Everybody, Relax: The De-Aging Effects in 'The Irishman' Aren't Actually That Bad
Some may call it the future of cinema. Some may call it the death of it. Good or bad, everyone's got an opinion about the digital de-aging trend sweeping Hollywood, turning back the clock so our most versatile actors can re-live their youthful heydays (or, in It Chapter 2's case, erase those pesky effects of puberty). This fall brings a storm of face-smoothing techniques from the visual effects teams of Ang Lee's Gemini Man, a movie about an assassin (Will Smith) who's being hunted by a younger clone of himself (also Smith), and Martin Scorsese's Netflix gangster epic The Irishman, which follows hitman Frank Sheeran (Robert De Niro) through the decades when he was involved with Jimmy Hoffa and the Bufalino crime family.
Film-following folks and Scorsese-heads became concerned about The Irishman's de-aging techniques as soon as the first trailer hit, which showed a more youthful De Niro yukking it up with young Al Pacino and young(ish) Joe Pesci. It was a little weird, but even weirder were the stills the movie's official Twitter account released earlier this week ahead of The Irishman's premiere at the New York Film Festival, one of which looks like a non-playable character from a Wolfenstein video game. Seen all together, it was clear which ones were doctored to make De Niro look younger, teetering uncomfortably close to the uncanny valley. But, now that we've seen the movie, we can fortunately say that the de-aging stuff in The Irishman is really not that bad. In fact, some of it is pretty cool.
Without getting too far into plot details, the movie skips around between about four or five time periods in Frank Sheeran's life, each one knocking a few years off of De Niro's face (and, at times, his body). At first, it is weird! Mostly because we know what Robert De Niro looked like when he was in his forties and fifties, and it's definitely not like this. But, truly, after a few minutes you get used to it, probably because every scene lets you get familiar with whatever version of De Niro's (or Pesci's, or Pacino's) face you're looking at. The main thing that looks distracting throughout the whole thing is De Niro's eye color, which was changed to a bright blue -- because that's the eye color Sheeran had.
At a Q&A following the screening, Scorsese, cast and crew recalled the loooong road they took to making this movie, which first started its gears turning all the way back in 2007. However, like James Cameron's Avatar, another example of an effects-heavy film needing to wait years for the technology of the day to catch up with it, The Irishman benefited from all the time left to simmer. "It was slow in moving but not in a negative way," said Scorsese. Producer Jane Rosenthal agreed: "The technology did not slow us down. The technology kept evolving and kept changing and kept making things simpler."
Eventually, they tried a side-by-side test copying a scene from Goodfellas, during the filming of which De Niro had been 47. The test fooled Al Pacino, who remembered thinking that De Niro was just so good he could convince anyone he was 30 years younger. "Wow," he remembered thinking, "he's Meryl Streep!"
You can't just make an old guy's face look young and call it a day, though. The actors also have to act like they're younger than they are, which is tough when you're a 70-something playing a 40-something. "It isn't just about lenses and computer imagery," Scorsese explained. "It's about posture, it's about movement, it's about clarity of the eyes, everything." He recalled a day on set when Pacino, during a particular rant, hops out of his chair in the heat of the moment, and after a few takes stuntman Gary Tacon whispered to Scorsese that Pacino was "supposed to be 49." The next take they did, he asked Tacon how it felt, and he said, "62." Scorsese said, "No, no, no. We gotta get it down to 49." Everyone old is young again.