Get Out and Us filmmaker Jordan Peele’s movies are always surrounded by secrecy in the lead-up to their premieres, and his sci-fi thriller Nope was no exception. The film follows a pair of siblings who discover that a series of strange events occurring around their family’s horse ranch might be related to a mysterious object they’ve glimpsed in the sky.
Visual effects studio MPC worked alongside Peele to bring the film’s terrifying story to life, delivering around 675 VFX shots for the film that ranged from the surreal and fantastic to elements you might not even realize were digitally created — like the sky over the characters’ ranch. Digital Trends spoke to MPC’s visual effects supervisor on Nope, Guillaume Rocheron, to learn more about the surprising VFX behind the film.
The following interview has been edited and condensed for clarity, and contains discussion of key plot points in the film.
Digital Trends: Jordan Peele is such a unique filmmaker. What are the conversations like when you’re joining a project he’s directing?
Guillaume Rocheron: I grew up in the ’80s and Jordan did as well. I remember watching Close Encounters of the Third Kind and Jaws and Alien, and even more memorable than the spectacle of them was the wonder. You felt like you were seeing something you haven’t experienced before. That was a really strong theme for us, because we needed to make sure we always design things in a way where the audience is engaged in the wonder of what they’re seeing.
The way we decided to do that was to never give a complete picture of anything until you get to the end, so your audience is engaged and their imagination completes the picture. Sometimes that’s more scary, right? In Jaws, you wonder, “How big is that thing? How close is it?” You just don’t know for sure.
We wanted to bring that to everything we were doing in the film, which is why the clouds became so important. When you look at the clouds and see a shadow or a glimpse of something, we had to precisely stage that. And as the movie gets closer to the end, you start to see it more clearly. But of course, the moment you start to see it more clearly, it changes into something else.
Let’s jump right into the look of the alien, Jean Jacket. How did the design of the creature evolve?
Well, when I joined the movie, Jordan was still in the early stages of writing the script and he wanted to work with a team to start developing what Jean Jacket might be in terms of the visuals. He had all these ideas in the script and ideas of thematically what it should be and what it should do. So we brainstormed a bit in order to develop its character and its abilities. The first thing we did was the design for the unfolded version of Jean Jacket — the one you see at the end of the movie — because this is the creature in its most developed form.
There was always that notion that it would look like a flying saucer when it’s hunting, so we knew it had eventually to transform into something bigger than life — like peacocks or cuttlefish do. When we started discussing reference points early on , we quickly developed an interesting common thread with Japanese art. We were very inspired by creatures in [anime series] Neon Genesis Evangelion.
Oh, wow! The ‘angels’ that attack Earth in the series?
Exactly. Their design is very minimalistic and functional. You can make a creature out of anything you want with the arms and legs and muscles and all the complexity, but we were very attracted to this idea of minimalism. When you look at the design of flying saucers from classic movies, it’s very minimalistic. So the lead concept artist at MPC came up with a beautiful early concept that was a combination of a lot of things we were talking about. [It was] like origami with its beautiful lines, and had the minimalism of the angels in Neon Genesis Evangelion, along with cuttlefish elements and such. We worked on this for a couple of months, even before official preproduction started, to explore the design and refine it. We were refining Jean Jacket until a couple of weeks before the movie was released.
What were some of the elements you changed over time?
Well, you learn something every time as you’re working on it. It’s a creature of the wind, so it needs to harness the wind, and you learn through exploring that movement. You tweak things. It was never a radical redesign, just making sure the design was functional. Early in preproduction, we even started to consult with quite a few scientists, because whenever you design something, you want to make it plausible. You want to make sure it’s inspired by nature or evolution.
You want to have reason for it to look the way it does.
Right. We partnered up with Professor John Dabiri at California Institute of Technology. He’s a specialist in fluid dynamics and jellyfish. We didn’t want Jean Jacket to look like a jellyfish, but we learned a lot from the jellyfish because they’re the most energy-efficient hunter in the ocean. The jellyfish is engineered to ride the water currents and find the buoyancy in them, while hunting like a predator.
We were inspired by this because Jean Jacket is a creature of the wind. It needs to ride the wind better than anything else, and it also needs to be able to to eat and hunt. So that was a really interesting process.
How involved did Jordan Peele get in the visual effects used for Jean Jacket? Some directors can be very hands-on with VFX, while others are less so.
It’s a Jordan Peele movie and every shot is a Jordan Peele shot. My job is to make the the shot design collaborative, and Jordan is very big on collaboration. The door is always open to brainstorm ideas. He has a really unique and specific talent for looking at an idea for a shot and saying, “Let’s do it from this other perspective. Like this.” And he always knows the little element that’s going to reinforce that sense of immersion and horror, and engage the audience’s imagination.
For example, there’s the scene where O.J. goes back to his house and Jean Jacket is over it, and there’s the blood and the rain and everything else pouring down. We put a lot of rain in and you could see the silhouette very clearly of Jean Jacket through the raindrops on the windshield and the lightning flashes. You’re not getting the perfect picture, but you see it. And then as we were in postproduction, he was like, “Let’s take the rearview mirror and move it just a bit over Jean Jacket.” So now you’re inside the car and you see the blood and the rain, but the rearview mirror obscures it just a little. It was such a good change, because the instinct is to show this amazing creature you’ve created that’s pouring blood on the house and such, but having that kind of restraint is so great.
