Off The Rails

Differing in both scope and treatment from the bulk of most summer theatrical fare, Fruitvale Station undertakes to deliver an unflinching look at the real-life tragedy befalling one Oscar Grant (Michael B. Jordan) on New Year’s Day, 2009. The African-American was shot and killed by transit police in the Fruitvale BART (Bay Area Rapid Transit) station located in Oakland, California. Numerous onlookers documented the event via cell phone cameras, and the imagery helped spark a firestorm that led to rallies, marches and riots over Grant’s fate.

In January, the feature won both the Grand Jury Prize and Audience Award at Sundance, and garnered further acclaim for director of photography Rachel Morrison, who this June received the Kodak Vision Award. The cinematographer, equally comfortable shooting digital and celluloid, had logged significant credits with Palo Alto, CA (Panavision Super 16), Sound of My Voice (Canon EOS 7D), Tim and Eric’s Billion Dollar Movie (RED ONE) and this year’s Some Girl(s) (ARRI ALEXA).

For Fruitvale Station, cinematographer Rachel Morrison (pictured with camera) shot mostly handheld in Super 16. According to Morrison, she wanted to put the audience in the main character’s shoes, experiencing the world through his eyes.

Morrison was recommended to director Ryan Coogler by Sundance Labs director Ilyse McKimmie. "We interviewed over Skype, which I usually find impersonal," she acknowledges, "but connected immediately and profoundly. It was very clear we wanted to tell the same story and would support each other doing so. This was a very unique scenario; our narrative was based around real events that only transpired four years ago, so all the actual locations still exist and are fully operational. The domestic scenes were shot in Ryan’s family’s homes. Many locations were much smaller than one would normally choose if one had the luxury of a location scout or shooting on sets. We really embraced all these parameters, and I think this is much of what lends to the authenticity of the narrative."

The cinematographer’s take on this script suggested a handheld, exploratory visual approach. "We needed to put the audience in Oscar’s shoes, experiencing the world through his eyes," she continues. "[It] begged to be shot on film. Ryan and I agreed there wasn’t any other way to shoot this story, which had to feel organic and real. We wanted to call back to the tradition of ’60s and ’70s documentary in at least a subconscious way, which is why we decided on a visible granularity in the emulsion."

Morrison considered force-processed 2-perf 35mm, but the 2.35 aspect ratio lacked the necessary intimacy. "Ryan always liked Super 16, and while it made me nervous to forfeit some selective depth of field, in the end it was the best choice for the narrative because the added focus actually enhanced the role of the environment. The Bay Area is a rich and complex character itself, as is BART and its culpability in the events that transpired."

The director agreed with her notion to use wider lenses and sustained masters as a means to further explore the cityscape, and by way of contrast, they elected to employ longer lenses when focusing on the main character’s more reflective inner-directed moments. ARRI’s An Tran donated a camera package, including an ARRIFLEX 416, to production, provided by Gus Gustafson at ARRI CSC in New York.