Turning back time for ‘The Irishman’ cast: De-ageing technology in action

Even if you are a fan of the new British period drama TV series, you couldn’t miss a chance to enjoy the phenomenal performances of the great actors cast of The Irishman by Netflix.

The Irishman is a movie that has become legendary due to the unique de-aging technology, which was developed specially for this piece of cinematic art. The film producer and director Martin Scorsese had the idea of the movie in the 1980s, yet his ideas were to be brought to life only 30 years later. The trigger to starting work on the film became a book by Charles Brant. It got to the hands of Robert De Niro, who became one of The Irishman’s producers and actors. So in 2007, the actual work on the movie started.


The Irishman tells the story of a World War II veteran Frank Sheeran who becomes a hitman for the Philadelphia Mafia and his union ties with Russel Bufalino (crime boss) and Jimmy Hoffa – Teamsters leader. By the way, if you are interested in dramas set in WW2, find some best ones here.


A De-Aging Technology. The Reasons for Creating Video Special Effects

The only trouble with the movie was that Martin Scorsese saw Robert De Niro as Frank Sheeran, Al Pacino as Jimmy Hoffa, and Joe Pesci as Russel Bufalino. By the time the work on the film has started, all the actors were over 70 years old. Yet, the movie was supposed to show them in different periods of their lives. With Frank Sheeran, it was ranging from the age of 28 to over 80. So the problem was to make the characters look younger. 

The film was based on a true story, so the characters had to resemble the actual people whose story was told in The Irishman. Although some criticized Scorsese for the movie not being authentic to the actual story, the producer said that he had concentrated on the truth of their relationships, not the story itself. 

The visual effects supervisor Pablo Helman, who worked on The Irishman, could use motion-tracking markers to bring the idea to life. But Martin Scorsese said that none of the actors was going to wear any headgear or other intrusive technology. There should be only live acting of the actors and theatrical light on set.


The task seemed to be impossible to complete, but this didn’t stop Helman and his team. The ILM specialists started working on the completely new technology that would allow changing the appearance of the actors without all those small cameras and other stuff usually used for creating computer-generated imagery.

Another task set by Scorsese was to make the characters look not like the younger versions of De Niro, Pesci, and Pacino but their characters’. That didn’t allow Helman to match the actors’ features to what they used to be, using their previous works. The visual effects supervisor and his team spent two years analyzing how Sheeran, Hoffa, and Bufalino might have looked when they were younger. 


How Was the Solution Found?

The VFX software works better if there are no shadows in the shots. This was impossible to bring into life with the theatrical light being used on set. So they had to think about how they could light up the areas in shadows without affecting the lights on set. The team found the way out – the infrared light. They decided to flood the set with infrared light that is not visible for the human eye but is visible for the software. 

They developed a custom three-camera rig, which comprised two infrared witness cameras (ARRI Alexa) and the director camera (RED Helium). This allowed them to get all the needed information from every angle without applying any motion tracking markers.

Helman tested the technology with Robert De Niro in 2015 by recreating a scene from Goodfellas. The test proved it worked.


A De-Aging Technology in Action

However, working out the technology was only the first step to the actual de-aging of the actors cast. The preparatory period as well as the video editing became a harsh burden for the visual effects team. They had to record a wide range of facial movements of each actor to be able to create 3D models. They were to be applied in the post-production period to extract the on-set performances of the actors. The visual effects team applied the Flux video software for analyzing all the video material they had. It was supposed to create renderable models, which were to be compared to those made in the preparatory period. The next step was the software re-targeting of the on-set performances on the de-aged models of the cast. So on the screen, the viewers see the 3D renders of the actors’ actual faces with all the facial performances preserved.

They created the artificial intelligence software FaceFinder. With its help, the visual effects team managed to create a kind of library, which contained images and videos of the three actors at the ages they were supposed to look like in the movie. The library was broken down into different sections. Each of them comprised different components, like lips under different lighting scenarios, angles, and at different actor’s ages. The AI technology helped the team find matches that would be the closest to the facial expression of the actor on set. This allowed making the de-aged shot realistic. Much work had been done, but the game was definitely worth the candles, as we have all seen in the movie.


In fact, there was almost no involvement in acting, just changes in the appearance to make the actors look younger. Neither keyframes nor animation was added. “We did not change a blink…” says Pablo Helman in his interview for BBC news.

The de-aging technology was applied not only to the actors’ faces but also to their bodies and especially their hands. The latter can be very distinct markers of the person’s age, which had to be changed to make Frank Sheeran, Russel Bufalino, and Jimmy Hoffa look younger than the actors performing their roles.

The three-plus-hour-long movie The Irishman contains 1750 shots made using a VFX de-aging technology. That’s a huge piece of work, which gave way to developing much more advanced technologies in film production. The Irishman became only the first step in a completely new approach to visual effects in the video. 


Is De-Aging Technology Available for Non-Professional Video Editors?

No matter how seducing it may sound to look 20 years younger in your family video, the de-aging technology is still unavailable for an average video editing software user. It requires not only special software but also equipment. Still, you can do some other edits to your video to get a stunning final cut. Just use quality video editing software, like Movavi

We’ll be looking forward to the times when de-aging technology will be available to an average user, and we’ll all be able to turn back time for ourselves, at least in our videos.