DP Rodrigo Prieto turned to photography to imbue ‘The Irishman’ with a sense of memory [EXCLUSIVE VIDEO INTERVIEW]

Martin Scorsese had been wanting to make “The Irishman” for 12 years, and Rodrigo Prieto is happy it took that long.

“I hear that the whole project had been gestating for a long time, but I wasn’t aware of that, but I’m grateful that it did take a long time because then I was around when it finally came together,” the DP quipped at Gold Derby’s Meet the Experts: Cinematography panel, moderated by this writer (watch above). “We did ‘Silence’ and actually it was when we finished ‘Silence’ that I started hearing about ‘The Irishman,’ and there was no script for me to read, so I read the book and loved it. So that’s where I started imagining the movie, through the book.”

Based on the nonfiction book “I Heard You Paint Houses,” the sprawling epic follows Frank “The Irishman” Sheeran (Robert De Niro), who becomes a hitman after getting involved with mob boss Russell Bufalino (Joe Pesci) and Teamster honcho Jimmy Hoffa (Al Pacino). The three-and-a-half-hour film covers half a century, from the ’50s to the early ’00s, through the framing device of octogenarian Frank recounting his life story from a nursing home.

To evoke the passage of time, Scorsese and Prieto, who’s lensed Scorsese’s last three films (“The Wolf of Wall Street” being the other), zeroed in one thing. “One of the first things Scorsese and I talked about was memory and how to portray that. He mentioned the feeling of home movies, but he did not want a handheld, grainy style. So how do you show that if you don’t do that part of it?” Prieto shared. “I came up with the idea parallel to home movies, which is amateur photography. So I thought maybe we could emulate the color of the old emulsions that people used to use in their home photography.”

SEE ‘The Irishman’ is a leading Oscar contender across the board

The two-time Oscar nominee researched Kodachrome and Ektachrome, two popular photography films back in the day, and decided to apply the former to the ‘50s scenes and the latter to the ‘60s. “It’s not that different. When you see it side-by-side of the same image, you realize, ‘Oh, so these are the characteristics.’ But when you see the movie, you’re not like, ‘Oh, it’s Ektachrome, of course it’s the ‘60s!’” Prieto joked. “People don’t know that, but there is that feeling, in my mind, of that memory, of the saturated colors of Kodachrome and cyan blacks of Ektachrome.”

For the ’70s and beyond, Prieto employed a processing method called ENR, during which the print is not bleached, creating a “very contrast-y and desaturated image.” He enhanced it after — spoiler alert — Hoffa’s death, an obviously major turning point in the film that also plays into Frank’s elegiac, regretful reflections. “For me, that’s the loss of color and hope, and [Frank] has all these feelings of what this was all about and the guilt and all that,” Prieto said. “That, to me, was the color goes away. That’s why I proposed that to Scorsese and he really liked it.”

The other major aspect of the film is, of course, the much-ballyhooed de-aging of its stars. Scorsese did not want the actors to wear the usual CGI helmets or facial markers, and new technology by ILM made it possible to eschew those practices. But it also meant shooting on digital with a three-camera setup to capture every nook and cranny of the stars’ faces.

“I tested different digital cameras with the looks of Ektachrome and Kodachrome because most of the de-aging is in that era, so I had to be sure the camera I picked could map the colors to match the film negative,” Prieto explained. “So I found that the RED Helium was the one that matched best in terms of the color, so that’s why I picked that camera for the central one, and we used some Alexas for the sides. The whole point of it was to get the information of the volume of their faces without tracking marks. That was very important to Scorsese … so the three cameras from each angle allowed for that.”

Video by David Janove.

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