The long and arduous road to bring The Irishman to theaters spanned two decades and featured several dead ends and detours. It took Netflix stepping in at the last minute with a $250 million budget and multimillion-dollar ad campaign to distribute Martin Scorsese’s long-awaited gangster opus as he had hoped to see it. Though the streaming giant’s row with theater owners prevented a large-scale rollout, the film delighted audiences over the Thanksgiving break, and as the accolades continue to roll in on our Awards Leaderboard, we are now safely considering it a lock for a Best Picture Oscar nomination — and perhaps even a win.
Realizing a script by Steven Zaillian based on the controversial eponymous memoir, Scorsese has created his most epic work in the gangster genre with which he has become synonymous. The film chronicles Frank “The Irishman” Sheeran’s time as a member of the Teamsters’ Union and as a hitman for the Mob, as well as his friendship with various mafia figures from the early 1960s onward, including infamous Teamster boss Jimmy Hoffa. To bring the story to screen with actors Al Pacino, Joe Pesci, and Robert De Niro playing younger versions of themselves, the shoot had to employ cutting edge de-aging technology and groundbreaking visual effects and photography techniques. To achieve this, cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto and visual effects supervisor Pablo Helman utilized a by-any-means-necessary approach to the visuals, inventing new camera equipment and techniques to shoot the action without encumbering the actors’ performances or Scorsese’s vision. When we sat down with Prieto and Helman, they broke down their efforts, the new camera rig they fashioned, and why, when you work with Martin Scorsese, the last thing you want to tell him is “No, we can’t do that.”
Pablo Helman: I’ve been involved with the project since 2015, so that’s been four years, and we were all discussing the whole process with Marty [Scorsese], and I was working with him on Silence. We were shooting in Taiwan, and I took the opportunity to get to know Marty in Taiwan, and we started talking about technology, and of course, he’s such a curious person. He always wants to know more about stuff. So we started talking about technology and making actors younger, and he told me that he had a project that he’s been trying to do for about nine years, and this was in 2015. He sent me the script overnight, and of course, when he says he is going to send you something overnight, then you read it overnight. So I read the script and in the morning I was in.
Rodrigo Prieto: I guess it would have been very soon after that when we had the conversation that started seeming like this was viable, and The Irishman could be, in fact, made. For me, I was just hearing about it, but not in a specific way. I was obviously so immersed in Silence, so it wasn’t really until after we were done with Silence that I really started hearing about The Irishman and the idea of shooting a test. But I wasn’t able to physically shoot the test myself, but I did participate in arranging for it. I got Reed Morano to shoot it; she’s a director and a DP and she’s wonderful. Of course, Pablo made the whole test happen. Then, later on, I saw the test while I was in the post-production phase of Silence.
Helman: For me, it’s just the same thing that Rodrigo did. Usually, I don’t get involved talking to the DP and the director together until later on, but this was so important. Also, as a visual effects supervisor, I don’t want to interfere with anything that Rodrigo is planning to do and he’s talking to Marty about, but I realized how intrusive what we were going to do was going to be, and I tried to stay away from any creative decisions that would influence how we were going to shoot the movie.
Prieto: When we started our first discussions, the essential part of all this was the look that we were going for. As I’ve said before, we wanted the movie to have this feeling of memory, and I felt that it was important to photograph it with film emulsion, with film negative, because also I was doing the simulation of photography in Kodachrome for the ’50s, Ektachrome for the ’60s, and then in the ’70s, it was a different process. But it all was based on photochemical processes that we all have in our memories; photographs, photography — not digital photography, but photography either on the transparencies or on negatives. So we felt very strongly that we had to shoot this movie on film, but Pablo explained to me this rig that he was concocting that had to be digital, because all the shutters of the three cameras had to be synchronized. And then also he described how these, the main camera and the witness cameras, had all had to move in unison.
So we actually had to create a rig that could take three cameras, so it made it physically impossible for it to be film cameras. So then, for me, it became choosing a camera that would be able to map the colors and the lookup tables of the Kodachrome and Ektachrome and so on, onto a digital camera that would match the film camera, the way that the film negative was responding to those lookup tables. Then, in addition to that, I told Pablo, you have to make sure and you have to guarantee to me that you’ll be able to also match the texture, meaning the film grain. And since we worked very closely on Silence before, I really trusted Pablo. I knew that if he said he could do something, I knew that it was true. He was going to do it. So with that trust, I was okay. I said, all right, let’s split it. We’ll shoot on film, which everything that happened doesn’t need the three-headed monster for the visual effects. Then we’ll shoot the digital cameras for that, and we’ll make it all match, and indeed that’s what happened in the end.
Prieto: I think every one of us that has worked with Marty has come to realize you really don’t say no to Marty. There is no limit in him as you know, and that’s part of the joy of working with him. But he has these amazing ideas and concepts, and it’s up to us to figure out how to make that actually come to fruition and technically achieve it and also artistically enhance it. That’s a beautiful thing.
