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De-ageing The Irishman

Visual effects supervisor Pablo Helman tells TVBEurope how Martin Scorsese's epic took its actors back in time

The story behind the distribution rights for Martin Scorsese’s The Irishman is longer than the epic itself. Initially slated to be financed by Mexican production company Fábrica de Cine, with Paramount Pictures and STX Entertainment handling domestic and international rights respectively, the three and a half hour film’s ballooning budget eventually saw the movie dropped by Fábrica de Cine and Paramount.

Netflix then stepped in with an agreement to finance the film’s $125 million budget, which ultimately climbed to $159 million. Reports put this budgetary escalation down to the movie’s sophisticated de-ageing effects used on its stars Robert De Niro, Al Pacino and Joe Pesci. Visual effects supervisor Pablo Helman clarifies: “The VFX work for The Irishman was no more expensive than any other VFX movie produced this year. The budget for the movie is reflective of a running time that is in effect “two movies” and 1,750 shots for two and a half hours of continuous VFX work of the total three and a half hour running time.”

Russell Bufalino (Joe Pesci) before and after the de-ageing process.

In 2015 Industrial Light & Magic (ILM) started pre production work on the gangster film about hitman Frank Sheeran (De Niro) and his friendships with mob boss Russell Bufalino (Pesci) and union leader Jimmy Hoffa (Pacino). Since the story begins in the 1950s and spans several decades, the actors had to be digitally de-aged to accompany their return to serious acting.

“The R&D team spent two years writing new software, repeatedly testing it, and constantly refining it,” Helman tells TVBEurope.The shoot started in 2017 and concurrently with the 108-day shoot, ILM’s digital asset team started to create highly detailed models of Robert De Niro, Joe Pesci and Al Pacino at their current ages. Then the team proceeded to painstakingly model younger age variations for each actor. After the shoot, ILM artists worked in post for a year and a half, tracking every camera, reconstructing the lighting for every shot the CG characters or added elements would appear in, rendering the CG, and compositing the 1,750 visual effects shots for the movie.”

Jimmy Hoffa (Al Pacino) de-aged.

The technology required for such a feat involved developing a new markerless on-set facial capture system. “Proprietary software allowed the actors to be on set, under theatrical lighting and to perform without wearing facial markers or helmet cams on their heads,” says Helman. “There were no restrictions of space or camera movement for the director or cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto. This system is currently the only available system in the world to allow for markerless on-set lighting facial performance capture.”

ILM also designed a three-camera rig in collaboration with Prieto and ARRI Los Angeles, incorporating two high-resolution ARRI Infrared-modified ‘witness cameras’ synched up to the primary RED director’s camera. “This system captured the facial performances from multiple angles and also threw infrared light onto the actors’ faces to neutralise unintended shadows while remaining invisible to the production camera,” recalls Helman. “This process provided a full set of data of every frame of each performance and all of the on-set lighting and camera positions that would be needed later.”

Russell Bufalino (Joe Pesci) and Frank Sheeran (Robert De Niro) de-aged.

Helman also notes that Scorcese wanted the younger versions of Sheeran, Bufalino and Hoffa to be exactly that, as opposed to younger versions of De Niro, Pesci and Pacino. “Martin Scorsese and Robert De Niro had a big say in how the VFX work was approached but also what the final look of the characters was,” he says. “He wanted the audience to understand where the characters came from and to further a connection to the characters throughout the movie’s narrative.”

How soon will this kind of de-ageing technology become commonplace? “It depends on the appetite,” Helman suggests.The brand new markerless software used on The Irishman provides much greater freedom for the actors, who feel closer to the ‘truth’ by not bearing the burden of technology as they perform. The technology can also change the way filmmakers and actors approach the work with a focus on performance instead of the ‘logistics’ and ‘acrobatics’ of how to make the day.”