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The CGI in 'The Irishman' could re-define cinema

You can now stream Martin Scorsese's The Irishman on Netflix. The three and a half-hour film stars Scorsese favorites Al Pacino, Joe Pesci, and Robert De Niro in a mob tale that spans much of mid century American history. Pacino plays famous union leader Jimmy Hoffa, Pesci is mobster Russell Bufalino, and De Niro delivered an Oscar worthy performance as hitman Frank Sheeran. The film is based on the book I Heard You Paint Houses, which follows Sheeran’s life. The film has been called a masterful crime epic, on par with Scorsese's best work.

But none of those details might be what you first notice about the film. Rather, it might be that the cast of the film has been made to look dramatically younger than they actually are thanks to CGI. Scorsese was initially told to use younger actors for those roles, but he balked at the idea. Instead, he got Netflix to foot the bill for the cutting edge de-aging technology that brought Pacino, 79, and De Niro, 76, back into relative youth.

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“CGI is really an evolution of make-up, you accept certain norms in make-up, you know he’s not that old, she’s not that young, you accept the illusion,” Scorsese said during a press conference at BFI London Film Festival. “Having the backing of a company that says you will have no interference, the trade-off is it streams with theatrical distribution prior to that, I thought that is the chance we take.”

For a man who has taken a staunch opposition to the Marvel films, it seems surprising for Scorsese to use such advance technology — or to let Netflix stream the film at all. But Scorsese views the technology he used for The Irishman as an evolution of cinema, not the bastardization of it. (And the Netflix deal was a means to an end — they ultimately delivered $140 million to back the film.)

“The new technology is bringing things that are unimaginable and not only is it something extraordinarily good for narrative films, but it opens up the original conception of what a film is and how it is to be seen has now changed so radically,” Scorsese said.

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De Niro himself was fascinated with the CGI that made him look young again, and credited his enthusiasm for the technology to Pablo Helman, the visual effects supervisor for The Irishman, who De Niro said “wanted to make it state of the art, the best it could be.”

“I am just happy we are at the beginning stages of it being explored and God knows where we will go,” De Niro said about the CGI.

By the end of the Scorsese’s epic, it’s certainly not the CGI that the audience was left thinking about. It's a narrative that is at times incredibly funny, and other times morose, exploring the nation's history — criminal and political — with a flare on Scorsese could pull off. As the closing notes begin to play, it barely registers that you’ve watched De Niro age from a middle-age to a close to the end of his life. Everything that happens over the course of the film feels more significant.