The evolution of de-aging VFX as seen in The Irishman

The Irishman stars some of the greatest actors of our time. The problem? They are all in their 70’s. Introducing Flux – a revolution in visual FX
The Irishman still
The Irishman is a story about the life of mafioso Frank Sheeran. Image: IMDb

Visual FX

CGI and Special FX are now common in movies. Think green screens in films such as Avatar, Jurassic Park and Lord of the Rings.

To create visual FX, actors often wear markers to track their movements. These are then edited by an animator or special FX team. Other options include prosthetics and make-up.

Take a look at the rig Will Smith (aged 51) wore in Gemini Man to make him look 23 years old. This technology can create pretty much any effect. The problem for iconic director Martin Scorsese was that this is all about effects, and not about acting.

Will Smith in Gemini Man
In Gemini Man, Will Smith wore facial markers and a head rig. Image: ET Canada YouTube

The Irishman

Martin Scorsese’s long-anticipated Netflix movie, The Irishman isn’t really an action film. Yes, it does contain violence as you would expect from a mafia movie. However, this is told from the perspective of Frank Sheeran, who is now an elderly man in a nursing home.

The three stars of the movie are Robert De Niro, Al Pacino and Joe Pesci. They are all aged between 76 and 79 but play versions of themselves as young as in their 20’s. The movie is a retelling of Sheeran’s lifespan and is based on Sheeran’s book ‘I Heard You Paint Houses‘.

The intrusion of VFX

These actors are well-known for being method actors. They immerse themselves into the persona of their character and deliver powerful (and often award-winning) performances.

Scorsese had already had The Irishman script for several years, but could not find a way to make it without reverting to intrusive VFX technology. He felt this would detract from the actor’s performances.

Warning – below video contains language not suitable for children.

Industrial Light and Magic (ILM)

LucasFilm owned ILM is an ‘immersive entertainment studio’. They create the effects for Star Wars, as you might have guessed along with movies like Avengers: Damage Control.

Pablo Helman is a Visual Effects Supervisor at ILM. He met Scorsese on the set of Silence back in 2016.

A dream partnership was borne, with Helman using Flux technology with the ILM team to create startling results. Helman was strictly instructed not to use any VFX gear that would hamper the actors’ faces. He saysMarty told me we could not use markers on the actor’s face—no helmets or little cameras or anything that would get in the middle of the performance.’

Scorses banned keyframe animation enhancements, which means every second of the movie is the actors’ real performances, without computer-generated effects.


Flux stands for facial lux and is a system whereby a three-camera rig is used for filming. This captures the performance from every angle.

Before shooting started ILM spent two years creating catalogues of each actor at every age. They used Flux software to create 3D models of every expression and generated a series of models to recognise each facial muscle movement. This analyses facial characteristics along with shading and lighting.

When each scene had been shot, this was then laid over with the Flux facial modelling. Markers were used to overlay VFX to show the actor as their younger self, without impacting on their expression or persona.

Robert De Niro in The Irishman
De Niro plays his character retelling seven decades of his life. Image: IMDb

Defying age

The results are incredible.

Here we see a 76-year-old actor play himself as a 28-year old, and a 90-year old – convincingly. Without animation, without wearing tonnes of makeup, and without a single computer-generated graphic.

Helman hopes this will be a ‘reference on technology‘ for future productions. Scorsese says it is the ‘first time this has been done for this type of narrative in this type of film‘.

Other applications

Facial recognition is becoming more and more widespread. With mobile phones now tracking users in China using this technology, Facebook has introduced new AI software to screen users.

We know that this can be extremely useful in searching for missing persons as AI is always going to be much faster at identifying a face in a crowd.

Perhaps Flux, with its uncanny ability to accurately ‘de-age’ a person might be applied by creating realistic videos at different ages to help find missing people?

Whether or not it can be applied without extensive mapping is another question. There seems little doubt that the capacity of technology to digitally manipulate faces is expanding rapidly.

The Irishman is not quite your typical gangster film. What it is, is a masterclass in acting, and with the help of ILM, a masterclass in what VFX is capable of.

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