Inside the Eerie UFO Design for Jordan Peele's 'Nope'
The inspiration for the flying object came from the depths of the ocean.
This piece contains major spoilers for Nope.
Jordan Peele's third feature film Nope is, at first, a classic UFO movie, like something out of an X-Files episode, or an unused Close Encounters of the Third Kind sequel. Until, that is, it isn't a UFO movie—not in the ways in which we expect. About halfway through the film, tech store employee Angel (Brandon Perea) mentions the fact that, at a certain point, "they" stopped using the term Unidentified Flying Object to refer to the floating saucers people see in the sky, and replaced it with the duller acronym UAP, or Unidentified Aerial Phenomenon. The thing that shows up in Nope to menace a ranch full of horses could be more accurately described as a UAP rather than a UFO: "Object" calls to mind a machine; "phenomenon" opens the door to all kinds of other possibilities.
Our heroes soon discover that the floating saucer-like shape, which they nickname Jean Jacket, tearing through the sky and sucking up everything in its wake isn't a spaceship, or a vehicle of any kind. It's a creature, a floating predator with a giant mouth hole that, as the film races toward its conclusion, gradually unfurls its diaphanous body to reveal its jellyfish-like true form. It was our planet's own jellyfish, along with squid and octopi and various other sea creatures, that provided the inspiration for Jean Jacket's otherworldly appearance, thanks to John O. Dabiri, an engineering professor at CalTech whose research studies animal behavior and fluid dynamics to create new technologies.
In a phone conversation with Thrillist, Dabiri went in depth on how he and Peele's team created this creature, which animal behaviors they used for inspiration, and whether there could be more Jean Jackets hiding in plain sight amongst the clouds.
Thrillist: So, how did these conversations start? How did they find you?
John Dabiri: It started a while back. Being at a university, at CalTech, and being close to LA and Hollywood, I get a lot of emails from people who are interested in the science perspective for TV shows, movies, and whatnot. And, usually, I just don't write back to them, because I'm having too much fun, I guess, in my day job, doing research. In this case, it was a friend of a friend who got in touch with me and said, "Hey, there's a production company that is doing this movie, and part of the movie relates to the work you do." It was really because of this other colleague I knew that I decided to follow up. And then I found out, after that, it was a Jordan Peele movie. Once I knew that, then, of course, it was pretty easy to say, "Yeah, I'll do this."
Jean Jacket is one of the main features of the movie, and the way it's described in the script and in my conversations with Jordan, it was fun to think about ways that we could pull features that people would say, "Oh, that's impossible." But, in fact, in the ocean, you find these very exotic creatures that would have these different characteristics. Nature has already given us some pretty out-there and unusual creatures. We just don't see them, particularly the ones in the ocean, because the ocean is kind of invisible to most of us.
I was thinking of that squid that they took that picture of… oh, I even looked this up today, and now I can't remember. But it has those really long tentacles, it looks like it has elbows. [Ed. note: It was the bigfin squid.]
Dabiri: Exactly. There are species like that, that have only been photographed a couple of times, or washed up on shore. But, because the ocean is so huge, it's rare that we come across them. And the reality is that we don't do enough ocean science. One of my main areas of research is in trying to develop techniques and tools to be able to explore the ocean more effectively. So, the idea of an alien species or creature—I mean, we have that beneath our feet in the ocean already. We just don't know it yet.
And even in the sky? Maybe? Possibly?
Dabiri: Right! It created challenges, but also opportunities to do some unique things. The idea of, okay, how could something like this hide in the clouds? Where would it come from? When you have something in the sky, sound is going to propagate differently through air than it does underwater. So, the sound effects were a really key part of giving you the sense of the power of this creature. Also, just the fact that having something that large that can move that fast—physics says that you're going to have to then somehow figure out a way to incorporate how Jean Jacket affects all the air around it, to be able to pull up horses and people and all of that.
Obviously, it's science fiction, but in most cases, you could come up with plausible ways in which Jean Jacket could do what it did in the movie. I hope there'll be a director's cut later on, because there's some really cool scenes outside of what you see in the two-hour six-minute runtime theater version, that I think are also really awesome. They said they think that might happen. I'm not going to speak on behalf of them.
