Jordan Peele’s “Nope,” which recently crossed the $100 million threshold at the domestic box office, is the “Get Out” filmmaker’s self-described “great American UFO story.” “Nope” is just as thoughtful and provocative as Peele’s earlier movies (“Get Out” and “Us”), but much grander in scope and more technically complex – it’s a big movie, largely filmed in IMAX, that absolutely envelops you.
“Nope” follows a pair of siblings (played by Daniel Kaluuya and Keke Palmer), who inherit their father’s horse ranch following his mysterious death. (He was struck by falling debris from something.) They come from a long line of horse trainers/stunt performers and are desperate to keep the business afloat. But they’ve got other things to deal with – mainly the sinister flying saucer that seems to be hiding in a cloud just above their property, as well as the former-child-star-turned-theme-park-impresario living next door (Steven Yeun) who wants to buy the ranch. This is much bigger than anything Peele has done before and he and his many talented collaborators pull it off beautifully.
TheWrap spoke to visual effects supervisor Guillaume Rocheron from visual effects house MPC, about how some of “Nope’s” most unforgettable moments came to life.
Major spoilers for “Nope” follow. Do not read if you have not seen the movie. Seriously.
Designing Jean Jacket
Throughout the course of “Nope,” OJ (Kaluuya) develops a theory: what if the saucer isn’t a ship at all, but a living, breathing creature (possibly from another world but possibly from our own). By the end of the movie not only has his theory been proven correct but the creature, which the siblings dub Jean Jacket after one of their earliest horses, has revealed its true form – a wild, undulating, utterly terrifying mass that also serves as one of the most original creature designs in recent memory.
Rocheron got involved from a very early stage, while Peele was still working on drafts of the screenplay. “He had some ideas of creating an iconic flying saucer that would then become another creature, a bit more wind-based and we talked a lot about the concepts,” Rocheron said. “Very quickly we landed on this idea of kind of like minimalism in the design.” Rocheron said that this meant being “very spare with details, that everything has a function,” and also creating an alien design language – that Jean Jacket was a “creature of the winds.” While Rocheron referred to the creature as an alien during our interview, he reached back out via email to say that he thought it was maybe a terrestrial creature that had been around, maybe forever. He thinks Peele feels the same way about Jean Jacket.
MPC Art Director, Leandre Lagrange started coming up with what would ultimately be the design language for Jean Jacket, inspired by Japanese origami, lending the creature “striations and those lines.” When they showed those designs to Peele, he “fell in love” as well. Not that this was the end of the design process. Rocheron and his team had a long way to go still.
“We did another, probably six months of art, then we started official pre-production on the film where we started to design the sequences through the pre-viz process where you pre-visualize the movie based on the scripts and the storyboards, just to really understand, Okay, how is exactly going to move? What is the function?” Rocheron said. “Like when it’s a saucer, when it’s unfolding, how does it unfold? You work that through and we literally make that design evolve all the way through the end of production. We did the final finishing touches of design a couple of weeks before the release of the film.”
“It’s one thing to come up with a design, but the form serves the function,” Rocheron explained. “And as you develop the look of the shots and what each shot tries to do, you find really what functions you need and that’s how your design evolves.” This was no easy feat, especially when the flying saucer was also a character.
The original “King Kong” was a big reference point for Peele and the visual effects team, and the moment when cinematographer Antler Holst (played memorably by Michael Wincott) is sucked up by Jean Jacket was a direct reference to the earlier film. “It’s in its most territorial behavior looks at all the characters and it spits out the dust from the hole and we call that the ‘King Kong’ moment,” Rocheron said. “Where it’s like the top of the Empire State Building and you are planting your flag and saying it’s your territory.”
But designing Jean Jacket proved to be relatively straightforward compared to some of the other challenges Rocheron and his team faced on “Nope.”
The Skies in “Nope” Are Entirely CGI
As Rocheron and his team were working on the initial round of designs, Peele came to them and made an offhanded remark that, perhaps keeping with the general vibe of “Nope,” turned out to be quite ominous: “Hey, I think the main challenge in visual effects is going to be the sky, is going to be the clouds.”
