Interview: VFX Supervisor Guillaume Rocheron Talks Creating the Visual Effects for ‘Nope’

30 Min Read
Universal Pictures/MPC

Back in July, writer/director Jordan Peele released his third movie, titled Nope. The sci-fi/horror follows siblings OJ (Daniel Kaluuya) and Emerald (Keke Palmer) Haywood who, after the bizarre death of their father and other strange occurrences, set out to capture video evidence of a UFO. So, they team up with a local tech store employee (Brandon Perea) and renowned filmmaker (Michael Wincott) to document the creature. However, they soon realize the alien is much more than it initially seems.

Recently, we got to talk with Guillaume Rocheron, the VFX supervisor for Nope, about how he and the team at MPC brought the mysterious alien to life, including the different forms of the creature, how the design was first created, and more. Prior to Nope, Rocheron worked on a variety of films across genres and franchises. In 2020, he received an Academy Award for his VFX work on 1917, preceded in 2013 with a win for Life of Pi. His resumé also includes movies such as Ad Astra, Man of Steel, and more.

Note: This interview was edited for clarity and will contain some spoilers for Nope.

Nerds & Beyond: To kick things off, what drew you to working on Nope? How did you become involved with the project?

Guillaume Rocheron: Well, I started in the summer of 2020 when Jordan was writing the script. Jordan was basically looking to work on the design of Jean Jacket, and I’d got a few ideas going as to what we could do with the concepts that he was playing with in terms of what he wrote. And we kind of wanted to start to explore a few ideas that he had. So I got in touch with him, along with the art department at MPC, and we had this creative conversation as to what Jean Jacket wanted to be, and put [down] the design sensibilities and the ideas that we had. We pretty much just hit the ground running.

Two years after, I was still on the movie and just worked on it until the end, right. So we started with the design, and then as we started to work on the design, we started to kind of talk about, okay, well what does that mean for the movie, and started to design the creature and its flying saucer kind of look. Then very quickly we were like, okay, well what does that mean if you want to make all this kind of like a reality? And we very quickly said, well there’s a lot of – the most important thing in terms of visual effects in the movie [is] gonna be the sky, right. Because the sky becomes the playground of the film, and obviously the sky in the movie is never real. It’s always digital. Every time you see the sky, it’s a visual effect because we wanted to be able to construct skies exactly as intended to kind of play the suspense and the horror and all these things. So, long story short, it’s like then we started to work on the sky system, and then…the ball got rolling onto the movie. So that’s how it all started.

Universal Pictures/MPC

Nerds & Beyond: To sort off break off from that, many of the VFX that we do see throughout the film revolve largely around this mysterious UFO alien. Of course, we get to see the outside of it, but something I thought was just so cool is that we also get to see some of its internal workings. Can you talk a little about how you designed the guts, so to speak, of Jean Jacket?

Guillaume Rocheron: When we started to design the outside of Jean Jacket, we went through a lot of iterations of minimalistic designs very inspired by nature, you know like some underwater creature, but also, we looked at artists that make origami, those beautiful origami. And we looked also at — Jordan and I were big fans of Neon Genesis Evangelion, the Japanese anime. So, we kind of like riffed on that quite a bit, and as we were creating a lot of designs, we really came up with this idea that Jean Jacket, when it’s in folded form, is like an origami, and then would just unfold completely.

We never really considered the inside as we were doing the original pieces of design, but when we were in post-production after we shot the movie, we started to assemble all the scenes with Nick [Monsour], the editor, and with Jordan, we were like, hey, we’re really missing a point of view from inside the creature. So, when that started, basically I kind of jumped on this idea that…it’s this this kind of like folded origami. So when you go inside Jean Jacket, what you’re seeing is the folded origami version of what’s gonna come out, right, and how it’s gonna unfold. And starting there, it’s basically how all the structures got designed and compressed. We basically looked at – because when we designed the creature, it’s in flying saucer form and then he unfolds. And we engineered it in a way where it can, in fact, unfold plausibly, where it’s like the skirt is coming out, and the pleats are unfolding, and the surface of the saucer is unfolding into something else. So that was our starting point and then we just kind of made the silhouettes, and the composition is very much like an amphitheater, you know, using the pleats of the origami. Like there would be seats, and it’s kind of like the theater analogy and all that.