I love anything creature-related, and I was so happy that there was no twist that was like, "well, actually, it's this thing." It's just a beast coming after you!
Dabiri: It's a beast, and it has all of these interesting properties about looking at it in the eye—which we actually see in other animals, they make that nice analogy with the horse—that metamorphosis that it has at the end, going from the more conventional UFO flying saucer shape and at the end revealing itself.
I took them down to our lab here at CalTech. When we feed our jellyfish, they have what are called oral arms, which are these almost silk-like ribbons that end up getting released and displayed when they're feeding. It's really cool to see the analogy between feeding time in my lab, when we put little tiny baby shrimp in there and they all get pulled and caught with the tentacles, versus what you see at the end of the movie, that same type of unfurling of Jean Jacket.
Jordan is just a really creative person. In science, as a professor, I'm always excited to get to work with a new grad student who is really creative and has great ideas for their research. I'd love to recruit Jordan into the lab. He's really got that creativity that's really important for what we do.
Yeah, he can ditch moviemaking and go into marine science.
Dabiri: [Laughs] Once he's done with all these amazing movies.
Do you remember any other specific creatures that you used for inspiration?
Dabiri: Yeah—jellyfish and squid and octopus, a lot of these marine species. There's other types of jellyfish that maybe don't immediately come to your mind. When you think of a jellyfish, you're probably thinking of the umbrella-shaped animals, but there are other jellyfish shapes that actually don't have this really dramatic body motion as they're swimming. They are almost like a rigid object. Instead, they have these rows of really thin hairs that paddle the water around them. They're typically called comb jellies, like a hair comb. In those species, you get this behavior where they move very quietly or stealthily through the water. They don't disturb a lot of the water around them when they're attacking their prey.
In the first part of the movie, you're just seeing glimpses of Jean Jacket. It doesn't do the really big, dramatic displays until toward the end. Some biological creatures, they do as much as they can to stay under the radar, so to speak, by keeping a pretty rigid shape. And only occasionally, if those comb jellies, for example, are going to eat prey, they will very quickly do that, and then go back to that stealth mode.
There are some marine species, most popularly electric eels but also ghost knifefish (great name), that generate electric fields. There was some opportunity to lean into that aspect even more. For example, you could use that to explain how the jamming worked; and you could use it for electric propulsion, which would in theory explain Jean Jacket’s fast flying without wings/sails. I think the movie worked well without those science details, but I was prepared with a few different explanations if people asked how Jean Jacket was able to fly so effectively without flapping wings.
You have this thing that's up in the air, and so there's the other question of, how does this thing stay aloft? Some of it is using air currents, some of it is the idea of it almost breathing to stay up there, in the same way that, underwater, you get these jellyfish that are neutrally buoyant, and they have this sort of breathing motion. There's lots of different ways that we thought about trying to explain those mechanisms. There's a scene that is not in the actual movie that says a bit more about the origin of Jean Jacket—and I won't spoil that, if it comes out later—that also could play into trying to understand where it came from, how it functions.
There were little glimpses, like that one shot of it spewing vapor from its mouth, and you're like, "Okay, that must be how it makes the clouds…"
Dabiri: Exactly. You've got this one cloud that persists in that one spot. And so, naturally, one way to do that is for Jean Jacket itself to be creating this vapor. There's lots of ways you can do that, in terms of the physics of a system like that, so that wasn't too much of a stretch. But the interesting thing was that the same animal could then metamorphose into something very different toward the end of the movie.
The way that it kept unfolding itself, how in every shot you can see some new part of it, was just so fantastic.
Dabiri: That's part of Jordan's vision for giving you more and more of what this is. The first couple of glimpses, you're like, "Okay, is this like a typical UFO flying saucer kind of thing?" And then you get some closer and closer glimpses. I watched the film two, three months ago, before a lot of the visual effects were put in, and what we talked about at that point was textures. When it comes up close, you start to understand this isn't some big metal hole, it actually has a skin to it. And then there's one scene where it banks really hard, and you get this waviness on the surface, almost like a sheath. And that's the first hint that this thing might be composed of these sail-like structures that later get unfurled.