Helman: I think in terms of film or digital or all these, I don’t think he has this predetermined notion that everything has to have a film texture. It’s more of an emotional thing for him. When I projected tests of something shot on film negative and something shot on digital, he feels more connected to the actors on what he’s seeing on film negative. So it’s more a feeling than a dogma. But then again, I know that he doesn’t have a compunction of shooting a whole movie on digital. It’s not something that he necessarily is married to one or the other. But I think that in the case of The Irishman, he agreed that the texture of film was an important part of this feeling of memory. I think it was pretty successful. Pablo was very impressed.
Prieto: One thing for me that was also important — and we talked a lot, Pablo and I, in pre-production — was that I wanted to be able to sit in the digital intermediate room doing the color grading as if I shot the whole movie on film negative, and the lighting on the face replacements on the DGI visual effects would be the same that I did on the set and would react the same way of when I tweaked it in the ice suite. And it did. It felt completely organic. Whenever I came up to the shots that were Pablo’s, as opposed to the ones that I had shot with a film camera, and then I came to the visual effects shots, it felt pretty seamless, and I think that was thanks to whatever magic Pablo did.
Helman: Also, it’s a way for us to understand what it is that he’s after. You see, when he says something, he really means it, and it all goes to how he feels about something, so it’s part of our job.
Prieto: I think that there were other technical things that we talked about, because we were working with infrared technology and there was the lights and things that Rodrigo and I already talked about. We don’t involve him. It’s part of solving the problem.
From the beginning in Taiwan, Marty told me that Bob De Niro was not going to wear any markers. He was not going to wear any helmets or little cameras in front of him. He wanted to be on set with the lighting, so there wouldn’t be reshoots or shooting a scene in a different controlled environment that we call a mock-up studio or anything like that. He told me, “I want the technology completely away from the performances. I want to work the way I want to work with the actors. The actors want to work with the actors too, and I want that technology completely away.” The reason is the difference. You can see the difference in the performances. If the actors are not in the moment, in a different environment, not acting with their acting partners, the movie doesn’t happen, because a lot of what happens between two actors is a connection that translates through the camera into the audience. If you are in the middle as the technology and visual effects supervisor, it’s going to take it all in the movie, and we don’t want to do that.
Also, in cinematography, there’s a lot of preference in terms of the lights, the cameras, the marks on the floor — all these things that I try to make as minimal as possible. In fact, I try not to say things to the actors. I want them just to feel as free as possible. The “three-headed monster” camera rig became a concern in pre-production because we knew that Scorsese was going to want to be able to move the camera in whichever way he would desire. I didn’t want to say, “Marty, we really can’t do this shot you’re saying, because this camera’s too heavy or big.” Pablo and I worked together to make sure the camera team — and also with every rental and ILM — to design a rig that could work on any type of camera head, be it a fluid head or a remote head, a crane, or even on steady cam. We tested that several times and went back to the drawing board when initially we failed; particularly the remote head didn’t respond. It was not happy with the weight. We had to come up with different materials and different types of motors for the focus and all these things. It was actually quite fun in pre-production to work on this and figure it out.
Helman: On the set for me, it was important that my focus was the main camera and the lighting for that. The camera movement and the other witness cameras that were shooting infrared and actually lighting infrared would be Pablo’s world. There were camera technicians for those cameras, focus pullers. There was our whole team. Each camera had its own team, but I didn’t want to worry about that. I wanted to be able to deliver the schedule. So, that was another part that I’m grateful to Pablo, because indeed, he just made sure that he was getting the information he needed from those cameras, and I mostly forgot about it. There were instances where even the rig, we had to make it so that we could detach one of the witness cameras and place it in a different place — for example, putting it on top of the main camera — because I needed to be close to a wall or I was seeing the other camera in one of the shots. We tended to shoot a lot with two cameras simultaneously. So we then were able to remove the camera and put it in a different spot. It was modular, so we kind of created a monster that was relatively nice to us. It wasn’t so monstrous after all.
I think the whole idea was, from a technology point of view, to remove the burden from the actors. If you remove the burden from the actors, that burden doesn’t go away. It gets spread out throughout all these departments. The first department that hits is Rodrigo’s, because he’s got double the crew in the camera. So you have infrared, then it also spreads over the production design because you see the rig; it’s about 30 inches wide. The frame of a door in the United States is about 32 inches, so we have to make sure, and we knew we had like 117 locations, so we had to get the rig through the doors and all kinds of things. Also, because we’re working with infrared technology and really old cars from the ’50s and ’60s, the windshields on the cars have lead, and the lead doesn’t let the infrared light go through, and I can’t have that. So we had to take all the windshields off. All the windshields that you see are all CG. See how it spreads all over the place? It was a whole team working out the technology so that it was away from the actors and the director and they could do wherever they wanted.
Helman: At some point, I had to say to Rodrigo, “This is what we need for this, but I don’t know how to take 20 pounds away from there, because I don’t know exactly what your department and you are going to need.” So it was a working together thing in a way that I hadn’t worked before, so maybe that is part of it? You have a team of people and you need to be careful with elbows and not elbow each other and those kinds of things.
