The Look Of The Irishman
THE IRISHMAN TECHNICAL SPECS
Arri Alexa Mini, Zeiss Master Prime and Cooke Panchro/i Classics Lenses
Arricam LT, Zeiss Master Prime and Cooke Panchro/i Classics Lenses
35 mm (Kodak Vision3 250D 5207, Vision3 200T 5213, Vision3 500T 5219)
Redcode RAW (8K)
Cooke Panchro/i Classics Lenses
ARRIRAW (3.4K) (source format)
Digital Intermediate (4K) (master format)
Dolby Vision (source format)
Redcode RAW (8K) (source format)
Super 35 (source format)
Printed Film Format:
35 mm (Kodak Vision 2383)
Zeiss Super Speed Lenses
“For me, for the filmmakers I came to love and respect, for my friends who started making movies around the same time that I did, cinema was about revelation — aesthetic, emotional and spiritual revelation. It was about characters — the complexity of people and their contradictory and sometimes paradoxical natures, the way they can hurt one another and love one another and suddenly come face to face with themselves.”
At the end of Shakespeare’s final play “The Tempest”, his protagonist delivers a monologue that many believe to be autobiographical, steeped in references to his works, his characters and his great Globe theater itself. When watching The Irishman, you could be forgiven for thinking that the life-long story of the man who painted houses (a metaphor for mob hits) is the great Martin Scorsese’s love letter and goodbye to his gangster works, the acting greats he helped to establish and to the world of cinema itself.
As I write this, Scorsese is embroiled in controversy over his opinion on superhero movies and the Marvel franchise as theme parks. This couldn’t have served as a better backdrop for his film, a polar opposite, the dichotomy of ‘theme park’. With what one could argue is one of the greatest character studies made by the man whose fingerprint in the filmmaking world is instantly recognizable, Scorsese, at the age of 77, delivers “The Irishman”.
“In the past 20 years, as we all know, the movie business has changed on all fronts. But the most ominous change has happened stealthily and under cover of night: the gradual but steady elimination of risk. Many films today are perfect products manufactured for immediate consumption. Many of them are well made by teams of talented individuals. All the same, they lack something essential to cinema: the unifying vision of an individual artist. Because, of course, the individual artist is the riskiest factor of all.”
What gave The Irishman such a powerful punch when I saw it was that element of risk involved in making it. This is a 3 hour and 25 minute long movie. With it being on Netflix (don’t worry I watched it in Cinemas first, I’m not a Philistine), I could literally start the movie when on a flight from LAX, land in Vancouver and have 25 minutes left to get me through baggage claim! It is a movie that stars Robert De Niro, Joe Pesci and Al Pacino, all in their late 70s and all playing characters from the 1950s (even 40s in De Niro’s case) right through to the early 2000s without the heavy reliance on prosthetics, CGI motion capture suits and helmets etc. A movie that begins and ends (without spoilers) with a somewhat subdued protagonist in a nursing home reflecting on his life, his deeds, his proudest moments and his bitterest regrets.
Scorsese, like his source material, has a career that spans over fifty years from “Who’s That Knocking at My Door” to this, his latest work of art. In this article, although our focus is purely on The Look of The Irishman and the outstanding cinematography of Rodrigo Prieto, we cannot avoid The Look of Scorsese’s vast portfolio of works, his artistic masterpiece-inspired shots and how he has embraced the seismic shift from film to digital.
As previously stated, what was essential to this film was the look, or rather, the ‘looks’ to reflect the passage of time, the different eras of the protagonist Frank Sheeran’s (De Niro) life and career.
Obviously the characters’ physical appearance – the costumes and the set design help us to witness the more-than-half-a-century span of the film, but Rodrigo Prieto discusses how in the 90 days of prep for the 108 day shoot, he and Scorsese wanted to create a look inspired by memory – by home movies and old family photograph. Therefore, in prep, Prieto spent a long time researching alongside color scientists, testing film stock to try to emulate the colors of old home photography.
“I felt it had to be on film, first of all… I was born in the sixties  and my memories of the 1950s are evoked by the slide photography of my parents which was on Kodachrome. I then felt the look of Kodak’s Ektachrome was more appropriate for the 1960s.”
“I came up with a design, because of what Scorsese said of the memory and home-movie aspect, that instead of emulating home movies, maybe we can emulate still photography–amateur still photography. So I did deep research into the Kodachrome and Ektachrome. We developed look-up tables to very closely match the way the emulsions of both track the color.”
With the help of color scientist, Matthew Tomlinson from Harbor Picture Company and Philippe Panzini at Codex, Prieto was able to map the colours shot on 35mm film to digital and create look-up tables (LUTs) to emulate the look of Kodachrome and Ektachrome. This would help suggest the feeling of morphing time from the 1950s to the 1960s and into the 1970s.
