Filmmaker Zachary Bako’s first feature documentary, 3AM on Frenchmen, is coming to Quincy Jones’ Qwest.TV in the U.S. in honor of Black Music Appreciation Month. The film follows hip-hop artist, Ray Wimley, a rising New Orleans street performer as he explores the heart of his musical practice amongst the city’s nightlife and its bohemian community of local musicians. Jako relied on Canon’s EOS 5D Mark IV for its mobility and power to beautifully capture natural light to bring Wimley’s story to life, which is deeply rooted in inspiration, togetherness and following one’s dreams.
PH: How have you been? In what ways has your work / life changed the past year or so?
Zachary Bako: I was in China for a project when Covid hit and decided it was best to set up shop here while the virus runs its course. The previous four years were spent in the States, dedicated to 3AM. Right now, I am grateful to be discovering opportunities in a new city.
As with the whole world, we are waiting to travel again. Covid halted production for our next music documentary in England. Shanghai has been a catalyst for further personal exploration and it’s been a wonderful place to evolve artistically.
PH: Congrats on making your first feature film! What inspired 3AM on Frenchmen and telling the story of Ray Wimley?
Zachary Bako: Thank you! Jazz and hip-hop have been a part of my existence since childhood. The film is dedicated to my brother John R. Shelley Jr. who left us way too soon. John gave our whole city and surrounding community a lesson in underground rap. We spent a lot of time at Record Connection (our local record store in Niles, Ohio) as adolescents. John would find the most non-commercial, underground rap coming out of Detroit, New York, Memphis, New Orleans, Chicago, the Bay Area, etc. The narratives that had our attention in our youth are the exact opposite of Ray Wimley’s.
Ray’s lyrical narratives never use profanity and are about everyday struggles, creative problem solving, family togetherness, chasing dreams, unconditional love and awakening to spirituality. Something I definitely wanted and needed to hear. His philosophy of the basics principles of life struck a deep chord within me.
When we first came across The Harbinger Project and Ray Wimley on Frenchmen Street in New Orleans, I first gravitated towards The Harbinger Project’s sonics; jazz piano mixed with a Juno-60 synthesizer, trumpet and vocal percussion. As we walked closer, Ray’s lyrics became audible. I turned to Christina Lee, who would become the Co-Producer and Additional Editor on 3AM and said, “I am sorry, we need to stop and watch this.”
Long before 3AM existed, while living in New York City, I would love visiting Blue Note in the West Village to catch the Robert Glasper Experiment performing with Yasiin Bey (Mos Def) and also with Lupe Fiasco. The energy in that room was amazing.
On the first day of filming, which was our only camera test day, I became aware and understood what we were witnessing was bigger than all of us. The energy from a Harbinger Project set or a New Thousand set with Ray had me tuned into a whole new frequency.
Their improvisational street shows in New Orleans had me thinking about those nights in Blue Note and the energy that was created. The difference was that we were on the street in the French Quarter, but the energy felt similar. The busking scene in New Orleans is something that has to be seen, felt and heard. 3AM exists because of who Ray Wimley is as a human being. He once said, “People don’t even know that this type of music exists…yet.”
PH: What was the overall process of creating the film like?
Zachary Bako: Ray Wimley and The Harbinger Project and the rest of the talented musicians in the film are living their craft 24/7. It was highly inspirational to spend time with all of them. Their stage is whatever spot, corner, street, sidewalk or plaza they choose to set up on.
It was a magical time, learning and documenting their history alongside Frenchmen Street. Since the completion of the film, new businesses have sprouted up, changing the geographical locations of some of the most prominent spots to perform on Frenchmen.
My upbringing, John’s friendship and Ray’s determination to spread this musical movement to the world all collided inside of me. The past four years have been very profound.
There is a nine-year age difference between Ray Wimley, Josh Smith and Benjamin Buchbinder (the latter two) are from The Harbinger Project, and me. I hope Christina and I just were able to give them a little jump-start to carry this onto the world. We applied everything we know in our world to empower the next generation of musical talent, to expand their dreams. Through the project, we all were able to share a wonderfully effortless collaboration with one another, elevating each other’s creative process. It was our love for what we do and those around us that drove this project from the start. Art is a beautiful thing.
PH: Can you share what it was like using Canon’s EOS 5D Mark IV and how natural light influenced much of the film?
Zachary Bako: Once the project came into pre-production there was no second thought of what I should be using. The ability to switch between stills and motion was a must and already owning Canon glass, the decision was obvious. We work with all primes because of the speed and the EOS 5D Mark IV performed beautifully in low light situations. There is nothing more satisfying than paying attention to how sunlight moves across a city. We spent every day on the street, with New Orleans.
Some locations of where the guys would set up were based on how we could maximize depth within the frame while also paying attention to what existing light sources (lamppost, traffic light, a neon sign, etc.) were available. We utilized the whole environment around us. The 5D Mark IV and Canon lenses made every shot possible.
I have worked on amazing productions where the budget was tight; all we could travel with was one 1×1 panel light. It’s our job to make more with less. You will surprise yourself with how little you need to convey a mood. Those jobs prepared me for this film.
PH: What challenges did you face working on the film?
Zachary Bako: Exhaustion. There were two main trips to New Orleans. The first was for six days and the second trip for ten days. Filming took place during French Quarter Fest and Jazz Fest in 2017. It was nonstop. Didn’t have a chance to sit down until the guys would call it, generally around sunrise.
PH: Overall, what does the film represent to you and what do you hope viewers take away from it?
Zachary Bako: For me, it’s always been about love and inspiration. Ray Wimley is a modern day hero and his story in 3AM offers hope. Ray and The Harbinger Project offer a refreshing new perspective on hip-hop.