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ESPN Commercials

In the 1990s, ESPN ran a series of commercials advertising Monday night football that featured Coolidge’s famous poker dogs. This page provides information and pictures of those commercials. A couple of the videos can even be viewed online.

Producing live animal dogs playing poker commercials

Picture of the production set that Animal Makers sent me.

Before I say more, I would like to thank Animal Makers (the company that helped with the “animal aspect” of this commercial) a LOT. When I was doing my initial research on Coolidge, I sent letters to basically anyone remotely related to his dogs. They received on as well and actually responded to me personally, sending a picture of this commercial’s filming as well. That is more than I ever expected from them and am much appreciative.

The companies that were responsible for the animals in the dogs playing poker commercials were Click 3X and Animal Makers. Animal Makers specializes in working with animals on screen. Some information on these commercials and even clips of them are available on their website.

The following is an account of some of the filming of these poker dog commercials based on information that was previously posted on the companies websites and an article from Post Magazine, but neither of those documents are publicly accessible anymore.

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Video View the Commercials

The commercials were created with a combination of real dogs, animatronic puppets, splicing scenes together, and computer morphing. A total of thirteen thirty second commercials were created for ESPN’s promotion. In these commercials canines sit around a poker table, sometimes with a NFL star, and discus everything from a bulldog’s encounter with a car to whether Tennessee should be allowed to be called the Oilers.

The filming of the commercials was done by director Joe Pytka of Pytka/Venice. Five real dogs were used in the production of these commercials. A special set was also constructed which resembled Coolidge’s paintings and allowed for the trainers to control the dogs. No “green screens” were used in the shooting. Dogs were actually sitting around that poker table. The dogs, however, tended to be older so they were relatively cooperative and stayed put.

The paws seen in the commercials holding the cards were not the dogs’. They were animatronic paws either controlled by operators under the table or off screen. The creation of these fake paws was quite an ordeal. Only seven days were available to create sets of paws for five different dogs. In order to make the paws seamlessly integrate into the commercial, exact measurements were needed for each of the animal actors. Also, at the last minute, two of the dogs were changed. Although they were the same species their color did change slightly. Since the commercials were produced though, it looks like all of the paws were created in time.

Unfortunately, dogs can not talk, so the crew lip-synched over the animals and made their jaws move properly. To make this process go quickly and smoothly, the dog’s real jaw was removed (in post production, there was no canine surgery) and replaced with a simulated jaw and tongue. This technique allowed for realistic speech movement from the dogs mouth. The fact that the dogs constantly moved their heads in all kinds of different angles complicated that process. They would need to create a different jaw to paste in or morph an existing one.

During production the team also paid a lot of attention to the dogs’ eyes. Eyes can play a major role in an actor’s presentation, so they wanted to ensure that the dogs conveyed emotion and feeling through their eyes. Since dogs obey commands to “roll over” and “sit”, but not “show more emotion,” the feelings were added later. “Eye blink, winks, and eyebrow movements” were frequently added to the dogs’ original performances. They even enlarged the dogs’ eyes so that pupil motion would be more noticeable. The artists kept tweaking the footage until they created a scene that portrayed their vision exactly.

Despite this, the production crew ran into a few difficulties working with these unpredictable animals. Being dogs, they would occasionally bark, which made their entire body spam. In order to cut down on total filming time, video from two different shots of the dogs would be carefully spliced together creating a seamless scene in which no dogs barked. Also, the bulldog would occasionally wipe his tongue over his entire face. Although it lasted only a short time, the crew had to remove those scenes manually by pasting good shots of the canine’s face over the tongue. In several scenes both the fake paws and the dog’s real paws were visible simultaneously. Since it is unlikely that a pooch would stick all four of his legs above the table at once, the real set had to be removed in post production.

From all that I have read, creating these short commercials took a lot of time and effort. Even after Animal Makers coerced the dogs into sitting around the poker table to get footage, much of post production work was required to tweak the film to get the desired effect. I am glad though that ESPN decided to create these awesome commercials, and others put the time in (even if they were paid for it) to create them. Maybe ESPN will produce more of these commercials sometime.

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