With all of these technical nuances coming into play, the element of risk that Scorsese refers to could not be more at play. However, there is also a deeper storytelling element to this with the color helping to convey the changing mindset of De Niro’s Frank Sheeran and his realization that this way of life is not all that it has cracked up to be.
The Irishman begins with the nostalgic saturated colors of the Kodachrome (“the reds pop”) and as the film unfolds and transitions (“to more of a blue-green palette”), gradually more color is taken away from the image to signify the draining of hope.
“The crux of the story happens primarily in the 1970s so I decided to base the look here on a film developing technique first made by Technicolor in Italy. It’s a process in which you skip the bleaching of the print and keep some of the silver on it to create an image with more contrast and less colour.”
To capture this, Prieto returned to a leviathan of cinematography and a technique from Technicolor in Italy called ENR. This is a process that was developed in Technicolor by Vittorio Storaro (Academy Award winning Cinematographer of Apocalypse Now, Reds and The Last Emperor) in which the silver is retained on the print of film for motion pictures, and the result is high contrast and desaturation of color. Prieto started applying levels of this ENR look, to make it look as if the film starts to drain of color in the later decades. “That gives a feel of nostalgia, maybe, for the past, even though the events that are happening are not necessarily the prettiest. So we went with less and less color as we progressed with [Frank], because later in life there is disillusionment, feelings of regret.”
“Then my discussion with [visual effects supervisor] Pablo Helman was, if we shoot just the visual effects scenes on digital and then the rest on film, you have to guarantee to me that ILM (Industrial Light & Magic | VFX and Animation Studio) will help me make them match.”
By adding grain to match the film’s emulsion, ILM could match the film and the digital to make the film seamlessly transition from one era to the next and a classic way of filming to the modern way. In the process, Prieto concluded that RED Helium cameras shooting 8K offered the best means of emulating the analogue look.
This move from Film to Digital is also rather autobiographical of Scorsese’s life – the changing capture format of movies, the changing culture of the film set and, with this now being streamed on Netflix alongside the theatrical run, the changing way that we witness his art.
With all of this intricate science already going on, with a movie that deals with many shifts in time and place and also starring arguably the most prolific actors of the past 40 years, Scorsese and Prieto would also have to employ de-aging technology to show the actors in their youth. This has been widely reported, but the process itself pushes the boundaries of cinema even further than before – a risk and one that you’ll have to decide if it pays off.
As I have already covered, every scene that didn’t require VFX was shot on film; the Arricam LT and ST cameras on Kodak 5219 and 5207 filmstock.
Then THIS (below) mega build camera known on the set of The Irishman as the “Three Headed Monster” also referred to as the Hydra (which I’m sure will have Marvel fans up in arms) is how Scorsese and Prieto shot their the VFX de-aging scenes.
The complicated three-camera rig used a RED Helium (shout out for one of our sponsors) as the main camera in the center and two Arri Alexa Minis as “witness” cameras on either side to feed data into the VFX pipeline. These witness cameras were only shooting in infra-red, to capture the infra-red tracking markers painted on the lead actors faces. “VFX had all this information to compute the position and intensity of light and even the reflectivity off the sets to apply to the facial de-ageing. They didn’t have to rebuild the light for each scene, it was kind of an automatic process.”
All three cameras for each angle had to move in unison and have their shutter’s synchronized. The rig had to be lightweight enough for all the cameras to fit on one head. None of that would have been possible using film cameras with magazines that needed loading and unloading.
Therefore De Niro, Pacino and Pesci could play their characters over a span of 50 years without the mass of prosthetics, without wearing helmets and other facial equipment. In a time when CGI is rife amongst filmmakers – like it or loathe it – Prieto and Scorsese found a ‘happy-medium’ and a much more organic way of shooting their stellar cast without affecting their performances in any way.
Again, VFX supervisor Pablo Helman and his team at Industrial Light & Magic ran the captured footage through a full CG makeover to create younger versions of the actors. To add a further element of risk, Scorsese wanted to shoot most, if not all, of the dialogue scenes with as many as three cameras simultaneously; meaning Prieto, at times, had nine cameras with nine focus pullers on some scenes!
In-keeping with this philosophy, for lenses, Prieto did not want a modern feel, so picked the Cooke Panchro Classics, supplemented by Zeiss High Speeds. He explains: “We chose spherical lenses and a 1.85:1 aspect ratio because the main character approaches his task of “painting houses” (meaning killing people) in a methodical, practical way. It seemed to us that old glass, but without heavy distortion or fancy flares, would be appropriate to represent Sheeran’s perspective.”
