The long road from Tyrone to Texas for Richard Linklater’s right-hand man

He toured with Pearl Jam, and fired up Friday Night Lights, but cinematographer Shane Kelly’s best work is probably found in Boyhood

Sixmilecross, Co Tyrone, has little in common with Austin, Texas, that dash of democratic blue on the deep scarlet canvas of the US's second-largest state. Cinematographer Shane Kelly, however, is one small link.

Kelly has lived for 13 years in Austin, home to arguably the most innovative metropolitan arts scene in the US. His impressive CV and the role he played in realising Richard Linklater's Oscar-winning family drama Boyhood mark him out as an Irish artist at the forefront of American indie cinema's bustling hub.

Kelly was raised in the unassuming Tyrone village, southwest of Omagh. He attended the University of Ulster Coleraine, where he graduated with a media studies degree in 1988. He immediately sought work in a London that seemed conducive to fostering his budding creative abilities.

Kelly started out by filming and editing concert footage. “I got to prove myself there as the seventh cameraman on a shoot,” he says.

Speaking from the Texas state capital, Kelly’s Ulster intonation now carries a more western twang.

“I was always into the art side of things, and when I discovered cinematography it was like being able to make a picture every couple of minutes. I get to reframe, make something nice and move on.”

Armed with these sensibilities, he moved to the US and found himself in Seattle as grunge entered its zenith. He made music videos and toured with Pearl Jam during the band’s early-1990s heyday.

"I learned a lot of my craft there," he says, referring to the large amount of his footage that found its way into Cameron Crowe's 2011 rockumentary, Pearl Jam Twenty.

LA didn’t fit

Later, after half a decade in the Pacific Northwest, he moved to LA, which “didn’t really fit”, before heading to Austin in 2002. “It felt like Northern Ireland. The people are really friendly; they’ll talk to you on the street. It was just a different vibe to LA, where everyone is out to get something from you.”

Since his arrival, Kelly’s adopted city has come into its own as a centre of global creativity, home to the increasingly influential South by Southwest music, film and interactive festivals every March.

“I was fortunate that I moved here at a good time. We weathered the recession really well, and there’s a great buzz about this place, a great excitement.”

Kelly built up an eclectic local slate, from filming with Austin post-rock pioneers Explosions in the Sky to serving as a camera operator on the drama series Friday Night Lights. On the latter, he and his colleagues were given licence to explore the show's then-distinctive handheld, semi-improvisational style. "People forget that we created it," he says.

He first collaborated with Austin native Richard Linklater in 2004 on A Scanner Darkly, the film-maker's unsettling and visually dazzling adaptation of Philip K Dick's typically paranoid thriller. The picture was shot in a regular fashion, then overlaid with a distinctive animated sheen.

As challenging as that experiment was, Kelly cherished the experience. “That was my first time working with Rick, and it was a really interesting process. He’s an inspiration to a lot of us who live here.”

Linklater subsequently asked Kelly to work on Boyhood, the elegant, reality- embracing coming-of-age tale that commenced a 10-year shoot in 2002, and was released last year.

While he began as a cameraman on the production, Kelly took over as cinematographer when Lee Daniel dropped out before the latter sections of the film were complete.

“I’ll be honest and say I thought it was really interesting, that it could work, or could not,” Kelly says. “Looking back, we knew it was special, but special in an artistic sense. It was the worldwide response that took us by surprise. That was the most interesting thing. In a way it’s a very ordinary story and this is what resonated with people. They think, ‘Yeah, that’s like my life’.

“Traditionally, Hollywood has conditioned us to think that something bad is going to happen. In many ways, that’s the genius of this movie. Not a lot really happens in life. We grow up, get divorced, get married. We meet people.”

Low-key collaboration

To hear Kelly discuss his methods is to understand why an auteur as low-key as Linklater works with him so frequently. The pair finished their third project together, That's What I'm Talking About, in December, and Kelly says he is always careful not to crowd out the broader message.

“I wouldn’t say I have a particular style. As a director of photography, you really should be able to tailor your style to what the director wants. I think that’s my strength: I can meet a new director and get inside their head, see what their references are. I can do a lot of styles. That’s what I like doing, that’s the job.

“Film-making is a very collaborative process. Some people equate it to war, though I never have. Everyone works within their own discipline. Everyone brings something to the table.”

Friday Night Lights is streaming on Netflix. That’s What I’m Talking About will be released later this year

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