It works so perfectly not just with the themes of the movie around working with animals, but also with ufology. People are always debating the flying saucer thing, like, how is this aerodynamic? How can a machine move like this? It works so much better here that it's not a machine, it's a living thing that's doing all of these things.
Dabiri: That was one of the things we talked about with Jordan a lot. In nature, through the course of evolution, you get these animals that, because of natural selection, because of the environment that they're adapting to, they end up becoming very efficient. The jellyfish that we study, the reason we study them scientifically is that they're actually the most energy efficient of all swimming animals. Any animals underwater, they go from point A to point B. You think of sharks or dolphins or something like that as being really good swimmers, but it turns out that that jellyfish shape has actually survived mass extinction events in the ocean. For the past 550 million years, they've been doing what they do in basically every body of water.
One of the questions was, are there features from that really efficient body plan that we can adopt for Jean Jacket, which makes Jean Jacket so effective being able to stay motionless in a spot for a long period of time without expending too much energy? Because in order to get energy, like any creature, you've got to feed. Doing that selectively, depending on how it interacts with people who are interested in the spectacle, that whole aspect of the relationship between Jean Jacket and all of us trying to get a shot of it is also really cool.
It makes perfect sense that they used someone who studies marine life for this.
Dabiri: Jaws is, of course, the classic example of a movie that thinks about aquatic creatures as the villain or the scary object in the movie. But the way that Jordan didn't make it a creature that's really a… it's not a bird, and it's also not a conventional fish, but it pulls these various features from different predators. Having the stealth mode, having this ability to hone in on its prey, to hover. That scene over the house, where it's raining blood from inside the mouth, and the water shooting over the top, was another really interesting one because it starts to give you a sense of Jean Jacket's ability to be a predator, and to attack its prey.
I study fluid dynamics, broadly. Motion of air, water, blood, you name it. Trying to get it so that the rain hitting on the top of Jean Jacket would sheet over the sides of it, so you get this louder rushing sound when Jean Jacket's over the house—it's almost like when you drive through the carwash, when you get to that part where they've got the big sheet of water, you get that loud rush. And then when Jean Jacket's moving away, because that rushing sound, the shooting of the water over the top, moves away. The sound and the mixing, they just did an incredible job getting that part right.
As a scientist, you're not always jumping at the chance to engage on a movie or something because the science can be either too on-the-nose, so that it just doesn't get people excited, or it's too much of a caricature of the way the science might actually be. I think Jordan was interested in finding that mix of keeping his artistic vision, but making sure that the science was injected well. That last scene, where you're seeing the display from Jean Jacket, with those sort of ribbons coming out and flapping, we had some interesting conversations about what that might look like in a real animal versus what he had in his mind. He really wanted that rectangular geometry for the eye, that flapping motion. You don't typically see that too much in biology, those really regular features, but, in a sense, I think that was intentional here. To say that there are parts of this, even by earthly biological standards, that are bizarre and really not of this world.
And if you see something like that on an animal, you're gonna keep looking at it. And, of course, that's how Jean Jacket hunts.
Dabiri: You're staring at it long enough for Jean Jacket to be able to get you.
Was there anything that you came up with, in your conversations about designing this thing, that didn't end up being used but you thought was pretty cool?
Dabiri: This is my first time doing this, so I don't want to ruin anything that they might have planned for later on. I would just say, there's a lot more stuff that they filmed that I think is really exciting. I personally hope that it will be released, whether it's in a director's cut or something. I don't know what their plans are for that.
But in terms of how did Jean Jacket get here? Let's see, what can I say without saying too much? Let me give you a concrete biological analogy. Jellyfish have what's called an asexual reproduction state. Basically, if you find one jellyfish, there's bound to be many, many others in the area, because they all tend to be born, so to speak, out of the same egg. So, it's rare that you find one of them. Here in this story, there's one Jean Jacket that we see. Suppose the question is, is Jean Jacket really one of one, or are there others? Is Jean Jacket actually dead?
There's a species of jellyfish that's called the immortal jellyfish, because if you damage it or otherwise harm it, it goes back to almost like an embryonic form, and hibernates in that state, and then comes back later when conditions are more favorable. I'm not the movie maker. But if it was me, I would say there would be some interesting opportunity to ask the question of whether we've seen the last of Jean Jacket.