When perusing the ‘Dream Teams’ headlines, there are stories of old and new friendships, short collaborations that have seemed ageless, and long partnerships that have felt as if no time has passed at all. But for Josh Usheroff and Ben Goloff of Black Box Productions, their introduction story might be well and truly unique. This is because, as it turns out, they met before they were even born.
It just so happens that their moms were in a Lamaze class together, and became very close friends. Not only this, but they ended up moving just down the block from each other. The logical conclusion? Josh and Ben were destined to be best friends.
39 years later, this trajectory seems to have held up nicely. They’ve been as close as brothers since childhood, and their friendship only wavered in the brief period of time where, as kids, their parents stopped making ‘playdates’ for them (and they had to figure out how to be friends on their own!).
But where many best friends take largely different career paths, the fact that both Josh and Ben ended up in commercial production was another case of small odds making for a great story. As it turns out, their venture into the world of production can be attributed to their mutual love of urban exploration as teenagers.
“For us, these abandoned spaces were like playgrounds to discover, and we decided to take a camera with us to document our experiences - filming it in such a way to reflect that,” Josh says. “We didn’t really have a plan for what to do with the footage, but Ben edited it to some trippy acid jazz music from the Ninja Tune label, and the art piece ‘Field of Industry’ was born! We ended up getting the video on ‘ZedTV’, a video art anthology show that was on CBC Television in the early 2000s, which was a huge kudos for us. This was all long before we got into business together, so while it was our first collaboration, it would still be another few years before we would work on our first professional project together.”
At the same time, according to Ben, the duo got really into the eclectic side of film and video. “We basically watched a lot of obscure films and started making some of our own.” This led to Josh throwing semi-regular ‘video party’ events - first out of rented venues, and then out of his loft - where he and Ben would showcase short films and other video art, all while enjoying a fun party vibe that would last into the wee hours of the morning.
“We had this vision of creating our own artist space that would be part production studio, part exhibition venue, and part general party place that we called our Black Box,” Ben adds. “We eventually grew out of that phase, but the love of production persisted.”
Nevertheless, it would be several more years before this passion manifested into reality. The two found themselves separated after university, with Ben working the overnight shift as a video editor at national news station in Toronto, and Josh in Montreal - working nine to five for an electronics importer while freelancing as a camera operator for an HGTV show on the side.
Eventually however, feeling a lack of personal fulfilment and professional growth, Ben moved back to Montreal, into the same loft building where Josh was, and Black Box Productions was born!
“Once we decided to form Black Box Productions, we basically hit up everything we knew to drum up work,” Josh says. “We handed out flyers at trade shows, did a little bit of cold calling, and answered a lot of sketchy Craigslist ads.
Continuing, Ben recalls that one ad in particular was looking for a Steadicam operator for a paid-programming homebuilding show. “Full of chutzpah, Josh answered the ad, and told the producer that although he was not a Steadicam operator, and did not own one, he ‘had a very steady arm’. He was handed the gig, and we eventually took over production and post for the entire series. It was so much fun working together! It was chaos at first, but we eventually worked out a really good rhythm with each other that has influenced all we do.”
To this end, he notes that one of the strongest factors in maintaining this rhythm is the fact that both he and Josh have their own sphere of interest when it comes to production, as well as their own work styles and idiosyncrasies. “Josh is very much about well-crafted visuals, and tends to be more detail oriented and exacting,” he says. “On the other hand, I’m more focused on quality storytelling, and am generally bursting with ideas… though perhaps I am a little more disorganised.”
Josh agrees with his partner's take, and adds that the 14 years for which they’ve worked together has allowed them to truly refine and lean into these clearly defined roles. “We began with me handling the shooting, and Ben handling the editing. But, as the scale and scope of our productions grew, we had to adapt to fill in some gaps, and so I moved into producing on top of cinematography, and Ben took on more of a director’s role, while still heading up post.”
While this is a lot of responsibility to shoulder, it’s clear that the adaptation was a good decision. Their work for the likes of Air Canada and Budweiser has been well-received across Canada, and the strength of this collaborative split is especially evident in their recent work for Yokohama Tires.
“When we began with the client, they knew nothing more than that they wanted two 30-second commercials for their Geolandar all-season, and IceGuard winter tires,” Josh recalls. “We were handed some product marketing material for information, and it was up to us to find inspiration, and come up with creative concepts to pitch. After many iterations, we finally arrived at a script that we were happy with, and that the client approved. At that point, we were basically left to our own devices.”
Due to a tight delivery schedule, the Black Box team was faced with the challenge of finding a location where they could reliably shoot snow-covered winter scenes, as well as dry and wet three-season road conditions. And, to top it all off, the filming took place at the height of the covid-19 pandemic, which meant that crews needed to be small, with travel kept to a minimum.
As a result, Josh headed out - by himself - to go shoot in the wilds of British Columbia with a local automotive production crew, a four by four stunt driving team, four SUVs, and a bunch of Yokohama tires. “We knew going into it that the client would not be onsite for the filming, so we storyboarded and made pre-vis edits so that we were totally aligned before filming,” he adds. “This empowered us to make quick decisions on-site knowing that we were in alignment with the brand team.”
The results were better than they ever could have imagined. After Ben put the footage together with music and voiceover, the work, as he puts it, “really did shine.”
“We owned everything about it from conception to execution, we actually had the budget to pull it off, and we did it in the face of a global emergency,” he says. “For those reasons, this is the project we are most proud of.”
Success does not equate to consistent harmony, however. An equally notable facet of their relationship is the fact that Ben and Josh’s unique styles lead to creative disagreement. In fact, as Josh describes it, “it’s an almost essential aspect of the workflow,” and has developed throughout their years working together.
“When we were younger, our disagreements tended to be of a more artistic and creative nature,“ he adds. “I was a believer in the primacy of style, and that our main pursuit should be in creating content that looks pristine - using the best tools available. Meanwhile, Ben was a believer that good storytelling is foundational for visual content, and can succeed despite, and sometimes because of, a limited toolset and rudimentary style. These days, however, we argue over big picture things like market positioning, business development, overall direction for the company, and smaller picture things like whether or not to purchase a new piece of equipment or what angle to use when filming a scene.”
Continuing, Ben notes that regardless of the topic, this dynamic leads to wonderfully creative output, even if the path to getting there isn’t the calmest. “While we always end up at ‘yes, yes yes’, it rarely starts that way,” he says. “We are two opinionated people. It can get heated at times, but we are always willing to compromise at the end of the day, and even if we are not happy with the process, we are always proud of the final results that we achieve together.”
The pair also believe this passionate defending of their creative differences is strengthened by the fact that they’re able to keep their business and friendship separate. Although the business is their shared baby, outside of work, both Ben and Josh place an emphasis on being able to step back and recognise that in the grand scheme of things, their friendship is more important.
“We each have two very young kids - which puts free time at a premium - but even after a heated disagreement, we can still end the day with both our families enjoying a backyard BBQ,” Josh says. “Our kids are already very close friends and love having play dates with each other, so hopefully they can carry the torch of friendship into the next generation.”
Additionally, it’s in these differences that the pair find the most real of benefits, as far as their work output is concerned. With Ben’s focus on storytelling and performance, and Josh’s attention to the visual elements, the two firmly believe that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts - and is something which grows stronger year after year.
“Because we know each-other so well, we have a short-hand on set so we can communicate quickly and effectively,” Ben says. “There is something very special about being able to work and collaborate with a close friend you have literally known your entire life. We get to actually live out our dream working together, love what we do, and that’s probably the greatest benefit anyone could hope for.”