Cory Popp is an easy person to like. Back in the day, Popp screamed for noise core wizards Kodan Armada, before leaving town for film school some years back. Now Popp is a cinematographer with an extensive catalog of films under his belt as a camera operator. You can check out a sample of his work below. We caught up to Popp to ask him about his film work, music, and the best lie he’s ever told.
Cory Popp: Things have been good! A little hectic, constantly on the move, but I’ve always found being busy more comfortable than the alternative. Despite having been in Chicago for nine years, Louisville will always be home. I try to make it back once a month. Sometimes it happens so many times in a row that I get people asking if I’ve moved back (which I would do, if it would make sense for my work).
NN: How long have you been out of town now? Where has your work taken you that sticks out?
CP: I’m actually on a plane now, heading back from Guatemala. We spent the last nine days in the mountains from Santa Anita to San Lucas to San Miguel documenting the personal lives of small co op coffee farmers. It was a pretty profound experience. It ranks high on the list. Others on the list: Kuwait where we did, essentially, a Kuwait TV PSA about how camping on oil company property is a danger. Carriacou, a small island off the mainland of Grenada, where we were filming a Travel Channel show and took shots at 9 am with boat builders of a local special called Jack Iron Rum, which is 170 proof, comes in old Bacardi bottles they’ve reused and are sold at the hardware store. Israel, where we were trying to make a show about beautiful beaches while air raid sirens wailed and rockets from Hamas were being shot out of the air above us. I’ve been lucky enough to hit 18 countries / territories doing this kind of work.
NN: Was camera work a cost-prohibitive hobby to pick up? What got you into film?
CP: My initial love for film and photography started out very young. My brother, Erich, and I were quite obsessed with film and could easily watch a dozen movies together a week. My mom gave me my first camera when I was 13 and after a little bit of time with it, I knew I wanted to combine those two and make a career out of it. The current camera work I’m doing wasn’t initially expensive to get into, although film school carried a hefty price tag I’ll be paying off for a while. There are a lot of assistant jobs for those starting out in the film industry that don’t really require any personal equipment. My first jobs were in the grip and electric department, which are the people who set and shape lights on a film, tv or commercial set. All you really need there are a pair of gloves and a strong work ethic. I’ve realized over time, as a Director of Photography, people like you to come with some equipment, so I’ve amassed an entire extra bedrooms worth of stuff, which got pricey.
NN: In specific, what is your typical role on a project? IMDB is a little vague. What exactly is a cinematographer? Don’t make us Google this.
CP: A Cinematographer or Director of Photography is, at its base level, the department head of all lighting and camera decisions on a project. In its artistic sense, they’re the ones who shape the look and feel of a piece through their images. They work with the director, and other department heads, to figure out the best way to visually represent the emotions and situations in the story.
NN: What types of projects do you gravitate towards? What do you enjoy the most and why?
“I’ve always been a politically minded and vastly curious individual, so projects that tend to shed light on unknown subjects, or put me personally in places I’m able to learn more about the world, and how it works, are the films and documentaries I tend to want to shoot.”
CP: I’ve always wanted to DP (that’s the short hand we use for Director of Photography) feature narrative films, but have wanted to couple that with documentary film making. I think they’re both magnificent mediums that can really influence the world around us. I’ve always been a politically minded and vastly curious individual, so projects that tend to shed light on unknown subjects, or put me personally in places I’m able to learn more about the world, and how it works, are the films and documentaries I tend to want to shoot. I also love any opportunity I get to make pretty pictures with good people. I’d say the crew around you can often turn the worst, most meaningless jobs into wonderful experiences.
NN: How did you hook up with the Puppy Bowl folks? What can you tell us about that project?
CP: Puppy Bowl came about due to good friends and pure luck. Years ago I worked on a little TLC show about cupcakes in DC and met a wonderful producer. She called me up a couple years after that show ended and explained that due to Hurricane Sandy, the dates for the show got moved and they needed a replacement camera operator in a pinch. She said “You love cameras, you love puppies. Come do this!” That was one of the best pitches I’ve ever received. It’s been five years now and as long as it exists, I’ll be making room in my schedule to go back and film it. There’s an exhaustingly extensive interview on AVCLUB about it, if ya wanna read more, but for the TL:DR, it’s my favorite week of every year.
NN: Do you think you ever may step out from behind the camera? Do you think you might direct?
CP: Directing is hard and I am always amazed and humbled by the ability at which some of my friends pull it off. There are so many nuances to every single scene that you have to be in a million mindsets at the same time, constantly. I’ve been working on a couple stories that I would like to turn into movies sometime in the future, but I might need to bring in a ringer to help me when the time comes.
NN: Switching gears, what got you into music?
CP: My brothers were both big influences on my initial musical interests. I think Erich brought home a mixtape when I was about 12 or 13 and it was just full of things like TSOL, DI, and The Queers and I decided right about then that punk was the way to go. My brothers and I all played music in middle and high school band and that kind of helped foster an interest in actually doing some on my own. I bought a used drum set from a friend, my friend Troy had his guitar and my dad would let us set them up in the basement and make all kinds of horrible racket. He was a saint for that.
