If you’ve found the three-and-a-half hours to watch Martin Scorsese‘s deconstructing Netflix epic The Irishman, you’ve likely noticed some impressive de-aging technology make its stars, especially Robert De Niro, look like their older selves during key moments in the time-hopping narrative. We’re currently in a bit of a de-aging vanguard, with key 2019 titles like Captain Marvel and Gemini Man using the relatively nascent tech for their genre thrills. But Scorsese’s usage marks one of the first times such tech has been used for an anticipated, acclaimed piece of prestige cinema from one of our most acclaimed directors. Variety spoke with Scorsese’s VFX supervisor and ILM worker Pablo Helman to see how they made it all work. And it’s a bit surprising.
First of all — there were no markers on any actor’s face, no use of green screen, and no additional off-set photography. From the beginning, Scorsese made it clear to Helman that De Niro would not be down for such VFX shenanigans. Helman, to his credit, never backed down from the restrictions: “I said no problem and that’s why we work at ILM. I’ve been there for 24 years. You’re allowed to sit at a table and come up with stuff. It was a great challenge… It’s a textbook example where you go for a project and come up with bold solutions. You will get your wish.”
To test their new methods, involving three cameras and a ton of finessing with lighting setups, Helman shot a 2015 test with De Niro, where the then-74-year-old actor redid a scene from Goodfellas, a film he was 46 years old during the filming of. Bolstered by that success, and Scorsese’s approval, Helman and his team kept developing their tech for two years, inventing some new methods in the process.
We had to design a new camera system with three cameras. We had to implement infra-red technology on the camera next to the director’s camera. There were three cameras, the director’s camera and two “Witness” cameras. We implemented all kinds of science in terms of technology… It was really important that the technology was away from the performances. The actors were on set with no markers and on intrusion. It was important for the characters to be in front of each other.
All in all, Helman and his team worked on 1,750 VFX shots in the film, all without using any normal methods for de-aging that might get in an actor’s way. And that, for him, could be the lasting legacy from the film: “The achievement here is giving the actors the freedom to do what they do. Any achievement is measured against what it’s going to do to the industry. I can’t wait for actors to look at this and say, ‘Does that mean I don’t have to wear 138 markers on my face?'”