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How They Made ‘Boyhood’ Across 12 Years and 100 Hours of Footage

How They Made 'Boyhood' Across 12 Years and 100 Hours of Footage

Richard Linklater’s 12-year odyssey “Boyhood” is the film to beat in this year’s Oscar race, racking up critics group awards and distinguishing itself  as “an epic of the intimate.” But for longtime editor Sandra Adair (winner of the LA Film Critics’ prize) and camera operator turned DP Shane Kelly, “Boyhood” represents the ultimate in Linklater’s brand of fictional vérité.

“The film taps into some very core things about what makes us human and our experiences dealing with the disappointments in life, the unexpected little moments that seem so inconsequential at the time but add up to the fabric of our lives,” Adair says. “And I think that’s what audiences relate to. They see themselves, they see their parents, they see their siblings. It’s the cumulative effect of all of these little moments that become a little stunning.”

If we thought Linklater’s “Before” trilogy was bold, this realtime rite of passage is even more ambitious. We actually get to witness the actors age as the characters do, especially Ellar Coltrane as Mason, seen from age seven to 19. Imagine if François Truffaut made the first two Antoine Doinel movies in such a fashion.

Unlike other movies, this was a journey of total discovery as the filmmaking progressed. Working from an outline and workshopping the script and individual scenes with his collaborators every year, Linklater shared ideas for potential events with his editor. Then after leaving “Boyhood” for a year, it receded from her memory yet returning to it was like visiting her second family.
“Rick would shoot three or four days each year and then we’d pull up ‘Boyhood’ boxes and revamp the project on the Avid and then I would cut each year’s material that year, and then he and I would sit and watch the current year attached to the previous years. And then it would start the conversation about where he might go with it the following year. And he would talk with his cast and it was just an evolving process that kept boiling along year after year,” Adair says.
“We pared down but never made any super radical changes too early because we really wanted to sit with it and not project too early where the story was going to unfold over 12 years’ time. But year after year we pinpointed things that would literally come out and we did internal edits along the way. The first 11 years were in really good shape when they shot the 12th year, and then I attached that and we finally had a movie that we could watch from beginning to end.”

In total, they compiled nearly 100 hours of footage. And the biggest technological consideration was which editing package to use. Originally, Adair planned to use a combination of Final Cut Pro and Cinema Tools, but decided on one system—Avid Media Composer—and kept updating it.

“I could relate so much to Patricia Arquette’s character because I’m a mom with a girl and a boy and in terms of her performance I really looked at finding the pieces and moments that rang true for me personally. And always throughout I was looking for the most natural performances that would resonate with me personally. That was my motto for all of the performances. I know how little kids behave and talk to each other.”
Adair’s favorite moment of Arquette is not one that you would immediately guess: When she makes toast after Mason’s high-school graduation. “I remember in my own life with my own kids, what a milestone that was as a mom to know that your kid is about to go to [college] and pursue a dream, and acknowledging that with the whole family there made me cry when I watched the dailies and it still moves me.”

Meanwhile, Kelly served as DP Lee Daniel’s operator for the first two-thirds of “Boyhood” and then took over as DP for the last four years when Daniel became unavailable. “The transition was seamless as the crew stayed the same and I had been working with them since the start. If you think of the movie as a series of 12 short films, then you can see that I was not really taking over in the middle of production but rather taking over a yearly installment,” recounts Kelly, who just finished shooting Linklater’s forthcoming baseball saga, “That’s What I’m Talking About.”

“Lee’s best advice was to let the moment happen in front of the camera rather than forcing the actors to serve your lighting. As a DP, you try to accommodate the way Rick works. He likes to have the actors find it. He rehearses heavily and he shoots heavily, so you visually create a space for the actors rather than being very strict in placements.”

Kelly echoes Adair in describing the essence of “Boyhood”: “You expect all these good things to happen and they never really do happen for the majority of people. It was a huge risk and there was a collective sigh after it was finished.”

They shot on film because Linklater wasn’t satisfied with the way early digital cameras performed and he figured you couldn’t go wrong with film. Throughout the 12 years, film stocks came and went and they didn’t always get the best cameras, but Panavision was very supportive and during the last couple of years they got the benefit of the best cameras, when film was supplanted by digital.

“It was quite an amazing experience seeing Ellar from year to year. Once he hit puberty, he shoots up and his face changes and this was a totally different character from the one I shot last year. He’s still the same kid but grown up, and so you want to open that up, especially towards the end when he goes off to college. We wanted to show this is a new step in your life — you’re on your own without your mom and you have to conduct yourself,” Kelly says.

Kelly thinks Arquette was very brave to take on this role. “She knows she’s going to be getting older and she just went through that. For an actress, it’s a scary proposal, but an amazing proposal, to age on screen. But she’s a beautiful woman, and you don’t let that stop you. So I always tried to treat her with respect in the way I photographed her. I learned to not force my style and let it develop, and to explore who you are along with the actors.”

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