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How The Team Behind 'The Irishman' Made Actors Look Decades Younger


In Martin Scorsese's new film "The Irishman," we are first introduced to Robert De Niro as an old man in a nursing home. But just a few minutes later, he's dropped a good 30 to 40 years, alongside actor Joe Pesci, when they meet up over a broken-down truck at a gas station.


JOE PESCI: (As Russell Bufalino) What's the problem, kid?

ROBERT DE NIRO: (As Frank Sheeran) I don't know. It sounds funny. It stops and starts and loses power.

PESCI: (As Russell Bufalino) Let me see if I can give you a hand.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: It's this latter transformation we want to talk about today of De Niro and Pesci and Al Pacino, too, who plays murdered Teamster boss Jimmy Hoffa in "The Irishman." New technology has developed to de-age these septuagenarian actors on-screen. And we're joined now by the man who headed the team that did it.

Pablo Helman is an Oscar-nominated visual effects supervisor at Industrial Light and Magic, the studio founded by George Lucas. And he joins us now from member station KQED in San Francisco.

Hi, there.

PABLO HELMAN: Hi. How are you?

GARCIA-NAVARRO: I'm great. This is an extraordinary bit of technology. And, you know, we've gotten so used to seeing actors made younger on-screen, but with makeup and CGI. Can you explain for the layperson what you did?

HELMAN: Main reason - the main difference is that we did not use any markers on the actors' face.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Those are, like, the CGI green dots - right? - the markers.

HELMAN: Yeah, yeah, something like that. And that was explicit request from Bob De Niro and Marty Scorsese. So he emailed me the script overnight. And overnight, I read it because when Marty sends you a script, you read it right away.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Yeah, you read it right away.

HELMAN: Right away.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: You don't just leave it in your inbox (laughter).

HELMAN: No. And so I read it overnight. And in the morning, I said, you know, I'm in. It was "'The Irishman." And he said, you know, be careful what you wish for because Bob De Niro is not going to want to wear any markers on his face, helmet cam with little cameras in front of him. And...

GARCIA-NAVARRO: And this is how usually this is done - right? - with CGI.

HELMAN: Right. Yeah. If you think about four years ago, everybody was doing that and - including myself.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: And the way it works is with cameras.

HELMAN: Yes. We had to develop the software, first of all. If you don't have markers in your face, then we need to work with whatever is left. And whatever is left is basically lighting and textures of the actor who is in front of the camera. Now, to do that, we came up with a rig that has three cameras. And then the software takes a look at all that information and makes sense out of that. And it creates a 3D feature of whatever is in front of them.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: I mean, there are limits to the technology, though, right? The younger Robert De Niro of "The Irishman" does not look like the younger De Niro of, say, "Goodfellas." His face is wider.

HELMAN: Right. Well, I think that it has a lot to do with the design of the characters. You see, Marty Scorsese didn't want to rewind 30 years and see Jimmy Conway from "Goodfellas," right? He wanted to design a character that was a younger version of Frank Sheeran. And when you see him first on the screen, you don't say, oh, wow, he doesn't look like "Deer Hunter" - you know what I mean...


HELMAN: ...Or "Taxi Driver." He looks like the character that he's being portray, Frank Sheeran.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Obviously, when you're trying a new technology and you're doing it on such a marquee film, I mean, it must've been pretty nerve-wracking. I mean, were you sure it was going to work?

HELMAN: Yes, I...

GARCIA-NAVARRO: (Laughter) Yes.

HELMAN: I kind of did. Well, the thing about it is I've been in Ireland for 24 years and been doing visual effects for 30. And I remember talking to - I don't know if you know Dennis Muren, but he has eight Oscars in visual effects. And his office is right next to mine in Ireland. And he's been a great mentor. And so I brought the script to him. And I said, look at what we got, you know, just making Robert De Niro and Al Pacino and Joe Pesci, you know, 30 years younger and for 3 1/2 hours. And he says, don't do it.


HELMAN: And so I say, well, do you remember when you did "Jurassic Park?" And then he just got quiet and said, you're right; we should do this.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: (Laughter) What was the hardest thing?

HELMAN: Well, I mean, we knew that the whole purpose of doing this was to get the technology away from the actors - natural thing, no markers. If you don't have markers, then every one of your pores and your imperfections and your, you know, skin becomes a marker. So now all of a sudden, you have thousands of markers. So now you start getting things that you couldn't get before, like mouth - every time we, say, finding a consonant, everything reverberates. And you can't really tell what it is. But if you don't have it, you do feel it.

The differences between, you know, a smile and a wince is very, very small. And how Bob De Niro goes from a smile into the frown is what makes him who he is. So the behavior or likeness of him has to be caught by the computer, or else he doesn't look like himself.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: And what you're describing is a technology that's only going to get better and better, which I think brings up some ethical issues because as the technology gets more seamless and commonplace and those likenesses that you've just described get more subtle, could we end up doing away with the actual actor altogether? I mean, could it come to a point where a studio owns the digital image of an actor and just uses that instead of the real thing?

HELMAN: I don't think so 'cause the performance has to come from somewhere, and that has to be the actor. And so just think about what it'll take for a computer to do what Robert De Niro does. You need to train the computer - right? - to do those kinds of things. And basically, if you think about the behavior or likeness of somebody, how do you become yourself? You become yourself by living, you know, by having a bunch of experiences. And then you also have all the connections that are made in your face, the way you smile, all the cultural things that you live.

So if you want a computer to act like Robert De Niro, you need to train the computer like Robert De Niro. And then you spend a lifetime, you know, basically training the computer. And for that, you might as well just use Robert De Niro, you know?

GARCIA-NAVARRO: But will now Robert De Niro would be living forever? - because I also read a criticism that said if actors are made forever young, it just keeps the studios using their bankable stars over and over again and perhaps sort of impeding the way for the next Robert De Niro.

HELMAN: I think you have to be careful what you could do because just because you could, that doesn't mean that you should do it, number one. The other thing about it is that you have to be careful about why you're doing what you're doing and whether you're servicing the story or not. And now I understand that the actors need this truth, you know, that they're all looking for. And I'm more than willing to give it to them because - you know why? Because that means that the performances are going to be great.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Visual effects artist Pablo Helman, thank you so much.

HELMAN: Thank you, Lulu.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.