The life of Ray Charles was celebrated, dramatic and filled with great music. It would therefore seem to be a natural for big-screen biographical treatment. Yet director Taylor Hackford spent almost 15 years trying to secure financing for Ray, which stars Jamie Foxx as the singer who blended jazz, rhythm & blues, gospel, rock and country to worldwide acclaim. When Hackford was finally able to get the production off the ground, the budget only stretched to about $40 million not a huge amount for a story covering three or four decades and encompassing settings across the country and around the world. “When he was 17 years old, Ray Charles got on a bus in northern Florida and went as far away as he could, to Seattle, Washington,” says Hackford, who consulted with Charles on the project until the musician’s death, in June 2004. “He started moving and never stopped. He went from Seattle to Houston to New York City to Los Angeles; those were his homes. He toured almost every chitlin circuit city in American, and then, following his breakout hit in 1959, ‘What’d I Say,’ he started to tour Europe, and then Asia. To do a credible story of his life was going to be a logistical nightmare, because we couldn’t afford to shoot in but one town. But all of us who worked on Ray were inspired by the music.”
That included Polish director of photography Pawel Edelman, PSC, who is best known Stateside for his Academy and ASC Award-nominated work on The Pianist (see AC June ’03), and whose cinematography on several films by compatriot director Andrzej Wajda first caught Hackford’s eye. “I just love soul music, and Ray Charles was one of my favorites,” says Edelman. “So I was extremely happy to be involved with this project.” Adds Hackford, “We all grew up appreciating Ray Charles. That’s easy to do in the United States, but in Poland, Pawel had to sneak the records when he was very young.”
Edelman was so eager to shoot the film that he committed to it months before the production got a green light. “I met Pawel in New York in 2002, talked to him about my vision for the film, and gave him the script,” recalls Hackford. “Unfortunately, budgetary restraints kept me from making it when I wanted, so I kept phoning him and e-mailing him and letting him know I wasn’t going to give up on it. We didn’t start production for almost a year after our first meeting.”
Ray finally started shooting in and around New Orleans in spring 2003. “About 80 percent of the movie was shot in Louisiana, with the rest in Los Angeles,” says Edelman, who had never visited the Bayou State before filming Ray. Although New Orleans offered the production numerous clubs, theaters and other practical locations, “there was no way we could possibly do justice to this story just in New Orleans,” says Hackford. “So we decided to use period stock footage of various cities [featured in the story]: Chicago, New York, Seattle, Atlanta, Paris, London and Madrid.” The footage, which comprises 8mm, 16mm reversal stock and 35mm, is employed in establishing shots for the major locations in Ray, and offers a remarkable full-color window into the past of the chosen cities. But the varying formats and quality of the footage dictated several technical choices. The first was to shoot in the standard 1.85:1 aspect ratio, says Edelman. “Then we asked for permission to finish with a digital intermediate [DI] so we could match the older footage with our material better.”
That choice, in turn, helped address Hackford and Edelman’s carefully planned visual scheme for the movie. As the director explains, Ray’s script contains “three levels of reality.” The primary level tells the linear story of Charles’ life and career from the moment he boards the bus in Florida in 1948 until 1965, when he kicked his heroin habit; this encompasses Charles’ growing success and fame and his marriage and extramarital relationships. Interspersed with this story are flashbacks to the musician’s childhood, which was spent in poor but loving African-American enclaves in Georgia and Florida, but which was marred by the twin traumas of his younger brother’s death by drowning and his own loss of vision several months later. Instead of presenting flashbacks in black-and-white, sepia or some other muted style, Edelman says, “we decided to use very saturated color in scenes set before Ray lost his sight. His memories of those years are depicted as full of color and light, sunny and beautiful; it was our goal to make those sequences really vibrant. We were trying to do something that was logical, but also different from what other filmmakers had done [to represent flashbacks].”
To offset those visuals, the filmmakers decided to create a desaturated, more contrasty palette for the rest of the film. Hackford notes that the muted visual tone reflects Charles’ sightless reality, and the increased contrast helps the audience “feel the sweat, feel the senses” of the nocturnal world of clubs, road tours and late-night recording sessions. Before the filmmakers’ request for a DI was approved, Edelman tested different levels of bleach-bypass processing at FotoKem in Burbank. “I wanted to be prepared for the worst-case scenario,” he says. The tests also helped in Edelman’s collaboration with production designer Stephen Altman and costume designer Sharen Davis, who had to tailor their work to the special lab process.
Once the DI was approved, the filmmakers decided to process the film primarily Kodak Vision2 500T 5218 normally and achieve the different color schemes mainly through the DI, which Edelman carried out with colorist Jill Bogdanowicz at Cinesite (now part of LaserPacific). “In a DI world, it’s best if I can have a full negative that has not gone through any special processing,” notes Bogdanowicz, who has since moved on to Technique. “If a cinematographer wants a bleach-bypass look, all he or she needs to do is tell us, rather than go to the lab and lock it into the picture. You can actually create a much more consistent bleach-bypass look with a DI, because the photochemical process can vary.” In the DI suite, Bogdanowicz also intensified the saturation levels in the flashback scenes. “Pawel and Taylor really wanted to bring out the red of the earth to make it a symbol of Ray Charles’ childhood,” she says.