Most spots hide the effort it took to make them, wishing to immerse the audience in the act of watching them. But every now and then you get a spot that revels in its own audacity, and wants the viewer to revel in it, too. Like this 2014 Oscars promo directed by Paul Feig and starring that years’ host, Ellen DeGeneres:
If you watch that PromaxBDA Gold Award-winning little gem a few times – and really, you should – questions inevitably arise. Is Ellen’s march through the city streets really all one take? And if so, how did they do that? And how did a star like Ellen ever find the time to memorize a song and learn such a complicated-looking dance sequence? And how many dancers are in this thing, anyway?
Obviously, there are a ton of moving parts behind the scenes of such a production, and if you’re going to ask someone about how they fit together, you might as well ask the guy who is, well, fitting them together. Black Label Content owner Joseph Uliano served as executive producer on the promo, a role he has played many times throughout a long career producing and creative-directing music videos, commercials, films and live events. If you’re going to do a single-take promo for one of the world’s biggest live television events with one of the world’s biggest media personalities and more than 250 dancers on the ABC back lot, Uliano’s your guy.
“We had three hours with Ellen,” Uliano told Brief, “so the day before we pre-lit that entire back lot so it was ready. We knew exactly where the sun was going to be. Then at nine in the morning we came in and started rehearsing. We had our choreographers teach 10 dancers the dance and those 10 dancers taught 10 dancers and those dancers taught 10 and [so on] until we got that walk down. The camera’s practicing the move the whole time with a stand-in and we’re starting to practice with the whole group, and once they get it down we bring Ellen out and we did it. That was nine takes and the seventh take was the one.”
The spot had an excellent concept and Feig is a great director and DeGeneres is a world-class performer, but none of it could have happened without the preparation orchestrated by “this team that I work with that just does this day in and day out,” Uliano said. “We’re proven.”
The name Black Label was inspired by the term many brands give to their most premium product lines. Think Johnnie Walker’s Black Label Whiskey, Lincoln’s Black Label customized vehicles, or Black Label collections from fashion companies like Prada and Chico.
“For everybody, the thing they’re most proud of is Black Label,” Uliano said, “and the mantra for our company and for the people we work with is, ‘We want to do our best work.”
The spirit of Black Label quality also seems to manifest in the kind of work the studio gets assigned. Perusing recent work on Black Label’s website, it’s clear the 2014 Oscars promo is far from an anomaly. Uliano has mastered the art of working with A-List celebrities on some of television’s biggest shows and events. Here’s a spot with Jennifer Lopez for the American Music Awards. There’s a 2015 New Year’s Rockin’ Eve campaign featuring Taylor Swift and Ryan Seacrest. Here’s a spot from the swiftly building launch of NBC’s coverage of the 2016 Rio Olympics with many of the world’s greatest athletes. If a stylistic throughline can be attributed to all this content, it has something to do with an airy, tossed-off vibe, a knack for making it look easy with these glamorous people in a way that warmly welcomes you into their world.
Raised in a Georgia farming town called Dublin (“I’m the Italian-American from Georgia,” he joked), Uliano has a southerner’s affable nature and gentle drawl. His first calling was music, playing guitar, and he says that juggling the personalities and duties on a set “Feels like the next best thing to being in a band. It feels likes you get together and everybody’s sort of got what you’re supposed to, to make this thing work.”
After college, Uliano scored his first job in Panama City, Florida, as a promotion manager for the “little-bitty” ABC affiliate WMBB. “At night I would make bottom-screen idents,” he said, “just because I got to always be making things, and they started getting on the air, and the manager was like, ‘Who’s making this stuff?’”
Eventually, Uliano took another job in promotions at another local station, where he wound up working on a production with the Governor of Florida at the time, Bob Graham. The project turned into a full-time gig as the administration’s press secretary, which Uliano leveraged into an outlet for his film interests. “When they asked me if I wanted to interview for that [position], I was like, ‘Well, my path is, I really want to shoot film,’” he said. “They said, ‘Okay, you can have all the say in PSAs.’” The ensuing spots were shot using 35mm film, which was a leg up from the “3/4-inch tape and stuff” Uliano had been dealing with in television. But besides the sheer technical know-how he took away from the experience, Uliano’s foray into politics taught him, well, politics, the machinations of coordinating and catalyzing myriad colorful personas that might not otherwise gel if left to their own devices. It turned out there was nothing like a political campaign to get Uliano in the right headspace for show business.
