Martin Scorsese’s “The Irishman” premiered to universal critical acclaim at the New York Film Festival, and its use of de-aging visual effects has led many in the industry to question whether or not the film will be a turning point. The film utilizes groundbreaking de-aging VFX to allow actors Robert De Niro, Joe Pesci, and Al Pacino to play the same characters across decades. In some cases, the VFX is applied to make the 76-year-old De Niro appear in his 40s. The effectiveness of the “The Irishman” VFX has split critics, but Scorsese tells Sight & Sound magazine that de-aging effects could eventually replace more traditional forms of Hollywood makeup and prosthetic work.
For Scorsese, de-aging VFX are trying to achieve the same goal as makeup in that both are illusions. “There’s the convention in cinema of the use of make-up,” he told Sight & Sound. “If you look at an older film, there was an acceptance by the audience where the hair is powdered, or you know that that’s make-up and that the moustache is fake. But you went with the illusion.”
“I always remember the great Dick Smith, and the old-age make-up he made for [Dustin Hoffman’s 121-year-old character in] ‘Little Big Man.’ Or the make-up in ‘The Elephant Man,'” Scorsese added. “Where’s the heart? Where’s the performance? It’s there, because John Hurt was great. But I know that’s makeup, so as a viewer I go with the illusion. I give you something back so I can get something from the world that you’re trying to depict for me and the characters.”
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Scorsese views de-aging VFX as “another level” of the illusion makeup provides, one that “might be superior in the long run.” Why? The director argues that de-aging VFX give the filmmaker and the actor better control over the performance than makeup and prosthetics might. For instance, de-aging VFX don’t run the risk of limiting facial expressions in the way that using facial prosthetics on set might.
“It’s really about keeping that character, keeping those emotions and their faces alive,” Scorsese said of the VFX. “In one scene where De Niro’s younger, for example, and he’s talking to some people and he has to convey a kind of vulnerability and a haplessness — making him younger, a couple of times we noticed, made him look like he was threatening them. Now why’s that? The line around the mouth. So, let’s go into the mouth, work on that.”
“The Irishman” team was able to recreate the tiniest facial movement and expression using VFX based on the real performance the actor gave on set. As Scorsese explained, “I’m going for what the performance is. Ultimately, we felt that what we regained through the youthification process was the vulnerability in that moment.”
Scorsese said that de-aging VFX are about “recreating the performance” of the actor, not replacing it or limiting it. By not relying entirely on makeup and prosthetics on set, the actors’ faces have the freedom to move naturally without any obstruction. The de-aging VFX can then be used to recreate those natural movements only on faces that appear decades younger.
When asked if “The Irishman” VFX will impact the future of moviemaking, Scorsese said, “You may find that now that’s something that is doable: actors playing themselves younger – or older. This is a first time and there is an element of cost. But I think the more it’s used, the more the cost will become reasonable.”
Netflix is opening “The Irishman” in select theaters November 1 before a streaming debut on November 27.