Wētā FX’s Guy Williams and Mark Gee talk about bringing the scene-stealing avian sidekick to life for James Gunn's celebrated DCEU spinoff series, now streaming on HBO Max.
From its opening dance number/credit sequence to John Cena’s acclaimed performance as the eponymous character, the DC Extended Universe spinoff series Peacemaker – which picks up a short time after the events of the 2021 film The Suicide Squad – has proven to be both a popular and critical success. Created by James Gunn, who wrote and directed The Suicide Squad, the series premiered on January 13, 2022 on HBO Max, with a second season slated for release next year.
OK, all well and good, you may be thinking, but what about the quantum closet and the caterpillar cow and the alien butterflies that burrow into human brains to take over their bodies? And, even more importantly, what about scene-stealing Eagly, Peacemaker’s pet bald eagle and best friend, who plays no small part in the proceedings?
All of the above, and more, are the work of New Zealand-based Wētā FX, whose exemplary visual effects are, well, pretty much everywhere in the expansive world of M&E. To learn more about Wētā’s singular contributions to the DCEU series, we spoke with visual effects supervisors Guy Williams and Mark Gee, who were more than happy to take a deep dive into the process of creating raptors, cat-cows, and other fantastical elements of the Peacemaker universe.
In Part 1 of our interview, they discuss the creation of Eagly, which, Williams and Gee agree, was by far the most challenging part of their job.
AWN: Eagly is an amazingly realistic bald eagle. Where did you start and what did you use for reference?
Guy Williams: In fact, the most important directive we got from James [Gunn] was that Eagly had to be real. It's not a character that looks like a raccoon and has a snarky attitude. It doesn't have a cup of coffee in the morning and talk to you over breakfast. It's just a bald eagle. “But,” he says, “with that in mind, imagine that it's the smartest bald eagle out of all the bald eagles on the planet. This is the one that caps out the IQ curve for what a bird can do, the smartest of the bird brains.” Those were our marching orders.
So, our animation team worked with James trying to figure out what that actually means. We went through all these reference materials about real birds. And not only bald eagles, some of our ideas came from a parrot. But we were trying to find naturalistic references that show what a bald eagle's version of an emotion is. The closest we came to breaking that rule was in the car scene, where Eagly has his head out the window. There was a lot of back and forth about whether it was too much like a dog, and we were trying to find out if an eagle even has a tongue to wag in the wind.
I know our animation team had great time with it. The charm is trying to figure out how to portray emotion without overselling it and without going off your very limited sound board of responses that a bird can give – how to stack those in such a way that you understand the emotion, but you don't feel like it's personified.
Mark Gee: We would show something to James and he'd burst out laughing, and then he would say, “Oh, wouldn't it be cool if...” That was what happened with the eagle and the car thing, which ended up being one of James's favorite shots of the whole series. But overall, as we went through each episode, Eagly started to get a personality organically. The artists would start animating, and they'd find these other little personas to put into Eagly, based on different references. And it was interesting how his personality just developed over time.
GW: The one other thing I would add is that the success of Eagly was a collaboration. Yes, we did the digital aspect of the creature. We put the feathers on it. But the thing that makes Eagly land so well in those episodes is the broad collaboration with the director, the DP, the actors. The way John Cena 100% acted like Eagly was really there, and like he was his brother and best friend. It's the genuineness of the performances around him that made Eagly succeed so well.
AWN: Wēta does so many complex digital characters. Was Eagly more difficult to create from a technical perspective, or was the main challenge just in the performance?
GW: We knew from day one that cat-cow and Eagly were going to be the two hardest things. But cat-cow's only in two episodes, and Eagly's in all of them. And Eagly's not just some bird in the background, swooping around. We knew that we had to do Eagly to a certain level too, which technically is actually really challenging.
When we did the eagles on Lord of the Rings in the original trilogy, we wrote a piece of software that pelted all the feathers onto the bird equally spaced, which is pretty important. It's called “Pelt.” And then we treated the feathers as just square polygons. So the software basically went through every feather one at a time, laid it on top of the feather below it, and then just went backwards up the birds in the stacking order of the feathers. You got this really smooth look to the bird, but it was incredibly slow to run and it had a lot of problems. And the feathers still interpenetrated a lot, because you were only accounting for the general shape of them. To shade those feathers, we just put an anisotropic shader on the surface and put a feather texture on the card. It worked, but, by today's standards, it's not going to hold up, especially that close to camera, especially surrounded by reality.
So, nowadays, what we do is we simulate the actual feather. The rachis [shaft] is a curve, and every barb coming off the rachis – which are a couple hundred per feather – is curved. And then you write shaders to simulate the minute filaments, and filaments of filaments. It's almost like a tree branching system. If you don't get that right, you don't get the shading right. The feather doesn't look like a real feather.
So each one of these curves has translucency, as if it's a thin hollow acrylic cylinder, which is what feathers are like. Then when it comes to the rigging side of things, the first version of the bird actually has the feathers sitting on the surface. The rig then pops all the feathers straight out from the surface and then slowly lays them back down. But now they're properly colliding with each other instead of just doing a stacking routine. What this allows you to do is to get the feathers really smooth on the surface, but as they go across the curved surface, you actually start to see them roll on the surface. So you're shaping the feather based on this collision.
It sounds pretty straightforward, but you're talking about thousands of feathers, and it's not simply that A collides with B. A collides with B, but A is also colliding with C. So it’s almost like a water simulation, you have to move it – it's not a straightforward, single-pass simulation. And we still have to cheat some aspects of it, because there's no way you can do it totally realistically. What we had going for us was foresight. When we read the breakdown in the script, we knew how hard birds were. We knew that it wasn’t going to be the kind of thing where you just put it into the preproduction departments, and a few weeks later you get a bird. We knew that we were going to have to put a lot of eyes on trying to solve all the very specific problems.
GW: We were also lucky enough to have Jason Galeon as our CG supervisor. He's like a homing torpedo. We just unleashed him, and he got all the pertinent parties together, and had meeting after meeting, going slowly through the process, saying, "All right, we've got that figured out. Now, how do we fix this?" The result was that, by the end of the show, Eagly was one of the easiest things we had to. Animation could animate it. We could bake it. We could render it. It was done. We didn't have to try to fix every shot as a one-off.
Dan Sarto is Publisher and Editor-in-Chief of Animation World Network.