Senator Graham was an environmentalist and was doing great work toward preserving endangered lands during Uliano’s time as press secretary.
“I felt really good about that,” he said, “but I didn’t want to go to Washington when he became a senator,” which happened in 1986.
Instead, Uliano headed west, to pursue his master’s degree in film at Los Angeles’ American Film Institute. His class included alums such as Janusz Kamiński, cinematographer on films such as Schindler’s List and Saving Private Ryan. After school, he started producing music videos and commercials. He worked with a lot of filmmakers who would go on to become major movie directors, including Underworld mastermind Len Wiseman, who introduced him to a young Flame 3D prodigy named Nate Robinson, who Uliano now describes as “the most amazing digital artist I’d ever met.” Eighteen years following their initial meeting, Robinson would become creative partners with Uliano at Black Label, and his particular expertise has allowed it to blossom into a full-on creative studio, with live-action, post-production and digital capabilities across offices in Santa Monica, San Francisco and New York.
But despite his company’s far-reaching presence in multiple states, Uliano often flies solo, working out of a communal (and gorgeous) office space in Hollywood called Neuehouse. He said that “It’s an experiment but for me, it really works well to be able to be here or there. Creatively, I like to be wherever I want to be.”
When a project kicks in, Uliano can quickly scale up, drawing on the power of his company’s separate verticals – live-action production in Santa Monica; post-production and technology development in San Francisco; color correction and computer graphics in New York – and using them as needed, whether that’s piecemeal or in conjunction. It’s a method that makes Black Label lean and agile, and astonishingly flexible. Whether designing, producing and creating VFX for a Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. spot or shooting and editing and stitching behind-the-scenes virtual reality content for Pop’s Rock This Boat: New Kids on the Block series, Uliano’s company seems capable of pulling nearly anything off at an extremely high level. Currently, Black Label is even working with the San Francisco Giants baseball team, creating virtual reality content and designing branded Google Cardboard viewers to be passed out to season ticket holders.
One of Black Label’s steadiest clients over the years has been ABC, with whom the studio has produced everything from Castle promos to marketing campaigns integrating Target, Neiman Marcus and ABC’s Revenge.
“Our shows are shot so beautifully, so it’s really important to make sure our talent looks fantastic,” said Robert Schefferine, VP of production for ABC Entertainment Marketing. “The DP and lighting is critical. Plenty of companies that we’ll select – if their first or second guys are not available, the depth goes down considerably, so it’s then a question mark about what you’re getting. One reason why Joe is so good is, he’s got such experience and [Black Label has] a lot of resources at their fingertips… The stable of talent they can pull from is pretty deep. That makes them pretty unique.”
Uliano describes his relationships with people as Black Label’s “currency,” and has plenty of stories about cashing in on it to pull off huge-scale shoots under tremendous pressure. One such anecdote involved a production for ABC’s Quantico, for which he got a call on a Monday night to execute a shoot for the following Thursday… in Mumbai, where the show’s star Priyanka Chopra lives and works as a Bollywood actress.
“I said, ‘Guys, you have to have a visa to go to Mumbai; you can’t get visas in this amount of time,” Uliano remembered. “So I get on the phone and find a friend of mine in England who knew that a friend of mine was directing something in Mumbai, and we got him and his production company there, and we did it by Skype. We stayed up all night long and worked with them and then we all sat on Skype with the network and everyone else and did the shoot.”
A remote shoot for one of television’s biggest shows that occurs simultaneously on opposite sides of the world requires an extremely nuanced skill-set to orchestrate. Uliano has executive-produced for global brands ranging from Apple to Mattel, but this slightly lesser-scale Quantico execution feels like the purest synthesis of what the perfect blend of of personality traits and experience can do.
“Joe’s a very personable person,” said Schefferine. “He makes a lot of people feel very comfortable, because of his personality and the way he is on set where he’s enjoying himself but buttoned down. His crew reflects that… It’s a set that’s at ease no matter how pressure the shoot might be. It’s run well, people are in good moods and there’s great communication, which is really important from a client perspective.”
For his part, Uliano just seems to enjoy the journey, whether that means literally traveling to far-flung corners of the earth – as his crew did while shooting live Lollapalooza South America concerts with the Foo Fighters, Joan Jett and Band of Horses – or breaking ground in VR as Black Label dives headlong into new content realms in the digital age.
“Black Label is storytelling and these are just new ways to re-imagine it,” Uliano said. “We really have been in our separate disciplines and then together we’ve found a way to bring those together, and find really good partners and clients who trust us to try it.”