‘The Irishman’ DP Shares How He Mixed Media to Define the Movie’s Different Eras

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The passage of time in Martin Scorsese’s “The Irishman” both metaphorically and literally frames the story of Frank Sheeran (Robert De Niro) and his rise through the Philadelphia Mafia to become friends with union boss Jimmy Hoffa (Al Pacino) — and eventually his murderer.

Based on Sheeran’s memoir, “I Heard You Paint Houses,” which spans more than a half-century, cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto set out to tell the story using a changing look that reflected the passage of time.

“With the characters, you see it physically, and in the costumes and set design,” says Prieto, who shot “The Wolf of Wall Street,” “The Audition” and “Silence” for Scorsese; the latter film earned the DP his second Oscar nom (his first was for Ang Lee’s 2006 “Brokeback Mountain”). Prieto aimed to show time passing as a feeling.  “In prep, [Scorsese] and I talked about memory, about home movies and family photographs,” he says. “From those discussions, I started researching how [we remember] the 1950s, ’60s and so on.”

For the 108-day shoot, prep was 90 days. That sounds luxurious, but with the finished movie running three and a half hours, the schedule was packed, says Prieto. The shoot had to accommodate many shifts in time and place, as well as sets of people, and accommodate the de-aging-effects technology developed by VFX supervisor Pablo Helman and his team at Industrial Light & Magic.

Prieto created four look-up tables in collaboration with Matt Tomlinson at Harbor Picture Co. and Philippe Panzini at Codex to help suggest the feeling of morphing time: Kodachrome for the 1950s, Ektachrome for the 1960s, ENR “light” for the first half of the 1970s and full ENR for the period after Hoffa’s death in 1975 until 2000. (ENR is a lab process that reduces color saturation and adds contrast, which the look-up tables emulated. Since Kodachrome and Ektachrome are quite colorful, the effect is a reduction of color as the decades go by.) “I went with less and less color as we progress with [Frank], because later in life there is disillusionment, feelings of regret.” 

Prieto shot every scene that didn’t require de-aging VFX with Kodak 5219 and 5207 stock on Arricam LT and ST cameras. For the VFX scenes, there was a complicated three-camera/lens rig, with a RED Helium as the main camera in the center of the affectionately nicknamed Three-Headed Monster and a “witness” camera on either side.

“The [look-up tables] were applied for dailies and the final [digital intermediate output] for both the film negative shots and the RED Helium shots,” says Prieto. “The LUTs were finessed by mapping the colors to match for film and digital formats. During prep, we did extensive testing to match the look of the film and digital dailies by creating LUTs that gave me the same color reproduction for film and digital capture.”

The goal for the de-aging technology, which allowed De Niro and Pacino to play their characters over a span of 50 years without prosthetics or subbing in younger actors, was for the tech to never hinder
Prieto’s work in camera. Even four years ago, when discussions first began for “The Irishman,” Scorsese made it clear that his actors were never going to wear helmets or other facial gear.

“[Scorsese] is very specific about his cinematic language,” says Prieto. “I didn’t want to affect any of his decisions because of the technology, so I worked closely with Pablo [Helman] and his team to make sure our rig was lightweight enough that [the camera operator] could use any kind of remote head or Steadicam setup.”

The ILM de-aging software captured the performances on set with the Three-Headed Monster, then ran them through a full CG makeover to create younger versions of the actors. Scorsese wanted to shoot most, if not all, of the dialogue scenes with as many as three cameras simultaneously, which meant that the DP had nine cameras on some scenes. 

Through it all, Prieto stuck to his goal of never wanting the viewer to notice what was going on. “I want them to feel something is different,” he says. “That is
my work.”