It has to be difficult when you really want to show off something you spent so long developing.
It is! The same thing happened with the Gordy scene, when the chimpanzee goes on a rampage. The scene was written from day one in the script, but as we were starting to rehearse it, Jordan says, “You know, since it’s from the point of view of the kid under the table, I think we should see the scene through the semitransparent tablecloth.” I was like, “Wow, that’s that’s a great idea.” And obviously it made our job much more difficult, because suddenly you’re not just putting a chimp into a shot, but you’re putting a chimp behind fibers of silk and lights diffusing through them.
But it made the scene so much more powerful, because suddenly you see things, but we’re keeping 10% of the audience’s imagination engaged on what they don’t see. There’s just enough obscuration to wonder about the chimp. Does he have guts in his mouth? Is he covered in blood?
So your imagination can go wild until the very end where he gets close to us, and finally you see his eyes and you really connect to it. For us, it was a very challenging thing, but working with Jordan is like that: He always tries to find this angle that is really going to make you feel the horror by keeping the audience connected to what they’re seeing and what they’re not seeing.
What was the biggest challenge for your team with the film?
Well, we very quickly realized that the sky itself was actually going to be our greatest challenge — because the sky is the playground in this film. You’re constantly asking the audience to look to the sky. All of the staging and suspense and the big reveal of the creature are in the sky, but when you try to shoot the sky with a camera, you shoot, and then two minutes later the clouds are gone, and it’s all different. You have absolutely no control over nature. So the sky would have to basically become a digital set.
We wanted to construct every single sky in the movie like you would construct a movie set. So there are no real skies in the film. That’s why it was the most challenging visual effect: You have to construct it precisely to stage the suspense and the reveals and the horror, but at the same time, you can’t have the audience look at the sky and know it’s a visual effect.
You do lots of work to make sure it doesn’t look like you did anything at all.
Right. The greatest compliment I can get on a movie is when people don’t realize the work we did. Typically, you replace skies in films to make them prettier or for continuity or cosmetic reasons, but we created skies to stage our movie. We spent most of a year researching and developing a system to create digital clouds, then animate them, art-direct them, render them, photograph them, and simulate them. It was a very complicated process.
So every cloud in Nope is art-directed, because we needed to be able to do anything we want with them. We couldn’t go the route of typical sky replacements, where you take some photos and replace one sky with another. We simulated cloudscapes in the computer for the whole film so we could stage things the way we wanted. And we really made a conscious effort to not make the skies particularly remarkable. The sky you see is what it should look like when you look up.
So much of the sky is shown at night, too. Did that present a challenge?
We wanted to shoot the movie in IMAX film — the full, 1.43 aspect ratio, giant-negative film. But with IMAX, the picture is so big that, as the viewer, you’re not watching the image, you’re in it. You actually have to look around you while you’re watching to see everything. It’s a very immersive medium and a very real experience. We wanted the audience to look at the sky and see the vastness of it all. But if you put a camera out at night, you don’t see anything. It’s black. So you have to light the night in some way, but it’s usually not quite right.
When we were scouting, we went to a location and turned off the cars and all the lights in the middle of the valley, and we were in pitch darkness for a while. Eventually, your eyes start to adjust, though. You start to see colors and things very far in the distance, and after a few minutes, you start to see very clearly in the night. We thought, “This is the immersive night we want to create,” because this is how we see it, not how cameras see it. A camera doesn’t capture it the way an eye captures it. Throughout film history, many movies shot nights in the daytime, and then made the image a little darker and a little bluer and backlit. It looks like night, but it’s a stylized night. That’s not what we wanted.
So what did you do?
We were like, “How about we try to shoot with an infrared camera instead of a normal camera?” What an infrared camera does is, when you shoot during the day, the blue skies become black. The contrast of what you see in infrared — the land and the shapes of things — is like how you see at night in a strange way. The problem with infrared, though, is it’s only black-and-white. There are no colors.
So we took an infrared camera and the 65mm film camera, and aligned them in a rig you use to shoot 3D movies. We aligned the two cameras perfectly so they would film exactly the same image at all times. And then in postproduction, for every shot, we would get a black-and-white infrared image and a color image at daytime. We could then use the color image to colorize the infrared footage. After that, we’d run all the shots through the computer to extract the depth of the shots and modulate the visibility based on distance. It was a really great piece of engineering and a lot of research and development for us, because every night shot in the film is a visual effects shot, in this case.
So what was it like to see how audiences reacted to the film — especially when it’s been shrouded in so much secrecy for so long?
Yeah, we always have a lot of secrecy with what we do, and I think that’s why it’s always great the first time you actually see the movie with an audience. Working on the film, we’re constantly immersed in it. And with this one, when we finally saw it with an audience at the premiere, it was amazing. It was great to see the surprises and hear the gasps in the room, and to realize that we hopefully managed to give the audience a slightly different experience than you get in movies these days.
For me, I was also hoping people weren’t going to be like, “Oh, look at all the visual effects in the film,” because that was what we were trying to not do with it. People can tell us that Jean Jacket looks great, because that’s an obvious visual effect, but we went to great lengths to disguise the rest of our work. We don’t want there to be a moment when people think, “OK, this is the CGI moment,” and they become desensitized by it, you know? So hiding that was the fun of it.
Jordan Peele’s Nope is still in limited release in theaters, and will be available digitally September 20, and in Blu-ray and 4K editions October 25.
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