Behind the Lens: Rachel Morrison Receives Kodak Vision Award
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Rachel Morrison - who received the Kodak Vision Award at the 2013 Women In Film (WIF)Crystal + Lucy Awards - most recently shot the Sundance Award winning film Fruitvale Station. After completing a master's degree in cinematography at the American Film Institute, Morrison honed her craft lensing for television. Her work has been featured on most major TV networks including HBO, ABC, MTV, IFC, Biography, Comedy Central, E!, CBS and OWN. She received an Emmy nomination for Showtime's Riker's High, a documentary about a high school within the Riker's Island prison system.
She lensed two additional Sundance premieres: Sound of My Voice and Tim and Eric's Billion Dollar Movie. She also shot Any Day Now, which won the Audience Choice Award at the 2012 Tribeca Film Festival. This year, South by Southwest premiered her latest drama Some Girl(s); another upcoming project is the thriller The Harvest.
In this article, Morrison speaks with Creative COW about her work on this film and her career as a cinematographer.
For this movie, we referenced A Prophet, Fish Tank, City of God, and The Wrestler among others. We specifically talked about immediacy and keeping the audience engaged and with Oscar every moment until he is shot. The movie features a lot of cell phones and we didn't want to constantly cut away to inserts. We didn't want to be on the phone when it rings, which would be anticipatory. Instead, we let the camera react when Oscar did, moving to an insert then back up to coverage. Ryan always had in mind the decision to show text over image, so that we could linger with Oscar and experience his reactions.
I love slice of life, environmental portraiture and movies that make you think and feel, movies with a European sensibility. Ratcatcher is one of my favorite films. Lingering, letting life unfold in all its mystery but not spelling things out or being too concise... sometimes the moments between the dialogue are what matter most.
Ryan and I both felt very strongly that there would be a real benefit to shooting film, specifically in a way that you could see the granularity and know that it was film. There's something very organic about the randomness of film that mirrors life. Also, it's a bit of a throwback to the documentary era - anything we could do to make the audience feel that everything was very real. We were willing to make many sacrifices financially to make film a priority.
We were fortunate that An Tran at ARRI had earmarked this project to donate a camera package to; she worked with CSC New York and Gus Gustafson there to get us an ARRI 416 package and Ultra 16 primes. Lorette Bayle, Account Manager Studio & Independent Feature Films at Eastman Kodak, gave us a generous discount as well. We shot Kodak Vision3 500T Color Negative Film 7219.
Our shooting ratio was 10:1. Shooting film forces you to know what you need and to tell the story you set out to tell. If you see something off the cuff, you can grab it, but you're not rolling for the sake of rolling.
With digital, I see a real tendency to shoot anything and everything and then find the story in the edit. It takes away from the creative intent and ultimately you can wind up hemorrhaging money in post.
Our workflow was fairly simple. We developed the film at FotoKem and telecined to HDCAM tapes which were shipped to Spy Post in San Francisco to do our dailies. The only real sacrifice on our end was that we didn't see what we were shooting until almost a week after we shot it. That's a product of the fact that we couldn't afford to do digital dailies and there's no film lab in Northern California.
The look that Ryan and I really wanted was sustained single camera coverage, an exploration of space through Oscar's eyes. The idea was to create an experience and not have the audience feel like they're watching something but rather living something. We are subjectively with Oscar every moment of the day until he's shot and then we transfer the POV to his mother and girlfriend. Shooting that subjectively is something I'd done in shorts, but always wanted to apply to a feature. Thankfully, Ryan recognized that if he could cross my dramatic but naturalistic lighting with documentary style camerawork, it would be the perfect combination for this film.
Michael B. Jordan portrays Oscar Grant in Fruitvale Station. Courtesy: ©2013 The Weinstein Company. All Rights Reserved.
The sensibility of Fruitvale Station is very much up my alley, although I'd love to shoot a Terrence Malick-style movie as well. It's important to have range and not bring the same visual palette to everything. But this was a real opportunity to do something I love.
The biggest challenge was the lack of time. We had a 20-day schedule and three of those days were on the BART platform where we were only able to shoot from 1 am to 5 am, so it was actually closer to a 18-day shoot schedule. To top it off, we had an ensemble cast, firearms, VFX, dogs, kids, and a moving train, everything they say not to do on an indie budget.
The four hours a night on the BART platform was especially difficult because we had 20 to 25 set-ups to get in that time. Ryan has a background in football and came up with the strategy to run those scenes on the BART platform like we were running football plays. We even had a laminate. Before the shoot, we taped out the platform in a church parking lot around the corner from the station, rehearsed the whole scene and figured out where the camera and lights would be. It was special and amazing and I was glad to do it once but hope to never have to do again.
The challenge was to match our lights to the existing space in order to supplement and dramatize - a true form of enhanced realism.
Sadly, it seems the trick to getting a movie made is to make it for no money - and having to race through the shooting schedule is now a way of the industry. I just read 12 scripts and eight of them were budgeted at $1 million. Either that's my niche or it's the unfortunate state of the film business.
My lighting package was small. I had what I needed and took the time wherever I could but this wasn't the type of movie where I could change out all the overhead bulbs in the larger, institutional locations. The challenge was to match our lights to the existing space in order to supplement and dramatize - a true form of enhanced realism. That speaks to the budget but more so to the unique nature of what we were doing: It was essential to Ryan to shoot in all the real locations where Oscar spent his last day - the platform where he was shot, the grocery store where he worked, the hospital where he was taken. Needless to say, it was incredibly emotional. Michael B. Jordon lay atop the very bullet hole that marred the tile when it exited Oscar's body.
