Cloth sims for an alien entity, making the sky one giant visual effect, and a rampaging chimpanzee
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- September 19, 2022
How’s this for a set of visual effects challenges: an alien entity dubbed Jean Jacket that ‘unfolds’ and is driven by the wind, computer-generated and art-directed clouds, dust simulations that match helicopter-created dust wake, a CG chimpanzee, and a unique approach to day-for-night shooting with infrared.
These were just some of the tasks set for the VFX team led by MPC on Jordan Peele’s Nope, a movie that was also shot on both IMAX film cameras and 65 mm. Here, visual effects supervisor Guillaume Rocheron, who hails from MPC, describes the extensive work in the film for befores & afters.
The design of Jean Jacket started with its final form first
Guillaume Rocheron: It was a really interesting design process. Jean Jacket, the alien entity, transforms, which meant that we actually designed it the other way around. That is, we started with the final “transformed” form instead of starting from its initial shape. When Jordan was writing the script, he was toying with all these ideas and then we started to work on the design. If we’re talking about a wind-like entity and has all these characteristics, how do you visualize that? It was a very abstract thing for him even to write in the script. As he was writing, we were designing. It was feeding some of the ideas. It’s one thing to write, ‘It’s a wind entity that can do a lot of stuff,’ but also you have to ground it in some realism.
For its closed shape, we looked at a lot of the classic movies, like The Day The Earth Stood Stilland Mars Attacks!, just to find the most classic saucers, but not necessarily with more sophisticated designs. Jordan was really trying to capture that iconography, and then say, ‘Okay, but what does it look like when we unfold? Is there anything we need to learn from its unfolded shape that needs to inform how we’re going to design the saucer?’
Neon Genesis Evangelion as inspiration
In our first brainstorming about it, we actually talked about Michael Myers and the mask from Halloween, in terms of how you perceive this thing in the clouds and not really having a face. We then very quickly started to geek out quite a lot on Neon Genesis Evangelion. Jordan happens to be a big fan and I happen to be one, too.
It’s the minimalism of Evangelion that we really admired. The design serves the function. When you look at the Angels, it’s like they have a purpose or a function or a way to operate and a design strictly tailored to just do that. So we started a few rounds of designs on this and then very quickly we came in with a very Evangelion-esque alien entity that looked like he was an origami, at the same time, a very simple design. I think Jordan fell in love with it.
So we said, ‘This is the language,’ and then we started to design the saucer. We then knew we wanted these very simplistic shapes, very little textures, very little features, very much ‘not much.’
A whole cloth sim
For the saucer shape itself, we always wanted to take inspiration from nature. We looked at sand dollars, for example, that have that round silhouette, but not perfectly round. We used that as a guide. The skin of it was very much just minimalistic, which we usually don’t like in visual effects very much! When someone tells you, ‘Hey, I want something with no features,’ you’re just like, ‘Okay, that’s great, but how do you make this feel real somehow?’
Usually we like to just scatter a ton of details on CG objects, because it helps your eye and your brain–you understand the scale. It’s funny because we’ve spent many, many years developing all sorts of beautiful muscle systems and skin deformation and things like this and then suddenly it’s like, ‘Well, it’s an entity that literally will be made entirely of cloth sims.’ And it is literally just a whole cloth sim. Anytime we tried to put some textures on it, it was, ‘Yeah, it looks a little too creature-like, in a way.’ So it always went back to this idea of minimalism with blank features.
At first, we designed it with almost tentacles at the bottom that were flat, but flowing in the wind. In one of our meetings, we said, ‘Well, what if it’s a skirt, like Marilyn Monroe’s skirt? Just something that really flows.’ Jordan loved the idea, because of the theme of the movie, too. Suddenly, we started to abandon any sort of literal appendage and features. We just went more and more simplistic, up to the point where it was like, ‘Well, the only way to give it some details is through cloth simulations.’ Its function is just to flow in the wind.
Jordan really wanted an entity of the wind, so after the initial cosmetic design we thought, ‘We should talk to real scientists, people who know aerodynamics and biology and fluid dynamics and all these things.’ We connected with the guys at JPL. We talked a lot about ion propulsion. We connected with Professor Dabiri, who is at Caltech. He’s an expert in fluid dynamics and jellyfish. He has a jellyfish lab at Caltech, not that we wanted to make our creature look like a jellyfish. If anything, we actually tried to pull away as much as possible from the ‘jelly’ feel, but there was some fascinating facts about it, such as that a jellyfish is basically all efficiency. It’s the most efficient animal in the ocean.
That informed us as to how the saucer would move. We thought of it as an incredibly light surface that rides wind currents. It basically just captures the different flows and the different currents. When you see it unfold, it’s literally just a center structure with a brain and then some hoist or ropes that basically connect the brain to the sail and the sail is made to control the speed. The skirt is controlling its flotation. We went in and just tailored the design, even through the animation process, to just be like, ‘Okay, everything is functional. Everything needs to have a function.’
The animation was quite simplistic. We could control the tension of the hoist and the amount of unfolding and the basic shapes, but you always had to imagine how you would translate into, later on, a massive cloth simulation. Iterations would take quite a long time, because this is such a massive object. When it’s unfolded, it’s almost 480 feet wide. It’s a lot of fabric to simulate.
The sky: one big visual effect
At one point Jordan and I looked at each other and said, ‘You know what? The sky is going to be the biggest challenge of the movie. It’s not even the alien entity, it’s going to be the sky.’ The sky in this movie has to be the ocean in Jaws, basically. You have to use it to create suspense and to showcase things in a slightly different way.
Basically, the skies in the movie are all visual effects. There’s two shots with real skies in the film, because every time, we wanted to art direct the skies. The clouds and the animation and the staging of it all were very connected. The skies were literally all sets, basically all-CG sets. We filmed everything on location, but the skies were all-CG sets.