The French Engineer Who De-Aged Robert De Niro

French engineer Stéphane Grabli and his team will be in the running for the Oscar for Best Visual Effects on Sunday for their work on the movie The Irishman.
© Netflix

The latest film from Martin Scorsese, produced by Netflix, is a narrative rollercoaster. Via ellipses, flashbacks, and flashforwards, audiences meet gangster Frank Sheeran at different times in his life. But when imagining the role of a young G.I., a truck driver in his prime, and a lonely old man, Scorsese refused to hire different actors. Diluting Robert De Niro’s performance was unthinkable.

Technology exists for altering an actor’s appearance, but the director didn’t want to impede his star cast — De Niro, Al Pacino, Joe Pesci — with bulky digital sensors, helmets, and cameras. This is where Stéphane Grabli and his colleagues at Industrial Light & Magic (ILM), George Lucas’ special effects studio in San Francisco, came in.

“Martin Scorsese didn’t want any distractions on the set,” says the Frenchman, who heads up facial motion capture. “It was up to us to create a 3D model of the actor’s face using the director’s camera.” The solution was a three-camera device, two of which infrared, and a digital optimization software known as Flux. Through successive comparisons and corrections, an initial 3D model is deformed until the artificial image looks the same as the one on camera.

A Database of Facial Expressions

“After capturing the actor’s performance, we can do whatever we like on the computer,” says Grabli. “For each of the actors, we had a facial model in a neutral position and some 100 facial expressions, digitally modified to match different ages. Once we filmed De Niro or Al Pacino at 76, we could then transfer his performance on a digital version of himself at 24.”

Robert De Niro's character, before and after his digital facelift. © Netflix

A first trial took place in 2015. The engineers reproduced a scene from the movie Goodfellas, and Robert De Niro underwent a digital facelift to look like his 1990 character. Scorsese was won over: The Irishman would be the first film to use this technology. (It is currently in use on two other projects.) However, Grabli and his team didn’t invent a time machine. The director wanted to “preserve the actors’ performances,” and signs of aging such as sagging skin and shrunken jawlines were not completely smoothed over. “This is why you won’t see the De Niro from Taxi Driver in the movie!”

Paris-born Grabli, 43, moved to the United States in 2005, and before The Irishman he worked on Star Wars: Episode VII, Captain America: The Winter Soldier, Pacific Rim, and the blockbusters from the Transformers franchise. He developed the dinosaurs’ skin in Jurassic World and the appearance of Governor Tarkin’s skin in Rogue One: A Star Wars Story. This was the perfect way to combine his doctorate in computer graphics with his passion for drawing and graphic novels. “Working for George Lucas’ special effects studio was a childhood dream come true,” he says. “We deliver an illusion; it’s craftmanship!”