Filed in: Contender Portfolios, Featured, Visual FX

Contender: Visual Effects Supervisor Pablo Helman Irishman

January 10, 2020 | By

In Martin Scorsese’s gangster epic, The Irishman, a key element to the story involved making the principal actors appear younger than their present ages for scenes set in the film’s past. Chief among the film’s main characters are Robert DeNiro as mob hitman Frank Sheeran, Joe Pesci as gangster Russell Bufalino, and Al Pacino as Jimmy Hoffa. With all three stars in their late-70s at the time of production, Scorsese knew in advance that he would have to determine how to portray the characters in their younger years, so he called upon Industrial Light and Magic (ILM) to execute the task using digital ‘de-aging’ techniques.

Starting in 2015, visual effects supervisor Pablo Helman discussed the possibilities with Scorsese and his key team. “They knew that we had to capture the performances, but the [actors] didn’t want to wear helmet cams,” said Helman of the standard by which performance capture is regularly undertaken to translate data into computer imagery. “We figured out a way to capture the performance without helmet cams and markers on the actors’ faces. It took about two years to do. Marty was calling for innovation.”

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Using a three-camera rig, Helman and ILM engineers enacted a system of lighting and shooting the actors in three-dimensional space. “If you don’t have markers, you use as much information as possible,” Helman explained. “Center camera capturing performance and witness cameras left and right; infrared cameras. It allows us to relight the actors so that there are no shadows—no human eye can see the red light. The software takes a look at those three cameras and creates geometry out of all of those. A lot of science goes into what has to be a creative process, a design process.”

Through the course of the 210-minute film, ILM treated 1750 shots, for a total of two-and-a-half hours of visual effects. “We did shots from the beginning, middle and end so that Marty had an idea of where we were going with it,” Helman said of ILM’s efforts to smooth wrinkles, remove weight, and change skin tone. “Then we would come back to those to adjust little by little. Pesci goes from 53-years-old to 65 to 83. Pesci was never that thin in real life at 65. The design required him to be thinner than he had been.”

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Over 500 artists at ILM facilities in San Francisco, Vancouver, and Ireland worked on the film. Four years of technology developed in San Francisco, FLUX software, interpreted the data from the camera rig which was developed with cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto and the Arri camera company in Los Angeles. Specific shots for specific sequences were then populated to ILM’s facilities. “All of the work is very difficult,” said Helman. “You crack one of the shots, you have done the most difficult thing. Three associate supervisors in San Francisco were working with me throughout the whole show. There was a visual effects producer and producer for Netflix [who determined] a straightforward way to divide the work.”

Throughout ILM’s process, Helman visited Scorsese in New York once a month but had conversations with him once a week over satellite transmissions. “We did not have intermediate reviews,” Helman said of collaborating with Scorsese. “We did not show him shots which were not finished. Render the effect, light it, put it in the shot, and show it to him. We would talk about how he felt about the performance, side by side with what we had rendered. This was a subtle performance show.”

Of note, Helman divulged that subtleties in the actors’ facial expressions informed how ILM artists treated their effects shots. “Marty wanted to see performance in the eyes, in the face, and, sometimes taking wrinkles away from the face gives you a different expression,” Helman revealed. “That was something that Marty wanted—these characters had a really rough life; that should be part of what the face shows. It also has to do with the point-of-view that this story is being told from—an 83-year-old man reflecting on his life. We would take a look at those performances and see what they do with their chins, eyebrows. These performers are the cream of the crop in terms of acting.”

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In the post-production period, the filmmakers created two edits of The Irishman: one with visual effects and one without them. “Here I come changing their shots,” Helman quipped. “Marty asked me, ‘What is this going to do to my movie?’ I said, ‘Give context to the story that you are telling, the same way to ask a production designer to put a building in the background.’ The only thing it should do is give the audience a way to connect between ages, so that the audience doesn’t have to re-adjust.”

Back in 2015, when Helman was working on the film Silence with Scorsese in Taiwan, the two began discussing The Irishman, which the director had been trying to make for 10 years. “He’s not scared of a huge challenge,” Helman said of Scorsese. “We decided to do a test with Robert DeNiro with a scene from Goodfellas. We made him look like 40 years de-aged. It took two years [while] we wrote the software. We were working consistently to get the production model worked out and be viable.”

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During principal photography in 2017, Helman was active on set, spanning 117 locations, after which the post-production period commenced. “The way you organize the work is to maximize the artists’ strengths,” said Helman, who has been at ILM for over 20 years. “You give them shots because of what that person learned working on that same kind of shot. Consistencies are very difficult to achieve in visual effects. Towards ľ of the way into the production, things peak the most efficient way. If you are able to be picky about how you divide the work to the artists, you maximize.”

With post-production complete, Helman related that his work was 100% performance-oriented, with critical directives from his director. “Everybody trusts that he has the right instinct to tell a complicated story in an interesting way,” Helman said of Scorsese. “We are all here to comply. There’s no compromise here—having the actors on set connecting with each other, reacting to each other, it was the right way of working. This is the closest I’ve been to art.”

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Now that ILM has developed a system of performance and facial capture new to the industry, other filmmakers will undoubtedly take advantage of the advents in The Irishman. “Hopefully it will change filmmaking,” Helman said. “It took a lot of power to [conceptualize] the camera rig and make it happen for the set. Things are getting smaller and faster—the science part works like a charm. I never lost the faith—I might have misplaced it a couple of times, but I found it back.”

ILM’s Key Visual Effects Team: Leandro Estebecorena – Associate VFX Supervisor/ILM; Stephane Grabli – Facial Performance Capture Supervisor/ILM; Nelson Sepulveda – Associate VFX & Compositing Supervisor/ILM; Ivan Busquets – Associate VFX Supervisor; Mitchell Ferm -VFX Producer/Netflix; Jill Brooks – VFX Producer/ILM

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