'The Irishman' Cinematographer on Visual Storytelling and Scorsese
Rodrigo Prieto is the cinematographer behind the epic The Irishman. Listen to how he and Scorsese let the story inform their visual shooting style.
Who among us is planning on seeing The Irishman in theaters soon?
I was lucky enough to check it out at The Landmark in Los Angeles, and I absolutely loved it. The theatrical experience truly brings out the attention to detail, VFX, and performances. Above all else, the cinematography of this movie is top-tier Scorsese. The visual approach here adds to the story, never detracts from it, and features enough experimentation to not feel like a retread of the director's other gangster epics.
The mind behind the camera is Rodrigo Prieto. He shot Silence and Wolf of Wall Street with Scorsese and also was the DO behind Brokeback Mountain (among others). So how did The Irishman differ from those projects?
It had to do with the story of a killer...
As No Film School's resident "story first" evangelist, I was incredibly excited when I read an interview with Prieto in Variety. His method of analyzing the story and letting the cameras inform that first is special.
You would think that's commonplace in Hollywood, but it's not. Let's look at some of the best quotes from the interview and dissect them after.
Scorsese fans have been awaiting another lush, period crime story – how did you go about creating the look that might achieve this for “The Irishman”?
He didn’t really want to emulate past gangster movies and even his own work – that wasn’t part of the design at all. Really, it was based on the character, Frank Sheeran, and how he sees life and how he works as well. His job is union organizer along with sort of a friend and bodyguard for Jimmy Hoffa.
The design of the camera work is predicated on Frank Sheeran’s ways. He is a very methodical person and he approaches a murder as just part of a job. He got desensitized to killing in World War II, where he saw many, many days of combat and had to kill prisoners of war.
While it may seem straightforward, it actually explains the plodding nature of the film. The shots and camera movement are methodical, like the protagonist. Seeing the cinematography in sync with the character development really shows how this film fires on all cylinders.
So the mentality of the main character determines the point of view for the key scenes with him?
For him, it was just -- you get an order, go and do it. So the camera behaves very simply. We didn’t do any spectacular angles or movements when a killing is happening. So the camera pans with him approaching a person, maybe he kills, maybe it pans back. Or sometimes the camera just sat there, static. It even extends to the cars. All the cars, we show them in perfect profile. Filming in a dry, simple, methodical way.
But it’s not really that simple – it’s actually more complicated. When you shoot a profile of a car, it has to be a perfect profile so it’s really not that simple.
There are other moments, which aren’t related to Frank Sheeran, maybe the deposition of Jimmy Hoffa, where the camera moves around, swoops down toward Robert Kennedy.
It's impressive to hear them talk about camera movement choices and how it was used when Frank kills. It was nice that there was no format for it, so you couldn't predict the violence. It really was about the mood of the character even more so than the scene.
I don't want to get into spoilers, but there are a lot of surprising moments in this film. When you shot list your movies or TV shows, think about character. Get inside their heads.
See how you can move the audience by moving with the people in the scene. And what about creating looks within the film?
Prieto has advice for that, too.
How did you go about creating distinct looks for the different eras of “The Irishman”?
That’s a very important part of it – what the passing of time means. I also wanted to be able to give each decade a different feel. And Scorsese wanted this home movie feel for the early period but he didn’t want this jittery, handheld look. I was thinking it had to be film but with these cameras with the big rigs, and changing the magazines, it wouldn’t have worked. So this is where the digitalization came in. We decided we had to do it digital for the scenes that required de-aging.
I started researching still photography of the different eras. Since we can’t make it Super 8 or grainy or 16mm, I thought how about the memory that we all have of our parents’ photos, our own photos. I was born in the 60s and grew up in the 70s. I have a memory of how that looked.
So I ended up using an emulation of Kodachrome for the 50s and then Ektachrome for the 60s. Then from the 70s and beyond I shifted away from still photography and I thought I’d like the color to start to drain away. So I went with an emulation of ENR, which is a bleach process in printing developed by Technicolor Rome for Vittorio Storaro. It added contrast and took color away.
This is the second interview this week where a cinematographer referenced the great Storaro. We saw Lawrence Sher do it in Joker as well.
It's funny to hear how the de-aging process kind of forced their hand to use digital over film. Still, to get the look they wanted, so much had to be done in post. They basically emulated a filmic look, but distilled their look based on every era.
We want our shots to be evocative of a time, and our best resources are inside of us. Because if we shoot with memory, then we can find people who share those thoughts and draw them in as well.
A list of every cinema that will screen The Irishman
Still want to see The Irishman in theaters? Check out this video of a list of all the places still showing it.
The Irishman Technical Specs
Arri Alexa Mini, Zeiss Master Prime and Cooke Panchro/i Classics Lenses
Arricam LT, Zeiss Master Prime and Cooke Panchro/i Classics Lenses
35 mm (Kodak Vision3 250D 5207, Vision3 200T 5213, Vision3 500T 5219)
Redcode RAW (8K)
ARRIRAW (3.4K) (source format)
Digital Intermediate (4K) (master format)
Dolby Vision (source format)
Redcode RAW (8K) (source format)
Super 35 (source format)
Printed Film Format:
35 mm (Kodak Vision 2383)
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