Martin Scorsese on the Ritual Involved in the Visual Effects for ‘The Irishman’

The director admits that he’s still not sure what all was going on to achieve the movie’s de-aging effects.
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By  · Published on October 27th, 2019

While not necessarily a stranger to visual effects, Martin Scorsese is not a filmmaker well known for that arena. However, his latest movie, The Irishman, features a lot of computer-generated imagery. Chronicling historical events over many decades, the project required veteran actors including Robert De Niro, Joe Pesci, and Al Pacino, to be de-aged for their portrayals of real-life figures at various stages of their lives.

During a press conference for¬†The Irishman¬†following the movie’s Hollywood premiere, Scorsese was asked about his involvement in the de-aging effects. The filmmaker explained what the process was like for him while admitting that he didn’t really have that much to do with the technical aspect of the visual effects and still, to this day, doesn’t necessarily know what all the tools were that were employed to create the movie magic. Transcribed from the event:

“This computer-generated imagery was really designed by ILMPablo Helman and everybody there, in conjunction with [cinematographer] Rodrigo Prieto. They worked this out. In terms of lighting, it’s stuff that I didn’t necessarily participate in. There were some technical things — some ‘why is that there?’ — and they’d explain, ‘Well, because the marker on the face has to hit a certain place, etc.’

“But I didn’t find that their work with the technical aspects of the lighting necessarily interfered in any way with what I was doing and what the actors were doing. I think one of the key changes that I noticed on set was the cameras themselves. The cameras had three lenses. And I was shooting two cameras a lot of the times. So it’s six lenses. Then we had extra crew. And we were carrying nine cameras altogether because of other issues.

“So it became a pretty big operation, in a way. Oh yeah, but the center lens was capturing the image. Then there were lenses on either side that were dealing with the information coming from the markers on their faces, which were developed in such a way that they were almost invisible. Which was great.

“The thing about it was then there was this ritual after each time we did a take. Everything would stop and a young man would come out and he’d have a board with some kind of design on it. And he’d move it a certain way. And I’d be looking: ‘What the hell is this?’ Then there was dead quiet and he goes back and then comes back with a silver ball, and the ball moved, and I would call it “the adoration of the ball.” I realized it was like a benediction of some kind. And he turned it, and the ball was opaque. It wasn’t silver. And he moved it a certain way. And I still don’t know exactly what that is.

“But at that point… At first I said, ‘What the hell am I waiting for?’ Then I realized, this is what’s going to be. Now we do the slate, now we do the ball, now we wait. Okay, everybody can move on. And every time we were using that stuff, that’s what we’d do. It sort of became like a welcome ritual. And that was the only thing that I felt that I was cognizant of, really, on the set.”

Scorsese went on to explain that the interesting thing about de-aging the actors was with natural movement and having to get the performers to move like they were younger. Pacino told us and showed us how it was difficult to get up like someone younger than he is today. Scorsese revealed that on his first day of shooting this first collaboration between him and Pacino that he was asked to tell the actor that he was moving like someone that’s too old.

If there’s any real criticism with the de-aging stuff in The Irishman in reviews, it has to do with the actors’ movements. So at least Scorsese and his cast and crew were aware of the challenge. Perhaps they couldn’t get the “numbers game,” as they referred to it, just right. But considering Scorsese was directing a movie with special processes he wasn’t used to or entirely knowledgeable with, the results of the whole production are still quite an achievement.

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Christopher Campbell began writing film criticism and covering film festivals for a zine called Read, back when a zine could actually get you Sundance press credentials. He's now a Senior Editor at FSR and the founding editor of our sister site Nonfics. He also regularly contributes to Fandango and Rotten Tomatoes and is the President of the Critics Choice Association's Documentary Branch.