Is this the real life? Is this just VFX?

As technology offers the chance to change people’s ages, transform black-and-white footage into colour, and bring actors back from the dead, we explore how this is shaping our perception of history and what it means for actors’ futures

Had The Irishman been produced when Martin Scorsese and Robert De Niro first started developing it back in 2007, it would have looked markedly different. At the centre of the film’s hype has been both the all-star trifecta of De Niro, Al Pacino and Joe Pesci, and an ambitious proposition: to use CGI to digitally ‘de-age’ the characters throughout the film’s fluctuating timeline as it tours through the life of ­hitman Frank Sheeran.

Making stars look younger on-screen is nothing new – image manipulation, prosthetics, and good old make-up have been tampering with time for years. ­Rather than use motion capture, however, the team working on The Irishman instead developed a new rig including ‘witness’ infrared cameras designed to give a better trans­lation into 3D. The CGI was informed by real material filmed throughout each ­actor’s career, which was pieced together to create a younger version of the characters, rather than the actors.

“Scorsese’s design of the characters was based on the fact that he didn’t want to rewind 30 years and find Jimmy Conway from Goodfellas,” explains Pablo Helman, visual effects supervisor at ILM, the studio behind the de-ageing effects. “The director is creating a younger version of Frank Sheeran, who was 6ft 4in tall and weighed 240lbs. So, his face is wider and overall he has a heavier presence.” Likewise, Pesci’s character, Russell Bufalino, is depicted as a thin 53-year-old, rather than the Pesci we see in Home Alone, who was in his 50s at the time.

Top: Still from The Irishman; Above: A before and after comparison of the digitally de-ageing technique used on Joe Pesci. Image courtesy of ILM

“Scorsese’s design also took into account that these characters have had a ‘difficult’ life. Basically, they were damaged goods,” Helman adds. “[He] is creating characters; it’s the same thing he would do if he had used an approach based on physical make-up.”


Though The Irishman is loosely based on true events – real people, at least – it is detached enough that the team could construct their own vision for each character. Yet other films tackling real events have a duty to avoid taking too many artistic liberties. When Peter Jackson’s poignant First World War film They Shall Not Grow Old was released in 2018, it met with universal acclaim for having brought the people and events along the Western Front a century prior back into vivid colour.