Rocheron agreed. “We have this great idea of this creature and this flying saucer, but really what is exciting is how you reveal it, how you stage what you see and how you see it,” Rocheron said. “Like in ‘Jaws’ or like in ‘Alien.’ You have a great creature, but it’s all about how you show it.”
The visual effects team needed to be able to “completely control” the skies. “They’re basically a movie set,” Rocheron said. “For each encounter, it’s like, they need to do specific things and have specific movements, layout, formation,” Rocheron said. And then he dropped a UFO-sized bombshell: the skies and clouds in “Nope?” They’re never real. Not just the cloud that Jean Jacket hides in; the entire sky and all of the clouds.
Rocheron said that this is his favorite type of visual effect, because it’s one that hardly anybody notices. “Any time you see the sky in the movie and it’s a lot of time in the movie, it’s never real,” he said. A lot of thought went into the design and execution of the skies. “We wanted those skies to be absolutely photo real in the sense that if the audience realizes that we’re fooling them by putting something fake in front of the audience, suddenly you lose all the impact and you lose all the mystery,” Rocheron said. “Then they’re just like, ‘Oh, look a digital sky. Okay. Something’s going to happen.’”
The team at MPC did a year of research and development to create the digital clouds and sky and to “make sure that we could design entire cloud-scapes for the needs of the story.” “Our artists could just put clouds where we wanted to and they were in a simplified form, but you could stage your action like a digital LEGO set. And then obviously we simulated the clouds then you simulate all this so you get something realistic, and then we rendered them, because they needed to fit perfectly into the photography every time,” Rocheron said.
Further complicating matters was the decision to shoot in IMAX in natural light. “The level of detail and the photo realism has to be quite extreme,” Rocheron said. “We went to great lengths to make sure that we could really stage everything that we wanted. And we shot the movie in California in the summer, when you don’t get a lot of clouds.”
As they were working on the movie, Peele told them: “Look, if we do our job well, the audience, after they’ve watched the movie, they will look at the sky differently.”
A New Kind of Day-for-Night Cinematography
One of the more invisible (and, until now, secretive) aspects of “Nope” was the way that they photographed the movie. Cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema hasn’t discussed the process, but Rocheron revealed it during our chat, describing the filming of the night sequences as a collaboration between Hoytema and the visual effects team. “Because the night encounters are shot during the day, they’re not shot at night,” Rocheron said.
Their options were fairly limited, at least at first. They could just shoot it day-for-night, a process during which you film the sequences during the day and then, while the film is in post, you put a filter over it or alter it in some other process, to appear darker. This seemed unsatisfactory since, in even the best cases, you can really tell – it just doesn’t feel right.
“What we wanted to do to get our audience to really be immersed in it was that we wanted to showcase the nights the way the human eyes see at night, not the way film cameras see at night. If you want to shoot at nights you have to put some lights and you have to put some smoke and you have to create silhouettes and shake the frame or you can shoot against a blue screen and then just create a completely CG environment that you can see,” Rocheron said.
“We wanted to shoot everything on location and have that grounded reality of shooting everything on location. But at the same time, we wanted to see clearly at night, in a way. And we all went to the location when we were prepping the film and we get there, turn off all the lights, all the cars, everything off and you’re in complete darkness in the middle of that valley. And then suddenly your eyes start to adjust and you start to see the hills and you start to see the colors and you start to see the sky.”
That was an a-ha moment for the team. “We all realized, Wow, this is scary. Because night is always depicted as being claustrophobic and hard-to-see, but the vastness of the environment is something that is remarkable, especially when you’re asking your audience to look at the sky,” Rocheron said. “It’s a bit like being in the middle of the ocean.”
In order to capture this, Rocheron said they had to develop “new techniques.” The first thing that they did was that they shot everything with an infrared camera. “When you shoot during the day, it’s like the skies are completely black. And the contrasts that you see are quite night-like. The problem is that infrared is black and white,” Rocheron said. Their solution was to design a rig that had an infrared camera and a regular film camera. They also used the coolest technology of all: lasers!
