Given the decades-spanning narrative of “The Irishman,” visual effects supervisor Pablo Helman had an unenviable task: turn back the clock for septuagenarians Robert De Niro, Al Pacino and Joe Pesci. In fact, when Martin Scorsese told Helman what he wanted him to do, he admits his first thought was, “Boy, we’re in trouble.” Watch our exclusive video interview with Helman above.
The Netflix release covers around 50 years, from the 1950s to the 2000s, in telling the story of Frank Sheeran (De Niro) from his beginnings as a lowly truck driver to his career as a mob hit man for Russell Bufalino (Pesci) and his involvement in the disappearance of Teamsters union leader Jimmy Hoffa (Pacino). Visual effects were needed to de-age the actors several decades, while makeup aged them into their characters’ later years.
This was “a very risky move for all of us,” Helman reveals. At the same time, he thought it was “a dream project for visual effects because it’s a movie that is all about performances.” When he pitched it to effects wizard Dennis Muren at Industrial Light and Magic (ILM) he likened it to the groundbreaking CGI in “Jurassic Park” (1993), assuaging Helman’s fears about whether or not it they could pull it off.
Things got more complicated, however, when Scorsese told him none of the effects could hinder an actors performance, which meant he couldn’t use “those marker things that you have in your face,” “a huge helmet cam” or “grey pajamas.” But “the good news about working at ILM is that you’re working with a bunch of people that are very curious, and we’re always pushing the envelope.” So after some head-scratching “we came up with a system to capture the performance based on the lighting and the textures” of the actors’ faces, using an ambitious multi-camera system never before employed.
Helman has competed at the Oscars for his visual effects work in “Star Wars: Episode II – Attack of the Clones” (2002) and “War of the Worlds” (2005) and at the BAFTAs for “Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull” (2008). He won a Visual Effects Society prize for “War of the Worlds” and was also nominated for “Attack of the Clones,” “Jarhead,” “Crystal Skull,” “Battleship” and Scorsese’s “Silence.”
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