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Rodrigo Prieto ASC, AMC on shooting "The Irishman"

Cinematographer Prieto teams with director Martin Scorsese for the critically acclaimed epic saga about organized crime from Netflix, using analog and digital cameras supplied by ARRI Rental.

In telling the story of American labor union official and hitman Frank Sheeran, "The Irishman" spans the entire second half of the 20th century and offers a solution to the mystery of who killed Teamster boss Jimmy Hoffa in 1975. Starring Robert De Niro, Joe Pesci and Al Pacino, the film utilizes digital de-aging techniques to make the characters appear younger for the earlier sections. Rodrigo Prieto speaks here about mixing analog and digital capture, using a package of ARRICAM Studio and Lite, RED Helium and ALEXA Mini cameras, with Cooke Panchro Classic and Zeiss T1.3 lenses, all supplied by ARRI Rental.

What were the factors that determined your visual approach?

Scorsese wanted a sense of memory for the movie, and mentioned at some point the idea of the feel of home movies. He didn't want it to actually look like grainy handheld Super 8 or 16 mm, but to have a feeling of time that has passed, and of memory. When I read the script, I started understanding that the issue was the passage of so many decades.

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Martin Scorsese (blue shirt) directing Robert De Niro and Joe Pesci

From the very beginning, I was talking about shooting on film. But our VFX supervisor Pablo Helman needed every scene with the de-aging effect to be shot with digital cameras. This was because Scorsese and the actors did not want tracking marks on faces, or any sort of device that's traditionally used for motion capture. So, Pablo came up with a system of three cameras moving in unison on one rig: the main camera capturing the shot, with a witness camera on each side for VFX. These cameras needed to be perfectly synchronized, and very small, which precluded shooting on film.

This was the three-camera VFX array that Pablo developed along with technicians at ARRI Rental LA?

Yes, and it was a big aspect of preproduction. We called it the three-headed monster and I needed to make sure it would function like a regular camera, and work on any head I would be using--remote heads, or a fluid head like the O'Connor. Also, we had to be able to detach a witness camera from either side and mount it on top, for situations where we were tight up against a wall, or the rig was partly in shot on a two-camera setup. 

The first rig we tested was too heavy, so we had to go back to the drawing board and find the lightest materials and accessories. Our friends at ARRI Rental were really, really helpful. When I told them it needed to be lighter they started exploring what materials to use, how many holes to put in it. At the same time, they had to make sure it was sturdy enough to always take the three cameras, and that they weren't bouncing around. 

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Rodrigo Prieto with the 'three-headed monster,' developed in collaboration with ARRI Rental

What were the witness cameras doing differently to the capture camera?

The main camera was a RED Helium, and the witness cameras were ALEXA Minis, which needed to capture the performance of the actors without any of the lighting information. To do this, they actually had the infrared filter removed. And then, in front of the lens, we had a filter that blocked out all the visible spectrum of light, so those witness cameras only saw infrared. 

Infrared ring lights around the lenses of the witness cameras meant the information they captured was completely flatly lit. I could have shot in total silhouette with visible light, and yet those cameras were still capturing every detail and nuance of the performance. And of course, the main camera did not see the flat infrared lighting, because it had a filter blocking the infrared light. 
 

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Infrared ring lights can be seen around the lenses of the ALEXA Mini witness cameras

But you still wanted to shoot on film for the later sections, where characters didn't need to be de-aged?

Once it was decided that everything with de-aging had to be shot digitally, there was a suggestion to shoot the rest of the movie with digital cameras, as there always is. But I pushed to shoot film for everything else, which was kind of a tricky proposition because then the scenes done with a digital camera had to look like they were done on film.

Shooting the rest of the movie on film actually gave us a benchmark. It was a challenge, but it made it necessary to put the work in to matching the footage and making it seem part of the same movie. I think that actually helped, because the whole thing does have the feeling of motion picture negative.

As well as matching the digital scenes to those shot on film, were there distinct looks that you pursued for the different time periods?

We had a series of lookup tables. I mentioned the sense of memory that Scorsese wanted, well instead of the home movie idea, I thought I could do something akin to a memory of amateur still photography. I started researching still photography emulsions of the different eras and realized that my feeling of the way images looked in the 1950s is very much the colors of Kodachrome. I proposed moving on to the look of Ektachrome for the 1960s, and then two different ENR emulations; one for the 1970s up to Jimmy Hoffa's death, and a more extreme one for after that, by which time we were shooting on film and it was a silver retention process created at Technicolor.

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An example of the digital de-aging effect

Making lookup tables for these historic film processes involved a lot of research and color science. The other thing that was important to me was matching the grain structure of film in the digital sections. So, the look of the movie evolves through the lookup tables for the different eras, and then the whole second half was shot with motion picture negative. The visual arc starts with a colorful look for the excitement of Frank Sheeran's youth, and gradually transitions into a desaturated look, with less contrast and more grain or texture, as he gets older and it becomes a reckoning of a life past.

Do you work with the camera differently when it's digital and when it's film?

When I shoot on film, and I operate the camera, I actually see a much clearer image through the eyepiece. I also connect more to the actors, and I get a better sense of the lighting than if I'm operating a digital camera. Usually, I don't like operating digital cameras, because I'm seeing a bad little monitor that doesn't give me a good representation of what the lighting is doing, or the performance of the actors.

I remember one scene in an airplane, where Sheeran is going to Detroit to kill his friend Hoffa. I'm shooting a close-up and Robert De Niro comes in, he sits down, and he doesn't do anything, he's just sitting there. He doesn't do any expression, he doesn't do any "acting" and yet I saw all the emotion through the eyepiece. I saw his history, this whole friendship he's had with Hoffa, who's almost a mentor to him, and the knowledge that he has to kill him. I saw it all through the eyepiece of the film camera, and that's something I don't know I'd have gotten with digital, even on a monitor.

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How about your approach to camera movement?

Early on in preproduction, Scorsese mentioned that he wanted us to film everything that had to do with Sheeran in a sort of a clockwork, methodical, anonymous way. Sheeran has been desensitized to the meaning of killing a human being through all his days of combat in the Second World War. There's no big drama to it; there's no emotional connection or mystery, it's just a job. So he wanted us to approach every scene with Sheeran in that way. 

Many of the moments where we see him actually killing someone, the camera just stays on one angle, or simply pans. That simplicity was important for Scorsese, with the camera doing repetitive angles and moves. It's this notion of being a killer, but not making a big deal about it. Sheeran and also Russell Bufalino are doing something that's hidden, they approach everything very discretely, so that's the way the camera behaves as well.

Did knowing you had an HDR deliverable change the way you used lighting or monitors on set?

I didn't do anything differently, in terms of HDR or Dolby Vision; I just lit it the way that felt right and our monitors on set were standard. In postproduction the movie was color timed in DCI-P3 for the theatrical version. That was our first pass. It set the benchmark and became the look of the movie that we emulated for all the other deliverables. 

The way Netflix approaches grading for the television version is that you do the HDR version first, and the regular version is derived from that using the Dolby Vision tools. It is actually quite effective; I think it's a good method. 
 

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