'The Irishman': New 'youngification' technology makes Robert De Niro and Al Pacino younger and promises to change movies forever

Industrial Lights & Magic worked on the visual effects to de-age Robert De Niro and Al Pacino by several decades for Martin Scorsese's new film

                            'The Irishman': New 'youngification' technology makes Robert De Niro and Al Pacino younger and promises to change movies forever

Martin Scorcese's 'The Irishman' releases in theaters this weekend. There's a lot of buzz surrounding the movie, but one aspect, in particular, has caught people's attention over everything else.

Robert de Niro and Al Pacino happen to be playing characters several decades younger than their actual age — and they look every bit the part.

Thanks to the youngification technology provided by visual effects company Industrial Light & Magic (ILM), the adage that "age is just a number" has never been more true. 

'The Irishman' has been in the works for many years. Based on the 2004 book 'I Hear You Paint Houses', it follows the story of truck-driver-turned-hitman Frank Sheeran (Robert De Niro) and his involvement with the famous Jimmy Hoffa (Al Pacino).

The movie began development as early as 2007, with Paramount. Ultimately, however, Paramount abandoned the project to development hell as the de-aging technology that would be required for the movie was just too expensive. 

"The wait time between the [original Paramount deal and the Netflix production] was actually a positive thing for the picture, because the technology kept evolving," said Jane Rosenthal, one of the film's producers, in an interview at the 2019 New York Film Festival.

ILM had developed a scene from 'The Goodfellas' in which they de-aged Robert De Niro. It was this scene that managed to convince Netflix CEO Ted Sarandos to back the movie. De Niro was impressed with the footage himself. "I thought, 'I can extend my career another 30 years'," he quipped. 

With Netflix’s backing, 'The Irishman' became one of the most expensive movies of Scorcese's career, with a production budget of $159 million.

Al Pacino, Martin Scorsese and Robert De Niro attend 'The Irishman' International Premiere and Closing Gala during the 63rd BFI London Film Festival at the Odeon Luxe Leicester Square on October 13, 2019, in London, England (Getty Images)

Principal photography began in 2017, and the movie debuted in September 2019, at the 57th New York Film Festival. The movie will have a limited theatrical release on November 1, before its release on Netflix on November 27. 

The visual effects were handled by visual supervisor Pablo Helman and ILM. It was very important for Martin Scorcese that youngifying the actors would not require them to wear helmets or other facial gear for their performances.

ILM managed to find a way to make the process work without interfering with the actors' performances. Scenes that would require visual effects were shot with a three-camera device that was affectionately dubbed the Three-Headed Monster.

Helman would work closely with cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto to ensure that the technology never got in the way of Scorcese's process. "[Scorsese] is very specific about his cinematic language," said Prieto, in an interview with Variety.

"I didn't want to affect any of his decisions because of the technology, so I worked closely with Pablo [Helman] and his team to make sure our rig was lightweight enough that [the camera operator] could use any kind of remote head or Steadicam setup," Prieto added.

As the movie covers a time period of over 50 years, the de-aging technology was complemented by costume and set changes, and different film material in cameras for each decade 'The Irishman' goes through.

All this was combined in an effort to give audiences a real feel for the passage of time — both visually and thematically. "I went with less and less color as we progress with [Frank], because later in life there is disillusionment, feelings of regret," Prieto said. 

The new technology has a great many implications for the future of cinema. The most obvious, as De Niro noted, is that it extends the careers of older actors, allowing them to play much younger roles.



De Niro also noted at a London Film Festival Screen Talk session that as the technology advances, it can be used to make different kinds of film visuals. "It can be another type of entertainment, like comic strip things, Marvel. The comic book character-type things, cartoony stuff."

We're certainly in an age where new leaps in technology define visual experiences. 2018's 'Into the Spider-Verse' set a new bar for what animated films could be.

Amazon Prime's 'Undone', released earlier this year, took advantage of rotoscoping methods to combine actors' performances with animated visual effects in a stunning art style that blurred the lines between reality and dreamscapes.

De-aging technology could be just the first step towards bringing audiences things never before seen on movie screens.

Speaking at the BFI Film Festival, Martin Scorcese said, "The new technology is bringing things that are unimaginable and not only is it something extraordinarily good for narrative films, but it opens up the original conception of what a film is and how it is to be seen has now changed so radically."

'The Irishman' releases in cinemas on November 1 and on Netflix on November 27.

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