Behind the Camera on 'Fruitvale Station'

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Fruitvale Station is a dramatization of the final 24 hours in the life of Oscar Grant, an unarmed 22-year-old Oakland man who was shot in the back and killed by a transit cop on the morning of January 1, 2009. The film, shot in a journalistic, handheld style in Super 16 format, won both the Grand Jury Prize and the Audience Award at the 2013 Sundance Film Festival, launching 27-year-old director and USC film school grad Ryan Coogler and his filmmaking team into the spotlight.

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L-r: Michael B. Jordan and Melonie Diaz star in

Fruitvale Station

. Photo courtesy of The Weinstein Company.

Cinematographer Rachel Morrison, grew up in Cambridge, Massachusetts, the daughter of a psychotherapist and a social worker. In the films she made with her family and friends, she was almost always behind the camera, and often narrating. In high school, she focused on photography, and eventually earned a degree in photography from New York University. Her interest and talent in photojournalism is evident in the stills on her website. But she made a tough decision early on to pursue cinematography. "I decided that photojournalism was too solitary," Morrison recalls. "I appreciated the collaborative nature of film, and I decided I wanted a lifetime surrounded by other people."

Nevertheless, Morrison takes inspiration from the great still photographers like Robert Capa, W. Eugene Smith, Dorothea Lange and Walker Evans. "I think the theme that runs consistently through my love for photography is the desire to capture human emotion in its raw, pure form, and to freeze a moment in time that then takes on a life of its own, and can live forever," she says. "When I look at the work of these photographers, it's as if they can distill the human spirit to one click of the shutter."

In Fruitvale Station, Morrison's camera follows the character of Oscar Grant (Michael B. Jordan) through an ordinary day: He stops at the seafood market, buys his sister a birthday card, and has a chance encounter with a stray dog. Fruitvale Station was filmed in real locations, and surprisingly, often in the actual places where the real events unfolded, including the BART station and the morgue, for example. Domestic interiors include the homes of Coogler's aunt and grandmother. 

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Ariana Neal and Michael B. Jordan. Photo courtesy of The Weinstein Company.

"I think the ultimate goal was to put the audience in Oscar's shoes on the last day of his life," says Morrison. "We felt like it was so important that the world we were creating felt real to the audience – finding Oscar exploring the world as he saw it and experienced it. That was the guiding factor. Not anticipating, but reacting and not cutting away any more than we absolutely had to."

The BART train scenes were split – some were done on an actual train car stopped on a platform, and others were interior scenes filmed in a stationary train car in the BART repair yards. The platform scenes had to be shot between 1:15 and 5:15 A.M. In the yards, the car was surrounded by green screen and the passing lights were composited in later.

 "At first, I was hesitant about shooting Super 16," she recalls. She had discussed super 35 with her collaborators, which, she explains, would have been a comparably-priced approach. Ultimately, the team settled on Super 16 for aesthetic purposes and because of the smaller footprint of the gear. She was concerned about this approach because the smaller gauge would make it more difficult to achieve a very narrow depth of field. "One of the things we did to mitigate that was to shoot as wide open as possible," she notes. "But I ended up coming to appreciate the extra depth of field. This film is a portrait of a man, but within an environment, so it was important for us to have access to that environment photographically."

That choice worked hand in hand with Morrison's decision to shoot with Zeiss Ultra primes, which she says are a known for being bit sharper than the other optics she had to choose from. In depicting Oscar's point of view, her initial instinct was to stay close on a wide lens, but Coogler guided her toward longer focal lengths at times.

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L-r: Michael James, Michael B. Jordan, Trestin George, Thomas Wright, Kevin Durand and Alejandra Nolasco. Photo by Ron Koeberer/The Weinstein Company.

"We started wide, and then worked our way to longer lenses towards the middle of the film," she explains. "It was a balance. We liked the falloff with longer lenses, but we liked feeling close to the main character by being close and wide with the lens."

The cameras were ARRI 416s, and the entire film was shot on Kodak Vision 500T 7219 film stock. Shooting a single stock helped with efficiency, the cinematographer reports, adding that the decision to go with the 16mm camera helped everyone move quickly and stay in the moment.

"We wanted a little bit of a callback to documentary work from the granularity of the film stock," she says. "It's something that you recognize as being 'real,' with an organic structure, texture, and color rendition – things that, to us, all felt much more emotionally present."

Like many cinematographers, Morrison prefers the specificity and control of a single-camera shoot. "It allows you to put the camera in exactly the right place for each emotional situation," she says. "I shoot digitally, and I have shot multiple cameras, and in some ways, I come from a multiple camera, nonfiction background. I think that every camera has its place. It just comes down to what's right for the material at hand.

"But a lot of times people 'throw cameras at the problem,'" she elaborates. "This is becoming especially true as the equipment gets more affordable. But you sacrifice so much. You can end up with two compromised shots. If you think about it, you can't really get a dirty medium and a clean close-up at the same time. So you get either two dirty shots or two clean shots. You're compromising emotionally. You may be getting other beats that you wouldn't otherwise get," she admits, "but it's a trade-off. You have to be very careful."

Morrison has enjoyed the success of Fruitvale Station, but she isn't resting on her laurels. She photographed The Harvest on 35 mm film for director John McNaughton, and she is currently shooting a 2-perf 35 mm project in West Virginia. Currently untitled, that film is set in a mining community and deals with the aftermath of a local tragedy. "The Harvest was an interesting departure for me because parts of it were much more stylized," she says. "That's part of what I love about film and the arts – no two jobs are going to be the same. You never use exactly the same skill set.

"Yesterday," the cinematographer recounts, "I was harnessed to the front of an ATV, filming boys on bikes through the woods. That's just 'another day at the office' for me. It's truly exhilarating."

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