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Was Project Sign Real? The Real-Life UFO Investigators From Quantum Leap Explained

Quantum Leap director Chris Grismer reveals how Steven Spielberg's Close Encounters of the Third Kind deeply influenced this week's episode, "Closure Encounters."

By Tara Bennett

For anyone fascinated by UFO stories, the latest Quantum Leap was a treasure trove of "Roswell incident" lore as Ben (Raymond Lee) leapt into "Project Sign" investigator Agent Cook in 1949. Set in New Mexico two years after the reported Roswell UFO crash in July 1947, Ben has to essentially prove aliens exist to accomplish his task. Along the way, he meets waitress Hannah Carson (Eliza Taylor) who immediately connects with Ben and proves to be a wise ally in his latest mission. 

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Watch Quantum Leap on NBC and Peacock

Directing all of this week's intrigue is Chris Grismer, Quantum Leap's resident producer/director, who told NBC Insider that he won the proverbial episode lottery in getting to tell "Closure Encounters."

RELATED: Was 1947's UFO incident at Roswell simply the result of a secret balloon experiment?

"Being such a sci-fi / horror fan already, I feel like getting the exorcism episode ["O Ye of Little Faith"] that played on Halloween last year and then getting the big sci-fi one this year really played into some of the stuff that I love," he said. 

Was the Air Force really investigating UFOs?

Project Sign, the United States Air Force-led investigation that Agent Cook/Ben is working for in the episode is one of the very first real-life government-funded studies of UFOs. The group was created in 1948 to follow-up on domestic reports of UFOs or strange phenomenon reported by the public to determine an national security threats.

Because of the brevity of the investigation period, Project Sign doesn't have the same instant recognition as the Air Force's subsequent longer investigation, Project Blue Book, which operated from 1952 to 1969 with the help of astrophysics professor Dr. J. Allen Hynek. For those who know their UFOlogy, Hynek had a cameo in Steven Spielberg's Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977) as one of the scientists who observe the spaceship at Devil's Tower, Wyoming. 

Dr. Ben Song looks concerned wearing a har on Quantum Leap episode 203

How Steven Spielberg influenced "Closure Encounters"

In the episode, the late '40s setting allows for Grismer to do a full period piece mixed with a retro alien thriller, like the pulp sci-fi stories so popular in the '40s and '50s. The director said to get the episode's period-meets-alien invasion-esque aesthetics, he looked at two specific classics — the aforementioned Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977) and the original run of Rod Serling's The Twilight Zone (1959) — to create a unique color palette and overall feel that harkened back to the era. 

"And then, we use some of the tools that we have now like drones that are carrying lights that we then we tripled with the VFX," he explained. "We used flare filters on the ground to really expand the lights. I remember being a little kid and seeing Close Encounters in the theater. When the lights came up over the mountains, I got the chills, so I wanted to recreate something like that. I don't think we quite got to Spielberg's level, but we've really, really used it as inspiration to create something unique."

Spielberg also worked with a major movie budget, which television does not have. But Grismer said it inspired him and his team to get extra creative to make the episode feel cinematic. "For instance, when [Ben] sees the aliens, I had to go back to my music video days and created a set out of some horror makeup, an old gurney and some some plastic tarps with dirt on them," he laughed. "The art department brought their stuff in, we did some cool lighting and, and it really came together with some interesting camera angles. But then, we had nights where we were flying two drones for those really exciting car sequences."

New episodes of Quantum Leap premiere every Wednesday at 8 p.m. ET on NBC and stream next-day on Peacock.

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