Behind the Lens

The Work is stirring up a storm with their cinematic eyes set on Detroit.
(From left to right): Shane Ford, Christopher Gruse, Ed Knight, Jesse Ford, and Jerome Wald. // Photographs by Josh Scott

It was a lightning quick jump-start any entrepreneur would kill for.

Within weeks of joining forces, five friends brought together by the local music scene decided to found Detroit post-production house The Work. Their first couple of clients came quickly — videos for sophisticated streetwear boutique Revive and destination brunch hotspot Commonwealth, both of Birmingham. The Work’s Christopher Gruse was pleased.

“We had never done any of this stuff before,” he says. “It was exciting.”

If their first two clients were a surprise, the call from Jeep two months in was a shock. The automaker had seen what The Work had produced and flew the crew to Europe for a 14-day, 11-country shoot that set the tone for what was to come.

“It’s not a trajectory most companies take,” Gruse says with a laugh. “We knew right then that we had a company filled with endless possibilities.”

Gruse, Ed Knight, Jerome Wald, and brothers Jesse and Shane Ford set up shop in the Elevator Building just east of downtown Detroit. From the get-go, they were fielding calls commonly reserved for a much more tenured company. They embraced each new job as it came, troubleshooting along the way and moving further and further away from being dubbed “lucky amateurs.”

The initial learning curve would seem daunting to many. And their way of working remains unorthodox — so much so that they make it clear to each prospective new client.

“We’ve worked with agencies from Los Angeles who’ve asked, ‘Where’s your line producer? Where’s your script supervisor?’ We’ve simply never had any of those,” says Gruse, 30.

“We each fit into our own roles; titles we’ve never really bothered to define,” he adds. “In three years of working together, we’ve never had an issue. It’s a true collective of friends, first and foremost.”

Everyone acts as producer or business manager or cameraman or editor or lowly gaffer — sometimes all in the same day. No need for petty arguments or an arresting desire for hierarchy.

In a swift three years, their client list has grown to include local businesses like the Sugar House and Shades Optical, agencies as prestigious as Ogilvy & Mather, and music festivals like Bonnaroo and Movement, as well as international companies like Converse and Adidas. About 60 percent of clients are automotive-based, says Gruse. Earlier this year, The Work worked with General Motors to re-launch the iconic Corvette brand.


So what separates The Work from other production houses? What makes them different in an era where everyone is a photographer and everyone is an amateur videographer?

It’s a blue-collar work ethic with a much more sophisticated black-collar flair. It’s hardly a far cry from young entrepreneurs trying to make their mark on the world while calling Detroit home. What The Work has achieved, however, is a well-dressed delivery that speaks to the unfiltered, as well as to the trust of fussy boardrooms stuffed with corporate executives hungry to elevate their brand with the helping hand of the production house’s creative input — sometimes completely unchecked.

The decision to shoot the entire Corvette campaign for General Motors in black-and-white? A brash and confident creative decision, to say the least.

With their continued investment in the latest technological trends to hit their industry — and their unclouded devotion to promoting Detroit businesses and entities — they’ve quickly risen above their peers.

While some consider the Canon 5D a standard in video production in 2013, The Work boasts two Red cameras — a brand of digital cinema cameras emulating what a film-based camera would produce.

Fully outfitted, the $60,000 piece of gear is becoming a staple in major Hollywood films, such as Peter Jackson’s The Hobbit, Ridley Scott’s Prometheus, and many others.

Still, boasting a big camera doesn’t automatically yield superior results. Composition, like creativity, isn’t something the market has manufactured for mass consumption.

“It’s like having a $5,000 Les Paul guitar and having no idea how to play it,” says Gruse. “It looks good. It could possibly sound great, but it doesn’t mean you know what you’re doing.”

Technical literacy aside, Gruse and his cohorts are the types of dudes who aren’t afraid to “call in the helicopters.” If it’ll increase production value, they’ll do it — blank-check mentality in tow, no detail spared, no angle overlooked or rock unturned. Their dedication to quality over profit has allowed the five friends to turn a whim into a career. Their common bond and passion for music remains just as critically important today as it was when they first met. Picking the right song for a two-minute video could take two months of careful consideration.

“That’s what we do,” says Gruse. “We’re never going to lose focus on creating high-quality productions. We’re never going to rest on our laurels, and we’re never going to forget where we came from.”

Their role in the recent bid to bring the X Games to Detroit certainly drives that message home.

In December, Gruse and the rest of The Work met with Kevin Krease and Garret Koehler, the two organizers behind the campaign to bring ESPN’s global extreme sports competition to Detroit. The goal was to create a visual that could answer the question “Why Detroit?” If selected, Detroit would host the event for three consecutive years, starting in the summer of 2014. Competing finalist cities include Chicago, Charlotte, and Austin. The winner was to be announced after press time sometime in July. The economic impact would be a financial windfall for the cash-strapped city. The accompanying street cred would be intangible.

“Since we started this campaign, everyone asks why Detroit should be awarded such a huge event,” says Koehler. “What separates Detroit from the rest of the finalist cities?

“The Work was able to answer that question more powerfully than words ever could.”