DP Rachel Morrison on Capturing the Realistic Look and Emotional Feel of 'Fruitvale Station'

Rachel MorrisonOne of the most talked about aspects of director Ryan Coogler's Fruitvale Stationwhich won big at Cannes this year, is its subject matter -- the film tells the true story of Oscar Grant who was shot by police in a Bay Area rapid transit station. However, the film's cinematography has been said to capture the look, feel, and tone of needed to tell Oscar's story. Director of Photography of the film, Rachel Morrison, shares with Filmmaker Magazine what techniques, gear, and thought process she utilized to achieve the gritty and realistic aesthetic that gave Fruitvale its authenticity.

Video is no longer available: www.youtube.com/watch?v=ceVVVils8z4

Morrison perfectly explains the balance between a cinéma vérité style of cinematography and dramatic emphasis on the highly emotional subject matter in Fruitvale when she says, "For Ryan authenticity was at the core, and for me, at times, it was important to dramatize the stakes." Morrison explains how she and Coogler often disagreed on how to approach photographing a scene, but managed to come to a "perfect balance." One example of this is the morgue scene with Octavia Spencer. (Warning: spoiler ahead!)

Originally I lit it very dramatically. When Ryan saw it, he was like, “This is a morgue, it should be bright. Turn on the lights.” I said, “It’s also a mother losing her son.” And he said, “But the banality of this experience makes it that much more heartbreaking.” Ultimately, I took dramatic liberty by lighting Octavia from the direction of her dead son, but managed banality and authenticity by turning on all the lights behind her.

Morrison and Coogler decided early on that they wanted to shoot on film to get that gritty feel from the grain. She explains how they made their decision to shoot on Super-16 as opposed to 35mm:

35mm isn’t very grainy any more and so I think Ryan’s gut instinct was to shoot on Super-16. I was actually a little bit nervous about giving up the shallow depth of field as a tool in my arsenal. That was our first conversation -- Ultimately we decided that the visible grain trumped the depth of field. It was also a benefit to have a camera that was very small and easy to maneuver with. We knew that we wanted it to be largely hand-held, to have an exploratory approach with a single camera, close to the actors, moving through space as they do.

Check out a some behind-the-scenes photos from the set:

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A donated Arri 416 camera body and Zeiss Ultra 16 lenses made their way into Morrison's hands for the film, which was small enough for her to get close to her subjects and capture their points of view. She explains that the added and much-needed bonus of shooting with this setup was that the lenses tend to be "sharper at the wide-open end." She faced the issue of low light situations, so maintaining sharp images was important.

The mixture of Fruitvale's realistic and emotional approach to cinematography helped make it one of the must-see films of the year. It's now playing in theaters everywhere.

What did you think of the look Rachel Morrison captured in Fruitvale Station? Can you see the balance between her and Coogler's different sensibilities? Let us know in the comments.

Link: Fruitvale Station D.P. Rachel Morrison -- Filmmaker Magazine

[behind-the-scenes photos posted by Kodak]

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Your Comment


It did look great. Love the S16. :-) Will definitely keep an eye on her future work.

July 30, 2013 at 7:47PM, Edited September 4, 8:21AM


July 30, 2013 at 9:15PM, Edited September 4, 8:21AM

Mike C

Thanks for the link, Mike! Much appreciated.

July 30, 2013 at 10:26PM, Edited September 4, 8:21AM

V Renée
Content Manager at Coverfly

Great post, thanks

July 31, 2013 at 2:53AM, Edited September 4, 8:21AM


Post is interesting, for sure; but after watching this film I felt it was very amateur. Story of who Oscar is felt fake to me and there were a lot of distracting elements (many many too long shots in the first part of the movie or like camera focusing in the car conversation also did not feel natural at all). I really liked the last part of the movie, from where they go to take the train. That's another movie with such attention and great reviews that I will never understand. Like "Zero Dark Thirty" film, the one about killing Osama. Just such a terrible storytelling, yet so great reviews. And for example Mike Nichol's "Closer" has only 68% on Rotten...

July 31, 2013 at 5:31AM, Edited September 4, 8:21AM


Make you're on film by the age of 26 and see if you can do better!

July 31, 2013 at 9:07AM, Edited September 4, 8:21AM


We don't give points for age in film critique. And film critique has nothing to do with the ability of the critic to make a better film.

July 31, 2013 at 9:32AM, Edited September 4, 8:21AM


This is true.

I haven't seen Fruitvale so can't comment on that particular movie, but given the OP's disapproval of Zero Dark Thirty, which I thought was quite well told, I'm sure I'm also going to enjoy Fruitvale.

July 31, 2013 at 11:00AM, Edited September 4, 8:21AM


I felt the long shots to be well done. Just because the shot is long doesn't mean its bad. The camera still moved as did the actors in the one take. I really enjoyed the movie and its storytelling. Its your opinion though and I respect it.

July 31, 2013 at 10:10AM, Edited September 4, 8:21AM


Hi Vince:
I just watched it and enjoyed it. I think the issue with the longer takes would be better described as lingering. In this case I would argue that the lingering allows us the time to be part of Oscars world. We needed that space and time between cuts to relate, otherwise it feels like a superhero action flick. This movie is a lot like Aronofsky's "The Wrestler" There were some issues with rack focus but I contribute that to budgetary and time constraints. If you've been on set with budget issues i'm sure you can see how that is. Overall I'd say that Morrison did a good job of mirroring the emotions & circumstances of the scenes.

July 31, 2013 at 1:16PM, Edited September 4, 8:21AM

David F

I'm sure Spike Lee loves this movie.

July 31, 2013 at 9:04AM, Edited September 4, 8:21AM


@RICK, Honestly i have not heard or seen one comment from Spike lee on this film, what an absurd and none needed comment, what the h3ll does spike lee have to do with this film.

July 31, 2013 at 2:58PM, Edited September 4, 8:21AM

jay clout

Spike Lee tweeted about the movie actually. He said the movie was great and recommended everyone see it.

August 1, 2013 at 3:37PM, Edited September 4, 8:21AM

You voted '+1'.