It was nothing shy of a miracle that we were granted access to shoot in these places, but the sacrifice was that we couldn't grossly alter them. In the end, I think these parameters substantially added to the realism of the cinematography and of the narrative as a whole.
Shooting in the real locations where Oscar spent his last day was incredibly emotional. In one scene, Michael B. Jordon lay atop the very bullet hole that marred the tile when it exited Oscar's body. Photo Courtesy and ©2013 The Weinstein Com pany. All Rights Reserved.
It took Ryan a long time to get the permission and blessing of Oscar's family to make this movie, but he has since become very close to the family. Then it became all about us doing justice in their eyes, and we were all very aware of it. Even on the platform where we had only a few hours to shoot, we took a moment, gathered together, and Ryan led us in a remembrance for Oscar and a reminder that that was why we were making the movie. That's why the crew came out and worked tirelessly for next to nothing. That's why we got so many locations to cooperate with us. It was extraordinarily fulfilling. I'm young but I've been doing this for a while and lensing a movie like Fruitvale Station where everyone is making the same story for the right reasons is why I got into film in the first place.
It was a huge surprise and an honor to get the Sundance Grand Jury Prize and Audience Award. Every part of making the film was a team effort and a blessing, but that it would be received this way was beyond our wildest dreams. We were making Fruitvale Station to pay tribute to a man who lost his life, to pay tribute to the Bay Area. More than anything, we sought to humanize Oscar and give him a voice. We had no expectations and were completely blown away and humbled by the response to our film.
Rachel Morrison and Ryan Coogler on the set of Fruitvale Station
When I was a child, I was the family photographer. My mom gave me her old Olympus SLR, and I started taking photos in summer camp and then middle and high school. I grew up with a camera in my hand. The transition to cinematography was the desire to be more collaborative. I lived in a parallel universe where I could do journalism or perhaps war photography but I also loved narrative filmmaking. When I realized it was a life of solitude or collaboration, I chose film because people are everything to me. It's the process and getting to work with incredible artists towards a shared goal. I always played team sports growing up; this is my team sport as an adult.
I went to NYU for photography and kind of tacked on a double major at the end, but never got the whole 'film school' experience. I was starting to get side tracked in documentary and reality TV and knew that wasn't what I wanted to do. I heard about AFI my whole life and ended up going there for grad school. It was an incredible experience but also financially taxing. To recover financially, I DPed MTV's The Hills for almost two-and-a-half years. It was unscripted but it was blocked and lit. I had every unit that could be plugged into a wall; basically everything under 1200 watts. That's how it comes full circle. The fortuitous thing for me is that as cameras get faster, you can do a lot more with a lot less, and so those are the very same tools I often end up using even on bigger projects.
Working on The Hills, we averaged three locations a day with two location moves and lighting in each of those spaces. I learned how to move quickly and how to light for multi-cam. In an era in which cameras get cheaper, one way to shoot more efficiently is to throw cameras at the problem. Although I prefer to shoot single camera, maybe 50 percent of what I have shot have been two cameras. It's a particular skillset - knowing how to sacrifice the least in order to get the most out of two cameras. You have to be very careful not to compromise on the moments that count and ruin two shots by shooting them at once.
My first big break as I transitioned as a cinematographer was Sound of My Voice (2011), a very small movie that got picked up by Fox Searchlight. Any Day Now, about a gay couple in the early 1970s struggling to adopt a child with Down's syndrome won the Tribeca Film Festival Audience Award, as well as eight or nine other awards. Those two movies suddenly made me viable in the dramatic narrative world. But Fruitvale Station takes it to a whole new level. I feel incredibly fortunate to have shot the project for a number of reasons, but it's amazing how many doors are open suddenly now that my work is more visible.
The path is always changing.
If I were to give advice to aspiring cinematographers, I would say that there's no clear path and the path is always changing. When I graduated, the advice was to shoot anything you could, because it was such a rare opportunity just to assemble a crew and shoot a film. It's not a coincidence that so many good DPs got their start with Roger Corman movies. But in this day and age, when you can shoot with a DSLR camera and get distribution, features are almost a dime a dozen. So my advice is to choose the project that you care about. If you can stay true to your own intent, it will always be a rewarding experience.
It's an incredible honor to get the Kodak Vision Award. It baffles me how women remain such a minority in an industry whose primary currency is visualizing human emotion. I mean, aren't we [women] supposed to be the emotional ones? I definitely think people bring their own unique life experience to each project and it can be a real asset to have a woman behind the lens but, that said, I don't think gender is ever a detriment. We're telling stories that are largely based on some form of imagination; you bring a lot of what you know to the table and as much of what you don't.
I am extremely grateful for the efforts made by Women in Film to enable more women in key roles in front of and behind the lens. I feel very optimistic that it's only a matter of time before we become part of the norm and no longer such an anomaly. As soon as people start seeing me as a DP who happens to be female, instead of as a "female DP," that will speak to just how far we've come.
Fruitvale Station - Official Trailer - The Weinstein Company
Title Graphic Photo Courtesy and ©2013 The Weinstein Company. All Rights Reserved.