Nominations for the 92nd Academy Awards were released this week – and three Argentines are in with a shot of grabbing one of those famous Oscars.
Buenos Aires-born Pablo Gelman, 60, a renowned visual effects supervisor who previously worked on films in the Star Wars franchise, has been nominated for his work on Martin Scorsese's The Irishman, along with his fellow countrymen Leandro Estebecorena and Nelson Sepulveda-Fauser.
The trio will find out on if he will pick up the Oscar for Best Visual Effects next month on Sunday, February 9. The Argentines have been nominated for their work on Scorsese's epic drama as a group of four, with the final member of the group being French specialist Stephane Grabil.
The Irishman, which received 10 nominations, is expected to battle Once Upon a Time in… Hollywood and 1917 for the Best Picture Oscar in February. The film unfolds over decades, with the 76-year-old Robert De Niro and his co-stars playing their characters from their 30s into retirement age, a feat that's made the film one of 2019's most acclaimed movies.
To many in special effects, The Irishman stands out from the field, thanks to its complete avoidance of ‘tracking markers’ — dots painted onto actors faces which allow computers to mathematically replicate facial movements and manipulate them as the director sees fit.
The youthful transitions are the work of Helman, visual effects supervisor at Industrial Light and Magic, who has previously worked on films such as Star Wars: Episode II – Attack of the Clones and War of the Worlds.
Helman says the decision to forgo tracking markers came directly from Scorsese and De Niro.
“He's not going to wear a helmet with little cameras in there,” says Helman. "He's going to want to be in the moment with Joe Pesci and Al Pacino on set, with no markers on him. So, if you're going to capture the performance, how are you going to do that?"
Enter the "three-headed monster," a unique camera rig that has a director camera in the centre and two "witness" cameras on either side shooting infrared footage.
That allowed Helman to eliminate shadows created by on-set lighting. The shadows could potentially interfere with the geometric facial shapes constructed by de-ageing software.
"You're not interrupting the director's thread of thinking," explains Helman. "You're not changing the light on set, but the computer can see in a different spectrum."
Helman and his team then spent two years looking through old movies and cataloging the targeted ages that De Niro, Pacino and Pesci would appear in the movie. They created a programme — similar to that used to create online "deepfake" videos where one actor's face is swapped for another's — which would check their work on the movie was heading in the right direction, with the system "spewing out" hundreds of images for cross-referencing.
Helman, in an interview with the Associated Press, said 2019 was a watershed year for VFX.
"It's not by chance that we have several movies that have motion capture performance, facial performance, in three or four different ways. That shows that we're all thinking about digital humans.”
"I mean, we all stand on each other's shoulders," Helman says. "I can't wait for somebody to pick this up and do something else with it, you know?"