“Hoyte engineered that rig that aligned the two cameras with lasers and it was very precise, and what we did in post is what we managed to take that infrared footage that was black and white but that had the contrast that felt like nighttime, and then used the second camera that had the color information to colorize the infrared footage,” Rocheron said. “Then we run that through different processes. We would extract the depth of the scene so then we were able to modulate the visibility based on the distance to camera and the silhouetting and the colors. It was really a very interesting process because it gave us the ability to physically shoot night scenes all the way like during the day, at any time of the day.”
It also allowed Rocheron and his team to amplify the suspense in the nighttime sequences, playing with light sources and the way your eyes will dilate when light is introduced. “If someone turns up the lights, it’s going to take you a few seconds to see something at night for your eyes to adjust,” Rocheron said. “We played a lot with this, what you see and suddenly there’s a light source and then the light source turns up, it takes a little bit of time for you to see.” Throughout, the teams were aiming to make the movie (and those nighttime sequences) as immersive as possible.
Of all of the nightmares of “Nope,” the one that has seemingly left the biggest (most scarring?) impression is the “Gordy’s Home” sequence. The sequence a flashback to a fictional sitcom that Jupe (later played by Yeun) co-starred on. Gordy is the show’s star, a usually agreeable chimpanzee who, on this day, goes on a rampage, killing several cast members and maiming another. As Gordy inches closer to young Jupe, he reaches out his hand in a fist-bump shape and just then … Gordy is shot and killed. The sequence is pure nightmare fuel, which is fitting because it was based on a nightmare Peele had (and tweeted about) in 2014. Some stuff gets stuck in your subconscious, huh?
During production, Gordy was played by Terry Notary, a noted motion capture performer who has worked on ape characters in the new “Planet of the Apes” movies and “Kong: Skull Island.” Notary performed in a motion capture suit but at some point Rocheron said, “I think we should probably really put him in the Gordy costume.” They smeared blood on his face and put him in a little sweater and hat. “We kind of really push the immersion as much as we can,” Rocheron said.
They also pushed the immersion by filming Notary’s performance on an oversized version of the set from the sitcom, so Notary would be Gordy-sized against giant furniture. “Everything was 30% bigger,” Rocheron said. “We basically scaled the world basically around Terry. As he was performing, he could really like touch everything and be at the right size and be like be the chimp. It was really trying to create an environment that would give us the most truthful performance and most comfortable environment for Terry.”
Instead of using a traditional mo-cap set up, Rocheron employed what he called “faux-cap.” There was an IMAX camera capturing the angles that Peele wanted, with six additional cameras around the set that were documenting Notary’s performance, movements and animalistic traits. Instead of a 1:1 translation, there was more finesse to this approach. “You see it from all angles and you can reconstruct it,” Rocheron said.
When designing the character, they looked at old photos and footage of chimpanzees who worked in Hollywood. (“You’re not allowed to be in the same room as one anymore,” Rocheron noted, much less film them.) When Gordy got close to camera, it calls to mind one of the movie’s touchstones – “King Kong” (Rocheron said this is very noticeable when watching the IMAX version of the movie). There’s a lot going on in that moment, too, which made things complex for Rocheron and the team, from the semitransparent table cloth, which is meant to echo the way Jean Jacket hides in the clouds, to the performance itself.
“There’s something in the eyes and in the way the head turns and it’s very subtle acting,” Rocheron said. “You’re just like, Well, that’s a challenge. If you can make the audience get scared and understand what’s going through the head of this character at this moment, where you haven’t had a lot of exposition … and he’s a CG character. That’ll be hard to be successful.” There’s also the moment towards the end of the shot, where recognition flashes across Gordy’s face. There is a chance for redemption there. For this exploited creature to find freedom. “When he approaches finally and smells him through the tablecloth and then for a split second, you see Gordy’s personality changing. It’s becoming friendly again, confused. And then he gets back into his zone,” Rocheron said. “It was all in Terry’s performance. But it was a real challenge to translate that into a digital character that doesn’t get a lot of screen time. You Either you connect with it or you don’t. You only get one chance.”
Rocheron and the wizards at MPC might have gotten one chance, but they certainly knocked it out of the park on “Nope,” a movie that combined so many disciplines, introduced new technology and relied on some tried-and-true methods, to create another scary, thoughtful Jordan Peele experience.