There has never been a movie made quite like Boyhood, directed by Richard Linklater. Filmed over a 12-year span, Boyhood follows the coming of age of its main character Mason, played masterfully by its still-young star Ellar Coltrane. Starting at age 6, he grows to be 18 in real time by the film’s finish, and his parents, played by Patricia Arquette and Ethan Hawke, also age by a dozen years.
What was the case for the actors was also true for the production keys and crew members who worked on the project for varying lengths of time. They also aged during the length of the shoot. ”You have your own memories that coincide with Ellar’s story as he grows up,” said Shane Kelly, one of two cinematographers who worked on the film. “Not many crew members on a regular film shoot can say that. That’s why it will always be a very special project.”
The other director of photography was Lee Daniel who shot the first two-thirds of the film and then became unavailable. Kelly, who had worked closely with Daniel as the camera operator from the second year of production, took over. “I was there almost from the start so I knew what Lee created, and I wasn’t going to force my style on the movie,” noted the DP.
Moreover, Linklater had established some broad parameters at the start, choosing to shoot on film in an unfussy naturalistic way. “I tried to maintain that naturalism, almost shooting in a documentary style,” Kelly said. (The DP last year shot the documentary Tim’s Vermeer about the Dutch painter, which received critical raves). “It was a very hands-off approach,” he noted. “This is life happening, so don’t get in the way and just record it. I love doing fancy things, but it’s also very freeing to say no, this is too beautiful. It has to be real and the actors have to feel that it’s real too. Rick didn’t want anything to get between him and the actors. So, as a DP I stepped back. You light the space and you allow the actors to move within that space.”
Filming took place every one or two years and each shooting session lasted three or four days. “You never knew when the next call from Rick would come, but most everybody jumped on board. They wanted to know where the story was going and how Rick planned to finish it,” said the DP. Kelly only saw the completed film when he went to a theater after Boyhood opened.
There were technological issues Kelly had to face. Film was beginning to fade out in favor of digital – an evolution that continues. “We had to use several different film stocks, but thankfully the film stocks got better and faster,” said the DP. Cameras and lenses obtainable for each shoot varied in quality. An unusual problem was a shortage of film loaders. “There’s a whole generation that hasn’t learned that skill, so I had to train a number of them,” he said. And lots of 9-minute film magazines had to be loaded. “Rick likes to do a lot of takes, so there was a helluva lot of footage.”
On the plus side, technically, was the evolution of the digital intermediate (DI) which allows changes and adjustments to be made in postproduction. “I aimed for color consistency in the DI, which helped immensely to bring those disparate years together,” said the DP. “That was something we couldn’t have done until a few years ago.”
The biggest challenge for any cinematographer is running out of light. That development, however, turned out to be an unusual plus at the end of Boyhood. “When we shot the last shot which also became the ending of the movie the sun was going down and I couldn’t open the lens up any more, and Rick said ‘cut,’” the DP recalled. “‘Oh that’s it,’ everyone realized. It was a very emotional moment. We’d all been a family for so long, but we’ll always be a family.”