With Netflix's The Irishman, Robert De Niro and Al Pacino become latest Hollywood stars to get de-aging treatment

FP Staff

Apr 18, 2018 17:08:42 IST

Johnny Depp is 54 years old but he didn't look a day over 26 in 2017's Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales — at least for a few moments. However, there was no plastic surgeon involved, heavy makeup or archival footage used to take the actor back to his boyish Cry Baby face. It was all post-production visual effects.

After a decade of refining the process since Brad Pitt ran the gamut of time in The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, it has become commonplace in major Hollywood movies. Much like Depp, Robert Downey Jr. (in Captain America: Civil War), Michael Douglas (in Ant-Man), Kurt Russell (in Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2) and scores of others have gotten digital facelifts to play younger versions of themselves over the years. With Netflix's highly anticipated mob drama The Irishman, legendary actors Robert De Niro and Al Pacino have become the latest mega-stars to get the drastic de-aging treatment on screen.

With Netflixs The Irishman, Robert De Niro and Al Pacino become latest Hollywood stars to get de-aging treatment

Lola Visual Effects first captured a performance from Johnny Depp and then manipulated it in Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales. It went through a number of iterations, over the course of six months, to arrive at the perfect age. The final shots, of which there are about 20-25, took about 15 artists a year of work. (Disney via AP)

The Irishman, which is already over budget, will use digital de-aging to make the two actors look younger as they square off with each other in flashbacks.

Until now, despite all the VFX advancements, the effects of digital de-aging have been easily discernible, be it with Arnold Schwarzenegger in Terminator Genisys or Robert Downey Jr. in Captain America: Civil War.

In an article on Indiewire, the Oscar-winning VFX supervisor Rob Legato — who was behind such visual spectacles like The Jungle Book and Hugo — said, “The time is definitely ripe to make de-aging or an older actor playing a younger one quite possible and almost undetectable to the audience. As with most things, while the technique and technology have come of age, the taste factor and choosing the right method of acquiring the underlying performance (and the performance itself) separates its believability and effectiveness.”

And it's understandable in the case of The Irishman. If you’re a fan of Martin Scorsese-directed mob movies, you might want to sit down before you read the rest of the cast that the Goodfellas director has put together for his first Netflix film: De Niro and Pacino, who first shared a scene together in 1995’s Heat, will be joined by Joe Pesci, Harvey Keitel, Bobby Cannavale and Anna Paquin. The Irishman tells the true story of mobster Frank “The Irishman” Sheeran, who was allegedly involved in the death of mob boss Jimmy Hoffa.

In Ang Lee's upcoming directorial Gemini Man, Will Smith will join the ranks. He plays an aging assassin fighting his own clone who is 25 years younger than him and at the peak of his abilities. Smith had to undergo the de-aging process, in order to portray his younger self in the film.

The question remains: Why can't studios just have younger actors take on these roles?

Robert De Niro in Taxi Driver (1976); Will Smith in Independence Day (1996)

Robert De Niro in Taxi Driver (1976); Will Smith in Independence Day (1996)

The answer is simply because they have the technology and money to indulge themselves. In the old days, a lucky unknown lookalike (or look enough alike) could have scored the part of young Jack Sparrow or Tony Stark or Jimmy Hoffa. Now, if the film has the budget, the stars get to have it both ways — and audiences get a nostalgic flashback. And as Bill Desowitz puts it, digital de-aging helps "maintain the strong emotional connections that we have to these legendary actors."

The practice obviously has its critics. New York Magazine critic David Edelstein wrote that the “recreations” are “far more disturbing in their real-world implications than the fictional destruction of planets and galaxies.”

New York Times critic Manohla Dargis said, “It makes you contemplate whether this Benjamin Button-style age-reversing is going to become an increasingly standard (and creepy) industry practice,” before adding, "It’s a distraction that shows a filmmaker making a bad decision mostly, it seems, because he can afford to."

Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales co-director Espen Sandberg isn’t as dark about it. “For me it’s just another storytelling tool and I think it’s really cool,” he said.

For Oscar-winning VFX supervisor Bill Westenhofer (Life of Pi, Wonder Woman) — who's currently working on Gemini Man — though, it's all about "pushing the envelope" of what is possible.

So, whether you like it or not, digital de-aging is here to stay.

With inputs from AP

Updated Date: Apr 18, 2018 17:08:42 IST