Fruitvale Station entered the 2013 Sundance Film Festival rather quietly, but the small independent film emerged with the Audience Award, the dramatic Grand Jury Prize, and a deal with The Weinstein Company. Written and directed by first-time feature filmmaker Ryan Coogler and based on true events, Fruitvale Station tells the story of 22-year-old Oscar Grant on the final day of 2008 and his untimely death New Year’s Day at the hands of a police officer on the Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) station platform in the Fruitvale district of Oakland, California. Grant was unarmed, and the incident caused outrage and inflamed racial tensions.
Handling director of photography duties was Rachel Morrison. Coogler had workshopped Fruitvale Station at the Sundance Institute, and the institute’s Lisa McKinney recommended Morrison to Coogler.
With credits on commercials, documentaries, television and features, Morrison has an eclectic wealth of experience to pull from. “It’s important for me as a DP to be malleable,” she says. “Story first is always my approach to cinematography. I tend to be drawn to things that are grounded in their environments where I try to heighten and supplement the existing, motivating forces.”
From the beginning, Morrison and Coogler were determined to shoot Fruitvale Station on film, ultimately choosing Super 16mm. “There is something very tangible and organic about Super 16 for Ryan and me,” she says. “It gives a very real feeling out of the gate, and that was what we wanted—to embed people in the world, a documentary approach with more cinematic lighting where it feels like we are along for the ride. We did have to fight for it and it was something Ryan didn’t want to back down on.”
Morrison describes the film’s aesthetic as heightened realism. “We preferred to hold our master and use the camera to get closer to the talent, as opposed to being overly cutty,” she explains. “By sustaining the masters as much as possible, it is a little bit documentary in that it engages the audience, and feels less manipulated.”
Morrison selected an ARRI 416, provided by ARRI CSC, and shot the entire film with KODAK VISION3 500T Color Negative Film 7219 in only 17 full days and three partial days. “We were extremely limited on time, so I thought one stock throughout would be the best way to go,” she says. “In my experience, 7219 is the most flexible and handles mixed lighting really well. I’ve shot with it many times and know this stock like the back of my hand.
“Even though it is a 500 stock,” she continues, “I rated it at 320, which is what I consider ‘normal’ for 7219. I just like a slightly denser negative to give the most options in post. Grain was the number one priority. Ultimately, Ryan wanted to be in a 1.85 aspect ratio, which made a lot of sense and I understood for the story. That made Super 16 the right choice.”
Morrison also opted for ARRI Ultra 16 lenses as opposed to Zeiss Superspeeds because of their performance at a wider stop. She frequently had to shoot at a wide-open T1.4 because they used many of the real locations that Oscar visited in his final hours. “We shot at the actual Fruitvale platform, literally on top of the bullet hole in the ground where Oscar was shot,” she says. “This (story) was as much about the environment and the world around Oscar – focusing only on him wouldn’t have been right for the story.”
Filtration on the lenses was used only for exteriors to compensate the tungsten stock, along with the occasional grad.
Except for a few Steadicam shots, the entire movie was filmed handheld to lend authenticity, much in the way that the organic film grain does. And Morrison is a gifted handheld camera operator. “I’ve done a ton of handheld operating in my day,” she says. “I’ve almost become a human tripod—Ryan actually had to remind me to keep it moving. In the film, whenever the stakes were higher, we added movement to make it feel that much more alive. If there is one thing that stands out in this film that I’m very proud of, it’s the handheld work with a real eye for the story and what’s at the core of the emotions—where the camera needs to be to tell Oscar’s story at that moment in time.”
When it came to augmenting the location lighting, Morrison preferred to light from the ground or through windows. “In some of the bigger locations like the train platform, I would match our lights to the existing lighting,” she says. “My color meter was an invaluable tool on this job, and it was about gelling Kinos to match cool white fluorescents or warm whites, whatever it happened to be. My lighting supplemented what was already there. On occasion, we embraced the greener or bluer existing light. For the same reason we chose to shoot on film and to go handheld, we wanted the environments to look and feel real, that it was all in camera and organic and that we were really with Oscar on that day.
“Our biggest battle on this film was time, specifically on the platform,” she adds. “We were only allowed to shoot there between 1:15 and 5:15 a.m. on three of our days. We charted out everything we needed to do and ran it like a football play. Ryan comes from football, and we literally had a playbook but we were behind the 8-ball on time from the get-go.”
With shooting in the Bay area on such a compressed timescale and budget, the filmmakers were unable to see any dailies until two weeks after production wrapped. However, fortune was in their favor, and everything they wanted was on celluloid. FotoKem developed the footage, and delivered the HDCAM SR files to SPY, a FotoKem company headquartered in San Francisco. SPY conformed the footage and DI colorist Chris Martin put the final touches on it with Coogler and Morrison. Martin and Morrison wanted the color grade to be transparent so that any stylistic artificiality was not introduced. “We built contrast by adding weight to the midtones rather than overcooking the shadows and highlights,” Martin describes. “We also tried to stay away from approaches attainable in a DI that traditional lab timing would not be able to replicate, such as throwing a lot of color into a specific tonal range. I think the result is an intimate feel that holds the personality of the film and has a look that supports all the amazing camera work.”
Morrison found the poignant film to be a personally rewarding experience. “Fruitvale was an incredible opportunity,” she says. “Stories that have as much of a social impact as this one are especially close to my heart. It’s the reason I got into filmmaking in the first place.”