Prieto: I’ll have to also credit my focus pillar, Trevor Loomis, and even a camera operator, Scott Sakamoto. They were instrumental in suggesting different types of motor and cables. Then the friends from area rental, figuring out a lighter plate on which to put the cameras. Both Pablo and I had requirements. For instance, what I was describing, I insisted on this possibility of removing pieces from both sides of the rig so we could have the camera in whatever corner needed to be. Pablo needed the witness cameras to be able to be adjustable because it depends on the distance of us to the actor’s face. You need it to be able to adjust these cameras. For all these things, there was a whole team of people making sure that it worked. I think everybody took it with enthusiasm, and there are these kinds of challenges that we all relish. I’m sure that if we do it again, we’d figure out some other ways that would be even more practical. That’s the way technology advances, right? But it’s all manmade in the end, especially in the beginning when you’re creating something new. You’re doing it by hand basically.
Helman: I have to credit everybody with being able to work together. That’s one of the skills that anybody has that could take them anywhere. If you have the skill to work with other people, you can do anything in your life. It was difficult at times, but it was great. It was great being flexible and being able to accept solutions from other departments.
Helman: Throughout post-production, I kept sending images to Rodrigo. During the production, we talked about the fact the lighting is so important, not only for the movie, but obviously because of the content and all the decisions that Marty and Irwin made. Also because of the technology. The technology is such that works from the lighting setup. If I cannot match the lighting, I cannot finish my work. So it was really important that throughout we communicated and we sent pictures and just made sure that we were on the same wavelength.
Prieto: During the shoot, that was an important factor and also a challenge, time-wise. We did have to get the lighting information to Pablo to be sure that, in post-production, he had everything accurate. It wasn’t just by eye, seeing what I had done in this shot, saying, “OK, it looks like we used the three-quarter backlight here.” They actually were able to input into the computer the exact information besides intensity and color and texture of each one of the lighting units, plus the influence of this set itself onto the light that ultimately lights a face. It’s not only the lighting units, but it’s also the environment as well. We had to every time shoot a mirrored sphere in the place of where the actor’s face would have been. Also, we had to shoot a gray sphere and then color charts with all the different levels of black to white and the different colors and a lighter, which is a system where you put a camera where the face of the actor would be, and you’d do a 360-degree capture of everything that’s around the face of the actor. It’s bracketed as well, meaning that you get all different levels of exposure.
So all that information is fed into the computer, and it basically reproduces that on the actor’s face. I’m sure there’s some tweaking also going on to make sure it matches what the main camera saw before the faces were replaced. I must say, it was very accurate. Obviously we’re all a little bit neurotic about what we do, and we’re very specific about why I lit in a certain way with a certain unit, with a certain intensity. I recognize everything I did while I was doing the DI, and when I was doing it, it was very seamless. So I really don’t remember any instance whatsoever where I had to go back to Pablo and say, “This doesn’t look like the lighting I did. Can you redo it?” It really felt very accurate. I even saw the movie before the visual effects. I saw it all put together with the faces of the actors as they were when we shot them. Then I started doing the DI and felt no real difference in the lighting, and I think, as Pablo says, it’s crucial for the naturalism of the effects. They blend in perfectly with the lighting that was done on the set.
Helman: Yeah, and besides that, there is a scientific reason why that had to be so. It’s because the capturing of the performances has to do with comparing what we got on set with what I’m rendering on the computer. So if there’s a difference in lighting, the computer will pick it up, and it’s not going to do what it’s supposed to do. So there are all kinds of things that go with it that was complicated, but we were able to work them out.
Helman: From the first test in 2015, that was the first time that we showed the test to Marty and to Bob De Niro, and he doesn’t say much. He was just looking. He had this little tiny smile on his face and he said, “you gave me 30 more years of my career,” which was great.
Prieto: That’s funny. I mean, after the movie, I didn’t hear any comments about the visual effects, but during the shooting, I do remember the first time each one of them saw the rig. They sort of raised their eyebrows like, “Wow, look at that.” It had all the cables and the monitors read. It was kind of a thing. But once that initial two-minute surprise had happened, then it was seamless. They completely forgot about the cameras. I do remember Pacino in particular. There’s a scene where he is talking with Tony Pro (Stephen Graham) in jail, and they’re sitting on a bench, and he’s eating his ice cream. Tony Pro comes in for his money, and we shot that with three angles simultaneously. So each one of them has to be a three-headed monster, so it was nine cameras shooting the scene at the same time. I do remember Pacino was like, “Whoa, what’s all this?” It was quite a thing. But, yes, as I said, initially he was surprised, but then totally forgot about it. We all hid behind our gear and made ourselves invisible.
Helman: The other thing that you have to think about is that this is a brand new thing. This is the first time that we’ve ever tried something like this. So from here on, things are going to get better. So the rigs are going to get very, very small. Technology is going to get faster. In visual effects, and I’m sure it’s everywhere in this business, we kind of stand on each other’s shoulders to get to where we need to be. So I can’t wait for everybody else in the industry to pick up where we left off and further this more, allowing performances to come through.
The Irishman is available to stream now on Netflix.
All images courtesy of Netflix.