Near the beginning of “Nope,” Emerald (Keke Palmer), who with her brother, Otis Jr. (Daniel Kaluuya), runs an animal-wrangling service for Hollywood shoots, delivers a pitch on a set. (If you’ve seen the traileryou’ve heard the abridged version.)
She cites a milestone in the development of cinema: a famous series of sequential photographs from the 19th century depicting a horse in motion. Emerald suggests that the crew members she is addressing will know the name of the man who captured those images, the photographer Eadweard Muybridge. But they won’t be able to name the jockey riding the horse. That pioneering actor and stunt man, Emerald says, was her great-great-great grandfather her.
That last part is a bit of invention by the writer-director, Jordan Peele. His point his is that the identity of the Black horse rider is probably unknown, and that from the start of movies, the camera — with its power to see — has also left certain people, and certain stories, unseen.
Muybridge is the guiding spirit of “Nope,” in which the siblings, along with an electronics-store employee (Brandon Perea) and a cinematographer (Michael Wincott), try to snap a photo of an elusive extraterrestrial presence. They’re attempting to capture an impossible shot, with a subject that, like Muybridge’s horses, is too fast to pin down. And since the UFO scrambles all the electricity in its path, they have to innovate with analog technology, as Muybridge did. (Muybridge was also a chronicler of the American West.)
But the actual development of Muybridge’s experiments — and the question of whether the rider’s identity is truly unknown — is complicated.
In a preface to his book “Animals in Motion,” Muybridge recalled that his experiments in photographing movement began in 1872, when he sought to answer the question of whether, at any point in a horse’s stride, all four feet simultaneously left the ground. By his own account his, he was able to capture silhouettes of four airborne feet with more or less ordinary photographic equipment at a racetrack in Sacramento. But the effort ignited his desire his to make something more cinematic, as we would now think of it : images photographed in rapid succession at defined intervals of time, the better to understand animal movement generally.
In the late 1870s, in Palo Alto, Calif., on the farm of the state’s former governor (and future senator and university founder) Leland Stanford, Muybridge conducted further experiments, developing a system in which carefully arrayed cameras were connected to wires that a horse’s travels along a track could trip. (During the intervening years, Muybridge would stand trial for the murder of his wife’s lover and be acquitted on the grounds that it was justifiable homicide — but let’s leave that for a future Peele film.)
By Muybridge’s recollection, the series of photographs that became known as “The Horse in Motion” was first published in 1878. The next year, he would begin holding presentations that put his sequential photographs — or, technically, artistic reproductions of them — in motion, using a device he called the zoopraxiscope, a forerunner of the film projector. And as far as “The Horse in Motion” is concerned, some (though not all) of the stills held at the Library of Congress indicate the names of the riders.
But those photographs are not the images shown in “Nope.” The Muybridge works in the movie, with the unnamed rider, are from “Plate Number 626,” part of a later series of locomotion studies that Muybridge began at the University of Pennsylvania in 1884 and published in 1887.
By then, he had access to a new process, dry-plate photography, that was more sensitive to light and detail. At Penn, he undertook what he described as a “more systematic and comprehensive investigation,” photographing a wide variety of animals and men and women of all shapes and sizes, often in the nude. The goal was to see the body in motion, after all.
There were even “horses with naked riders, male and female,” as the narrator notes in “Eadweard Muybridge, Zoopraxographer” (1975), an early documentary from Thom Andersen (“Los Angeles Plays Itself”) that is essential viewing for anyone who wants to learn more about the scope of Muybridge’s ambitions and to see his photographs brought to life. (The film is streaming on Mubi.)
The rider featured in “Nope” happens to be clothed, and a published version of those images indicates that the photographs were meant to illustrate a gallop. The caption information says the horse was a thoroughbred mare named Annie. It also indicates various times and measurements related to her stride.
But the name of the rider is not mentioned. According to Andersen’s film, that is typical: While Muybridge’s catalog “gives the names of all the horses, mules and dogs,” the voice-over says, Muybridge generally “identifies his human models only by number.”
So while the images in “Nope” aren’t, strictly speaking, the horse ride that gave birth to cinema, the pioneering actor, animal wrangler and stunt man shown in them probably is unknown. He sits alongside the many other male athletes, women mimicking housework and children in Muybridge’s oeuvre: an anonymous cast of characters from early film history.