“I bought a used drum set from a friend, my friend Troy had his guitar and my dad would let us set them up in the basement and make all kinds of horrible racket. He was a saint for that.”
NN: How did the Kodan Armada start? How did it end?
CP: Kodan Armada had one of the stranger lives of any like thing I’ve done in my life. Dan Davis, who I’d met him through my step brother Shawn and some mutual friends, wanted to do a band. They basically got a bunch of people together and set up congress in my Shawn’s dads house, which was under construction, and just started playing. I think the first practice I was just there to film for this silly senior project I was doing for a film class at my high school. Second practiced I started screaming into a mic. Third practice we actually started to form songs.
It ran like that for a while, until we met Adam Rains, who really helped develop and shape the sound of the band. Adam is still one of the best musicians I’ve ever met or known. That band wouldn’t have been even half of what it was without him dropping in on it. Eventually we all got a little too adult for it, Dan moved away, Ryan focused more on school and we decided that it had been a good run and to hang it up.
NN: Was that the only band that you played with? Again, I’m steadfastly against research.
CP: Adam and I did In Tongues after that, with our friend Travis, who is maybe the second best musician I’ve known after Adam. Had a split with Lords, which is one of my favorite records I’ve recorded. It was terribly short lived. A demo, a 7″ and one tour later, Travis was in Law School doing way more intelligent things and we broke up. Prideswallower followed, which I left after an opportunity to play in this indie pop band Matt Pond PA. That was probably one of my greater musical regrets. Adam was doing some amazing things with Prideswallower and I was really bummed to see it go.
NN: How has punk/indie influenced your cinematic work?
CP: Travel filmmaking like I do a lot of, is essentially like touring. You have the same crew everyday, working together to create something out of nothing. The only difference is, I get paid and have a hotel room all to myself. Haha I think the ideology and mindset that our scene, and the people in it, put me in has opened a lot of doors in my career and art. I’ve taken some opportunities that didn’t have the proper funding or scale, but did it out of love for the project and people and ideas. A lot of filmmaking is like playing music, a collaborative experience that draws together the strengths of many to create one collective effort. When we played music it was always political, and I’ve tried to take that into consideration with the projects I choose to do. It really has been a fairly parallel experience.
“A lot of filmmaking is like playing music, a collaborative experience that draws together the strengths of many to create one collective effort.”
NN: Do you ever have anything to do with the music, whether it’s the actual composition or the musical choices, for the films you work on?
CP: I’ve produced some of my own projects and excitedly take the opportunity to choose the music, but that’s been about the extent of it. I’m hoping somewhere down the road to be able to have more of an involvement in that aspect.
NN: Have you had a chance to play any music since you left Louisville?
CP: My friend had this kinda goofy solo project going in Chicago that he wanted to turn into a band, so I ended up playing bass for that. We actually came down and played Cahoots, back when that was still a thing, for my 28th birthday and it was hilarious. We booked a tour, but I unfortunately had to drop out due to an opportunity to shoot a commercial I found hard to pass up. After that I realized it was too hard to do both and focused my efforts on filmmaking.
NN: What is the best lie you’ve ever told and why did you tell it?
CP: When I was 16 my mom was pretty adamant about me traveling out of state alone or with friends. The company my friend Andy worked at had somehow won a contract to produce Charlie Daniels Band’s “Road Dogs” music video and he asked if I would take the behind the scene stills for it. So, I told my mom I was sleeping over at his house and we jumped in his car and drove down to Tennessee. I ended up getting grounded for a month and mom took the car away, but it was so worth it. I still have that credit on my resume. Also, you should Google that music video. The song and video are absolutely awful.
NN: When is Taco Bell the right move?
“Taco Bell is ALWAYS the right move.”
CP: Taco Bell is ALWAYS the right move. I’m pretty sure everyone I travel with is horrified by the amount of it I consume. We had the first boozy one in the country open up in my neighborhood in Chicago and, quite appropriately, I serendipitously ended up being in the video they made for the launch and was quoted as saying “I’ve been in a LOT of Taco Bell’s in my life.”
NN: What gets you fired up lately? Have you read, watched, eaten, or drank anything worth note lately?
CP: La Colombe in Chicago makes this insane “black and tan” which is a mixture of a draft latte and a draft cold brew. I’m buying two when I get off the plane. The specialty coffee in Guatemala was also absolutely insane, too. Check out Vertical Roasters in Reno or Nossa Familia in Portland to get a taste of what we were able to down there. Full Frontal with Samantha Bee is one of my favorite things on TV right now. Arrival, Moonlight and Don’t Breathe were probably my top three that I’ve seen from 2016 (But I’ve got a lot to go). My friend bought me a copy of Nick Cave’s book The Sick Bag Song from his 2014 tour and it’s pretty magical. He played the Palace on my birthday that year and he has a little write up about waking the pedestrian bridge over the Ohio that’s hilarious and beautiful.
NN: What are your top three desert island albums and why?
CP: Desert island albums: Nirvana – In Utero, Nick Cave – Push the Sky Away, and either Leonard Cohen – New Skin for the Old Ceremomy or Neil Young – On the Beach.