Universal Pictures/MPC

Nerds & Beyond: And actually, that segues perfectly into my next question, because I also love that we did get to see it unfolded, and there’s that gorgeous shot at the end when it goes into the sky, and you can see it in all of its glory. Why was that important for you to show that Jean Jacket wasn’t just this disc-like object?

Guillaume Rocheron: Well because I think the idea was like, we know Jean Jacket is an animal. And it’s an animal that’s — like peacocks, for example. It’s like they kind of can make themselves undeniable if they want to, if they feel threatened, if they feel that they want to get your attention, right. And it’s the thing we talked a lot about. It’s like the same with the cuttlefish. It’s something that you see in nature. Predators, when feeling threatened, try and make themselves bigger. They don’t make themselves smaller, or they don’t stay the same. They try to have the profile that is as big as possible. And the way the story of all these guys as our main characters are kind of trying to tame Jean Jacket in saucer form to try to get the shot, at some point it’s just like Jean Jacket really goes into that full predatorial mode of making itself completely undeniable, and not in its hunting form. It’s at the end when Jean Jacket unfolds. It’s not as compact and as fast and as mobile, but it’s certainly the form that’s he wants to take if he really wants you to look at it.

So that was the reason behind it. And interestingly, in fact, it’s really how we designed Jean Jacket. We always knew that Jean Jacket was gonna unfold, and our first design, the first thing we designed on the film, was the unfolded version of Jean Jacket. What does it look like? What does this kind of animal/creature look like? Then we kind of started to think about how it would go back into its more kind of compact form, you know, the flying saucer or what looks like a flying saucer. So that was always a very important aspect of it.

Nerds & Beyond: Throughout, there are also a few rather close-up shots of Jean Jacket in both forms, and those kinds of shots felt genuinely terrifying to watch. Can you talk a bit about the process of tackling those shots and how you maintained the reality of those moments?

Guillaume Rocheron: Sure, I mean one interesting thing is very early in the design process, we very much embraced a certain minimalism in designing this animal which is very Evangelion-esque, if I may say. [laughs] Very minimalistic, you know. We really wanted the design to be functional, right. A good design is functional and not purely aesthetic. And just to segue quickly into this – we consulted with an array of scientists that were specialists in like aerodynamics and propulsion, and you know just different fields, scientific fields. And we consulted with the professor [John] Dabiri at Caltech, who is like an expert in – he has a jellyfish lab where basically he studies jellyfish. And we didn’t want to design a jellyfish, but what we learned is that the jellyfish is the most efficient creature in the ocean. [It] uses hardly any energy to do what he has to do.

So, it’s something that we very much applied to all our designs, and basically there’s an extreme simplicity to how we kind of approached Jean Jacket. There’s hardly any texture to it. There are hardly any features. So there’s not a lot of, to answer your question, it’s like to make it terrifying and to make it somehow mysterious, it’s not like you have a lot of features that you slowly reveal. It’s not like suddenly you’re just like, “Oh my god, I didn’t see that you have two arms,” you know. It was a very simplistic saucer and a very simplistic creature. So, a lot of what we did on the movie to really maintain that sense of horror and wonder was to always try to – no matter how we designed the shots and the scenes – to always try to not fully give the audience a complete picture of it.

I grew up in the 80s, you know [with] Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Alien, Jurassic Park, and all these movies that you get an amazing sense of wonder watching those films, because your imagination is engaged, basically, as an audience, and that’s really something we wanted to do. And especially, to your point, because it’s a horror film. There’s nothing scarier than when you see something that your imagination almost has to complete the picture, and you’re like, “Oh, I think I’m seeing something absolutely horrific.” You’re seeing it but you leave a little bit of room to the imagination of your audience to basically being emotionally invested and complete that picture.

That’s something that we very much embraced most throughout the whole film. And that’s why, for example, the clouds were so important in the film, because most of the time we use the clouds as our device to kind of showcase a little bit of the saucer, or seeing a shadow, or seeing glimpses of it. And basically, it’s like in Jaws, right, when you see the shark fin. You don’t see the full shot. You just see the fin and it’s absolutely terrifying, because you don’t know how big the shark is, and you don’t know how – there’s a lot of work that your imagination has to do to kind of really complete that picture. That’s something we really wanted to embrace on the film, because in today’s world it’s very hard to actually impress or scare your audience with CG, you know. It’s like we’re all seeing so much of it every day and [in] every movie. We really wanted to be like, well it’s not about showcasing the CG that is bigger and more and all these things. We actually took the opposite approach of just like, well we’re gonna make all these very complicated effects, but we’re gonna try to make it to show it to you in a way that is gonna be a little bit different, right. So, it was not about like you know spectacle for the sake of spectacle. It was really about well how do we really make it [to] give you just enough that there’s a sense of wonder and scare that you just don’t get if you see the complete picture.

