The Technology Behind “The Irishman”

Al Pacino in The Irishman. Courtesy: Netflix

The Irishman is a 209-minute crime film released by Netflix in December 2019 and directed by Martin Scorsese based on a 2004 book I Heard You Paint Houses by Charles Brandt. The film was met with generally positive reviews, with some criticism of the pacing and length of the epic drama. Scorsese, who is also known for directing crime thrillers such as The Departed, Casino, Goodfellas, and Gangs of New York, had the challenging task of shooting the film across 117 locations and covering more than 20 years of history. Part of that challenge involved shooting three of the principal characters across different periods of history in a convincing manner – at the time of filming, Al Pacino, 79, Robert DeNiro, 76, and Joe Pesci, 76.

In an video from Netflix, Scorsese speaks to this challenge and the story of how the shooting of the film evolved during its production. Existing technology involved attaching a multitude of sensors to actor’s faces which would then allow computer effects to make changes to their appearance in post-production. But he didn’t want to attach anything to any of the actor’s faces, so a new technology was attempted which involved a multitude of cameras used to film scenes. In the video, some of the actors admitted being confused about which lenses to avoid (generally actors do not look directly into camera lenses unless directed to) because there were “20 cameras” pointed at them. But once they got used to the technology, they completed filming of the movie and then post-production went to work.

Scorsese was concerned that de-aging effects would be distracting to the storytelling of the film, but Industrial Light & Magic effects specialist Pablo Helman used a new suite of software and camera tools to ensure the digital recreation of the characters would be more subtle.

Joe Pesci in The Irishman. Courtesy: Netflix

As Scorsese and the actors can attest, de-aging not only involved digital effects, but also a change in mannerisms and posture as well, with the actors portraying characters in their 50s, 60s, and 70s throughout the film.