SXSW Report: The Thirteenth Year of ‘Boyhood’

Rarely when watching a movie does the viewer think about how much editing and off-camera work is put into a film, especially a film that took twelve years to shoot, which in and of itself is a remarkable feat. Sure, we may reflect on it come award season, or when something like Birdman’s single shot gets noticed, but generally, we as viewers pay closer attention to the story and actors on the big screen.

During my time at SXSW, I had the opportunity to attend a panel that featured various editors and behind-the-scenes contributors who discussed the “thirteenth year” of the hit film Boyhood, and learned about how much was involved in the editing of the film.

One thing I was curious about was how often they filmed over the course of the movie. We all know it took twelve years, but how many days each year? Was it all done in a set time frame, or here and there throughout the year? As editor Sandra Adair explained, filming lasted only three or four days each year, then her and the rest of the editing team would spend about a month putting it together. She was joined on stage by assistant editor Mike Saenz, intermediate editor Parke Gregg, and post-production supervisor Laura Yates, all of whom worked their magic into the final version of the film.

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After each year, the editing team would look back at the previous year and discuss how they would transition as the actors grew. This allowed director Richard Linklater to develop incoming shots for the following year to help make it more seamless. This was a huge undertaking itself, as Gregg explained how they had to constantly deal with technological advances throughout the twelve years of filming. They started shooting with one kind of camera, then had to change for editing purposes, shifting from standard to high definition, and also had to deal with various cameramen over the years, which affected how shots were framed.

Adair went on to explain how they picked the soundtrack for the film. The team accumulated a list of songs at the top of the charts in every genre for that year of filming,  gave the music to consultants who were the same age as lead role Ellar Coltrane, and had them write notes about what the songs meant to them. This allowed the team to narrow down which songs resonated with the youth of that time and include into the film. Linklater had the final say on songs, and often there were fifteen to twenty songs they would test with each scene to see how they fit together at the final edit. Once they figured out which songs to use, Yates would work on getting the proper clearances to avoid any potential lawsuits. She spent three to four months with files to make sure everything was cleared, spending her time on the phone and in the offices of fair use lawyers. Yates told the story from when the film was ready for theatrical release, but were still negotiating clearance for a Harry Potter song. In order to properly prepare, they had two reels – one with the song and one without – just in case they didn’t get the proper clearance to use the song in the theatrical release. They were able to get the clearance.

Since the film was spread out over such a long time, pop culture references (like mentioning Harry Potter) were free to use, but things like a sports team’s logo were not. There’s a scene in the film that takes place at a bowling alley in Houston that originally showed Houston Oilers signs that the camera crew shot in the background, but were not cleared to use. Since they didn’t get clearance, they couldn’t exactly go back in time and re-film the scene, so the editors had to work their magic to remove the logos from the scene itself. The same thing happened in a classroom scene where the editors had to change copyrighted posters that were easily viewable. Other than a scene that involved a green screen, no other effects were used in the film.

Adair then explained how Linklater wanted to reflect a normal education phase – first grade to graduation – in the film. He wanted things to happen to Coltrane in real life before they happened in the film, such as driving a car and having a girlfriend, to make the scene feel more natural.  When asked about how many scenes had been scrapped, Adair said there weren’t too many. She said they just made the scenes look and feel tighter, and there were one or two early, minor scenes they got rid of, but other than that everything was as is. It’s pretty remarkable once you think about it. Sure the movie runs just shy of three hours, but to have all that footage and no major scenes cut is a tremendous feat. Not only that, but there was a time around year ten or eleven where they thought they had lost everything after a computer crash, but fortunately were able to recover and continue. I can’t imagine the sickening feeling they got when they first thought everything was lost.

Luckily for them, and for us as viewers, the film came to fruition and ended up being more than what anyone had expected when the journey first began. The one thing every panelist said was that they couldn’t believe the journey was over, which shows that this was much more than a simple film.


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Nick Hershey

The author Nick Hershey

Nick was born and raised in Amish country, has a beard, but isn’t Amish. He’s a fan of winter as long as he’s at the top of a mountain with a board under his feet. He’s an avid sports fan, movie junkie, tv bum, and music enthusiast who still purchases CDs for some reason.