We did the same for Gordy, the scene with the chimp. When you see Gordy, we on purpose showcase the whole scene behind that semitransparent tablecloth, from the kid’s point of view. And you’re behind the tablecloth and you see the horror and there’s no question about what you’re seeing, but you know there’s just enough kind of obscuration that your brain – you’re just like, is the chimp like really bloody? Is he like … is he a demon? [laughs] Is he just like still a normal chimp? Until the end where he kind of approaches you, and it’s like, oh, he’s an animal and is an animal that lost it. So, by doing all this, we really made great efforts to kind of always try to keep our audience engaged, and I think that’s how we successfully created that sense of horror, of literally watching a saucer in the sky. Essentially it comes very much from Jordan, where very early on he was like, look, I think it’s – you can do anything today in the computer and in visual effects. There’s no limits, right. But we really wanted to create a bit of that kind of movie magic, where if your audience is part of it, then it becomes more immersive and more powerful.

Nerds & Beyond: Another scene that has really stuck with me is when Jean Jacket expels all of that non-organic matter on top of the house. It’s just this very — like it was so bizarre, and horrifying, and fascinating to watch happen. So I’m wondering, what went into crafting and bringing that scene to life?

Guillaume Rocheron: It was really interesting because it was a scene that – you know, for a long time we wanted to resist showing actually a full picture of Jean Jacket over the house, right. So the way we constructed it was like, okay, he basically abducted all these people over the stadium, and we just want to show you what the result of that is, which is just like debris of objects that were in your pockets, or things that were at the stadium. So, we very much knew kind of what our special effects team that basically does all the things on set, and we kind of had them throw a lot of debris for real, practically, from cranes and things like this. And then blood, you know they created like blood/goop that they could just drop on the windows and all these things.

Then really where us and visual effects completed the scene was – because obviously, we put Jean Jacket over the house, and Jean Jacket is like a giant umbrella, right, and it’s raining so it’s like a giant umbrella. So we created that very strange and odd kind of circular waterfall around the house of all the water pouring down. And then obviously there’s the big wide shot where you finally see where that blood is coming from, and this is where we created that, again, you know digitally that kind of circular blood stream coming out the hole, and with the debris and the circular waterfall. So it was a big collaboration between the practical special effects and the digital visual effects to create this.

Nerds & Beyond: From what I understand, the process was also quite collaborative with cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema. How did you go about marrying VFX and cinematography to further enhance not just the eeriness of Jean Jacket, but the whole film in general?

Guillaume Rocheron: It was a tremendous collaboration for two reasons, because first, the skies are never real, right. So, half the frame always had to be digital in every shot throughout the whole film. So, you have to be on the same page. And we created a tool using virtual production. We created a virtual viewfinder that was running on an iPad with Unreal Engine where we could literally see the virtual world, and where Jean Jacket was, and where the clouds were using that. So, it was like a little augmented reality device that would help us when we were shooting on location.

But I think the biggest collaboration was to create the night scenes, because the night scenes were really kind of unique to that theme of creating a movie for the big screen and for IMAX. And when you create a movie for IMAX the audience doesn’t watch a tiny picture. The image is so big that as an audience you are inside the picture, and you need to look around you. So, it’s a very immersive way of experiencing the movie, and it’s very much something we wanted to do. With the night scenes, we were like, well we don’t want to create the movie nights, you know. Cameras don’t see at night. If you take a try to take a picture at night, it’s black. If you try to film something at night, it’s black. So, the movie night you basically have to light it, you know, you put lights, and you put smoke, and you create silhouettes, and you kind of create a bit of that stylized, claustrophobic night. But it’s not something we wanted to do, because the human eye sees very different at night. I’m sure you’ve been in a dark room or even like a dark forest at night, and at first, it’s like completely black, and then suddenly your eye is adjusting and is actually starting to see. You’re starting to see the world around you and it’s incredibly scary and immersive, and that’s basically what we wanted to do. But to do that we had to kind of brainstorm to create new techniques and new technology, because it’s been solved before throughout the history of films by shooting day for night, for example. But when you shoot day for night, you’re literally shooting at daytime and you make the image a little bit bluer and a little bit darker to tell your audience, “Hey, look. It’s happening at nighttime.” But it’s not like an immersive, realistic night, you know. It’s always fairly stylized.

