Growing Up With Boyhood

by Ethan Andrus, CAS

One of my first real breaks into the world of production mixing for feature films came fifteen years ago in 2000, when I had the opportunity to work on Richard Linklater’s film Waking Life. In 2002, I signed on to his Boyhood project and mixed the first six years. It seems appropriate that as my career has matured, so too has a film that I embarked on with Rick more than a decade ago.

Boyhood is a unique, innovative narrative with an honest and moving portrayal of life, family and growing up. It was a fascinating experience to watch all of the characters, especially Mason Jr., grow and mature throughout the film. We began shooting in 2002, filming approximately three to five days each year. At the final screening, twelve years had passed and the six-year-old Mason Jr. was now eighteen, a young adult beginning college.

I had the benefit of working on two Linklater films (Waking Life, Tape) prior to starting Boyhood, and two more (Fast Food Nation, A Scanner Darkly) during its filming. These experiences gave me insight into Linklater’s filmmaking style and how he would most likely use and mix the sound. In my experience, Rick’s films have always been very dialog-driven, relying heavily on the production track and without the benefit of a lot of masking by ambiences and sound effects. This made the role of the production soundtrack that much more crucial, often living in the mix alone.

The shooting was broken up over twelve years, but the approach was much like a standard feature narrative. We had scripted dialog; rehearsals with the actors took place prior to filming. Our locations at times presented a challenge, as this was a low-budget film, and we didn’t always have the luxury of “owning” our more public locations. Linklater consciously tried to utilize public spaces “as is” to further reinforce the authenticity of the character experience. A few particularly demanding scenes that I recall were the bowling alley and the Astros game at Minute Maid Park, where a live game was taking place.

A critical aspect of this film was documenting the narrative within a real time period that we can all relate to, so it was important that the actors were filmed during an actual baseball game, rather than a staged event. We opted to wire all the actors in this scene in order to get useable dialog during the live game, and also to avoid the excess attention brought on by swinging a boom around in the stadium seats. They naturally spoke up because of the high ambient level around them, which helped a lot, and with a little Post help, the production track made the mix. We did surround our talent with extras, but only in adjacent seats, so no actual spectator would accidently look at the camera.

When presented with the concept of shooting a small portion of a feature length film over the course of twelve years, I knew the issue of changing technology and archiving would be a significant challenge to address. Had production begun just a few years earlier, I would have started with a Nagra and spanned almost the entire continuum of film sound recorder technologies. For production sound recording in this film, the story begins with timecode DAT and ends with digital multi-track field recorders. I utilized multiple machines throughout the process. I began with an HHB Portadat, and then switched to a Fostex PD-4. Shortly thereafter, digital multi-track field recorders became the standard and years 3–6 began with a Fostex PD-6 and ended with a Zaxcom Deva IV. All of these recorders offered different sound deliverables (DAT tapes, 8cm DVD Ram cartridges, DVD RAMs, CF cards and external hard drives), and it had to be coordinated with Post Production Sound for dailies and archiving purposes. All the different formats had to make their way into Pro Tools in preparation for the final mix.

Although I had many recorder changes, my microphone selections remained fairly consistent throughout my years on Boyhood. I used Sennheiser MKH 60s and 416s for exteriors and Sennheiser MKH 50s and Schoeps MK41s for interiors. My wireless changed a bit during the project, switching from Lectrosonics analog wireless to digital. I utilized both cart and bag modes for this film, so my receivers changed from Lectrosonics 211s to 411s and a Venue system with VRT modules. My lavalier microphones were mainly Sanken COS 11s, with an occasional Countryman B6 used.

Unlike camera, where 35mm film was chosen as the consistent image medium, sound recording was a dynamic and ever-changing process. I give credit to Editorial (Sandra Adair) and Post Production Sound (Tom Hammond) for their work on this film, as they were able to adapt to so many different audio formats.

As Mason Jr. aged, so would his voice and this presented a special challenge to this long-running production. We were aware of this situation so Linklater arranged for studio time to re-record any problematic lines after each filming session. That avoided problems with voice matching and ensured a quality track. As I watched the film’s premiere, so many distant memories of our production days and locations became crystal clear, sequentially rolling frame by frame:

•  Familiar neighborhoods and schools in central Austin
•  The bowling alley and café, just three blocks from my old home
•  Sterile apartment buildings and the suburbs on the outskirts of the city
•  Downtown Houston
•  Minute Maid Park
•  The Butterfly Museum and Herman Park
•  Mile-long treks through Pedernales State Park
•  Process trailer after process trailer, rolling down city streets and country roads

These are great memories, and seeing the completed work gives me the feeling that my role has contributed to a greater artistic whole, which has always been the main aspiration of my filmmaking career.

Needless to say, Boyhood was an extremely interesting and innovative project to work on, and I feel very honored to have been a part of it. Everyone involved was highly invested in this amazing experiment in filmmaking. There was a strong sense of unity and family on the project, each year a family reunion, as we all worked together year after year to see it to fruition. Rick, Producer Cathleen Sutherland, the actors and the crew were all there to accomplish a common goal, and seeing the final product gives me a deep sense of satisfaction.

Unlike a typical feature, filming occupied less than a week each year, so I can only imagine scheduling actors and crew would have been quite the juggling act. Understandably, dates could be somewhat unpredictable and varied from year to year, but we all worked together to make it happen. My tenure on Boyhood ended with the fatherson camping trip, right before Mason Jr. moved to San Marcos. I was able to work on the first six years of the project; in subsequent years, production conflicted with other film commitments.

Fortunately, my colleagues Benjamin Lowry, Benjamin Lazard and Mack Melson, CAS did a great job on the remaining years, and thanks to an outstanding Post Production Sound Department, the sound remains consistent throughout the film. Together, we were able to contribute our part to this film becoming such an exciting success, and I am thrilled to have been a part of it.