With vintage glass and a story spanning such a vital time-frame in American history, Scorsese’s legendary encyclopedic knowledge of film was paramount when developing the look of this modern gangster movie. Returning to movies he had referenced in Goodfellas for example with Lucky Luciano and Public Enemy, Scorsese was able to capture the timeless look of gangster movies that clearly inspired him when his blockbuster Mean Streets took the world by storm.
For Prieto, the focus on photography took him to Garry Winogrand, the American street photographer from the Bronx, NY who captured social issues in the streets of New York .
“Recently, as I’m color-timing the movie I’ve been strangely referencing Garry Winogrand: there’s an exhibit of his Kodachrome work in Brooklyn (he usually is known for his black-and-white photography). I used Winogrand a lot as a reference for The Irishman, more for composition and the use of lenses, the wide angle, that sort of thing.”
Moreover, the movie’s characters – Jimmy Hoffa, Frank Sheeran, Russell Bufalino were all real figures and therefore we still have photographs, recordings, and 16mm film of them. Hoffa especially. So Prieto had a whole smorgasbord of footage to take inspiration from.
At its heart,The Irishman was a character study of Frank Sheeran (De Niro), a union organizer, a hitman and friend and bodyguard for Al Pacino’s Jimmy Hoffa. The design of the camera work is centered on the tall and imposing Frank Sheeran’s ways. He is a very methodical person and he approaches a murder as just part of a job. He was desensitized to killing in World War II, where he saw many days of combat and even executed prisoners of war.
While it may seem straightforward, it actually explains the plodding nature of the film.
Caption: De Niro in the classic Herman Munster shoes to give him Sheeran’s height – try not to imagine two things 1. Any 70s tune and 2. How Pacino isn’t on the verge of snapping an ankle.
The shots and camera movement are also methodical like the protagonist. In The Irishman we are seeing Cinematography as a storytelling element, matching the storyline and the character’s development.
“For Frank, he would get an order and then go and do it. So the camera behaves very simply – no spectacular angles or movements when a killing is happening. So the camera pans with him approaching a person, maybe he kills, maybe it pans back. Or sometimes the camera just sat there, static. It even extends to the cars. All the cars, we show them in perfect profile. Filming in a dry, simple, methodical way. There are other moments, which aren’t related to Frank Sheeran, maybe the deposition of Jimmy Hoffa, where the camera moves around, swoops down toward Robert Kennedy.”
Let’s look at the beginning of the film- The Irishman opens with a tracking shot set to vintage music—which is fairly routine for Scorsese and a stylistic element he adopts often. However, we can clearly sense the footsteps of the camera operator. It’s reminiscent of the smooth, flowing Copacabana take in “Goodfellas,” except this one is kind of clunky, and ends with a close-up of a geriatric and wheelchair-bound Robert De Niro. It’s as if Scorsese is showing us this is the end of the road for the gangsters he has depicted in the past. This is not going to be another Scorsese mob movie.
“As we were shooting that scene in The Irishman, he (Scorsese) already had the music in his mind, and I believe he was actually listening to it as we shot it. It was tricky for the operator – in the sense that when it’s a very linear shot, like the whole beginning down the hallway, it’s very hard to maintain the horizon and all these things. And getting into the second area was technically complicated to get to; we had to build a little ramp.The sort of weaving aspect was not totally purposeful. Scorsese usually complains about Steadicam not being really steady, like a dolly shot, so he’s not a fan, even though he’s used Steadicam classically in some unforgettable shots.”
Scorsese liked the shot so much that he refused to stabilize it. Perhaps this was to give it the feeling of someone walking in to meet with the protagonist whose confession forms the narrative of the movie – something that is heightened when De Niro’s Frank Sheeran talks directly into the camera. This was perhaps inspired by how the book is written: Frank Sheeran confesses the whole thing to the author of the book, Charles Brandt.
Scorsese’s best known trademark is his renowned use of slow motion. Every personal feeling of the characters being exposed and laid bare in 300fps. In The Irishman, the best example is the ultra-slow motion wedding of the daughter of Bill Buffalino immediately after a brutal murder. It is so painfully slow that we cannot help but see the stark contrast between the brutal betrayal of his only close friend and the “happiest day” of someone’s life.
As a viewer, fan of cinema and of Scorsese, The Irishman is a very powerful piece of cinema with its story and its performances both on and off screen. But it is also bittersweet – like Shakespeare’s Tempest was his epilogue, this may be the final gangster epic from the man who defined the genre. It may also be the last time we see De Niro in a role of the great gangster, the last time that he and Joe Pesci grace the screen together and the last time that he and Pacino face off.
And just when we start to think that way, Scorsese leaves the door open.