So, we collaborated to basically – we were like, well what if we shoot the night scenes during the day with infrared cameras, because infrared cameras, they make the blue sky black and they show you contrasts, kind of the way you see at night. The only problem of infrared cameras is that they’re black-and-white. There’s no colors to them. It’s not colorized, and at night you do see colors. You see greens, and you see blue in the sky, and you see skin. So, Hoyte engineered a camera rig that basically would align together and synchronize an infrared camera and a film color camera, so every shot would be filmed with two different cameras at the same time, basically, the infrared and the film camera. Then we developed techniques in post-production to basically – for every shot we would always have two images: the black-and-white infrared one and then the color daytime shots. Then we kind of created new techniques to colorize the infrared footage using the color camera. A little bit like [how] you colorize a black-and-white movie, you know, when you restore them. Except that this time around we didn’t have to kind of invent the colors because we literally filmed them, so we knew what the colors were.

In post-production that’s what we did. We kind of created those techniques to kind of colorize the infrared footage, and then running the shots through the computer we then managed to extract the depth of the shots – the distance from the camera to the to the hills and the sky so then we could create the colors and the lights through the depth of the scenes. Basically the way it happens at nighttime. So we kind of created those kind of hybrid nights. All the night shots you see in the movie all have a component of daytime photography. It’s like they’re basically working, just shooting them in this California desert in 100 degrees heat, and be like, okay that’s gonna be nighttime when we go in post-production. And that was a bit of a leap of faith for all of us because we were like, okay, we know, we tried it, and we experimented with the technique, but we initially took the bets of like, okay, well that’s how we’re gonna do all our night scenes and create those really immersive nights. I think that was really a desire from all of us, is like when you, at night, suddenly you see the hills, and the eeriness of the empty space and the sky above you, it felt much scarier than if we had done claustrophobic lights.

Nerds & Beyond: And my last question for you today: what are you most proud of with this film?

Guillaume Rocheron: What I like about it is I think we hopefully make it feel like not like a big visual effects movie, you know. I think that’s my hope, is that the audience is literally watching those nights that are a visual effect, and the skies that are visual effects. So it’s very — there’s a lot of visual effects in this movie. But we really wanted the audience to experience it as more like an immersive experience, where you’re not really disengaging with the computer-generated spectacle. And it was very important for us to try to always just like ride that fine balance of like, okay, well you know it’s like – there’s a lot of movies that do very big spectacle and a lot of spectacle, and we’re trying to do something a little bit different, because we’re trying to be eerie and scary and bring a different kind of experience.

So that’s what I’m proud of on the film, because again it’s like, there’s a lot of visual effects in the film, but my hope is that just the obvious ones – everybody knows that you don’t have a flying saucer and an unfolding Jean Jacket and all these things – but hopefully the audience experiences everything else more as like a certain reality that you don’t question. You look at the sky and you’re not thinking, “Oh, I’m looking at a visual effects sky.” You’re literally just not thinking about it and being immersed in it. Or you know in those night shots, or in some extent to Gordy, because you’re just like, “I know it’s not a real chimp,” but because we’re showing it through the tablecloth, it’s like suddenly your brain as an audience doesn’t think, you know. It’s like you kind of hopefully feel more immersed in it in a way. So for me that’s something that we strived to do from the get-go, and I hope we succeeded [and] got to make our audience experience it, giving them a different experience.

Nerds & Beyond: I do think you definitely nailed it. There were several moments where I was very freaked out by what was happening on screen, so bravo. You guys did a fantastic job with this film.

Guillaume Rocheron: Thank you, thank you so much. I appreciate it.

Thank you to Guillaume for taking time to talk with us! Nope is out now in theaters and digital platforms. Check out the trailer below:

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By Julia
Julia is a writer/editor/content assistant for Nerds who joined the team in 2019.
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