played in a bunch of film festivals this past year, and I’ve done all these shows and everything, but no one acknowledges anything but Puppy Bowl. It’s the only thing. So it’s a blessing and a curse I think. Mostly a blessing. But everyone always wants to introduce me as, “This is my friend Cory; he shoots Puppy Bowl.”

AVC: Because everyone has questions, probably.

CP: Exactly. And mostly it’s everyone I know in the production world. I’m doing a show right now for Fox Sports, this doc series, and the sound guy yesterday—a producer I’ve been friends with for years—mentioned Puppy Bowl yesterday, and this sound guy goes, “Wait. You shoot Puppy Bowl?” And I was like, “Yeah, I do that.” And he was like, “You have to get me on there.” It’s like every single time. Every person I’ve met in production, they hear that and their immediate reaction is, “You’ve got to get me on there. I’ve got to be in there.”

AVC: Are you single?

CP: I am.

AVC: You could probably get a lot of dates by dropping that you work on the Puppy Bowl.

CP: I might have used it once or twice. [Laughs.] My Puppy Bowl crew shirt is hanging up at the house. I don’t brag about many things, but that’s one of those things where it’s just that good that I can’t not talk about it.