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Interview: VFX Supervisor Guy Williams and Animation Supervisor Mark Gee Talk Bringing the Visual Effects of ‘Peacemaker’ to Life

James Gunn‘s HBO Max series Peacemaker has many exciting visual effects-heavy sequences and visual-effects-based characters. In typical James Gunn fashion, a non-human character is integrated into the story. With Guardians of the Galaxy, we were introduced to Rocket and Groot. With The Suicide Squad, it was Weasel and King Shark, and with Peacemaker, we have Eagly. On designing everyone’s favorite eagle sidekick, Wētā FX’s VFX supervisor Guy Williams explained that James Gunn (who Joey interviewed here) always wanted to ground the character in reality from the get-go:

“[James] kept on saying, “You’ve got to understand that this guy’s gonna steal the show. But he has to be 100%. Really, you have to watch them and believe that we trained an Eagle to do all of those things.” And so the goal then is to just read his character and not be hung up on whether or not he’s a CG bird. So a lot of the initial design work was just done in trying to find the visual character.

We’ve done birds before, and from a technical standpoint, they’re never easy. The feathers are very complex because they’re like shingles. They sort of stack on top of each other. But at the same time, they stack so perfectly, that they almost look like they’re a single surface. So you have to write a few pieces of software to get around the challenge of simulating that. Because the feathers are built out of hairs. So just one feather might have a couple of hundred hairs in it. The birds are covered in thousands of others. You have to get all that simulated so that it looks like a proper bird. Technically, we spent a few weeks refining the process because, as I said, we’ve done birds in the past, but getting it to have the eagle quality of the feathers being really comfortable to the skin took a little bit more effort. But once we got past the technical problems you run into, you then have the freedom to figure out who the character is.”

Photo courtesy of Wētā FX.

Animation supervisor Mark Gee, also from Wētā FX, explained that they went through the “Pepsi Challenge” when designing Eagly:

“We did what we call the Pepsi Challenge, where we grabbed some reference of an eagle walking on the shoreline and went to animation and they match that exactly, just so we could capture all of the personality there. So there’s a lot of back and forth about what Eagly should be. And it was interesting, as we kept going through the shots, we started off with the garage scene. First, his personality grew, and the animation team just started having a lot of fun with him. And as we got further into the episodes, his personality developed naturally. So that was a really cool thing to see.”

Photo courtesy of Wētā FX.

One of the most exciting sequences of the entire series is in episode six. A swarm of butterflies enters the police station and attacks every single officer inside, effectively possessing their bodies in the process. Gee explained the process of designing the visual effects for the sequence, which gave the animation department lots of creative freedom:

“There was also a stage where the butterflies would enter and then the actors would basically play dead like the butterflies are taking control of their mind. And you get the whole swarm of the butterflies coming through the police station at the same time. And that iconic shot of Song [Annie Chang] just walking through the front door and the hallway, with the butterflies behind it, is such a great shot. And they spent a lot of time as far as making sure that we had the variation in the butterflies with the swarming, and the interaction with the live-action characters as well. That was quite a tricky thing to get.”

Photo courtesy of Wētā FX.

Williams then went on to praise James Gunn’s direction for the look and feel of the sequence:

“James is such an all-around director. You know, he writes an amazing story, he directs amazing performances, but he’s also a very strong visual director. A lot of what made that seem special was the visual composition of the butterflies. Like he didn’t just say, “Just give me a bunch of butterflies. I want a lot of butterflies, blah, blah.” You know, he was very specific in some of the shots, especially on the choreography of the butterflies, like the shot where Song is walking down the hallway, and you have all the butterflies behind her come around her and completely include her figure, followed by the shot of [Lochlyn Munro’s Fitzgibbon running away from the butterflies]. He wanted a huge butterfly in-camera, right in front of his face. Onto the first set of storyboards, James outlined what he had in mind. It’s all carefully thought out ahead of time.”

Photo courtesy of Wētā FX.

Another incredible sequence was when Peacemaker (John Cena) and John Economos (Steve Agee) fought Charlie the Gorilla. The gorilla itself and the blood were fully CG, according to Guy Williams:

“When James wanted the gorilla cut in half, they used a lot of practical blood on set. You know, the stuff that sprang down to John on his face when he’s lying on the ground with the gorilla standing over, that’s all practical. Obviously, the chains on the gorilla were CG at that point. So we had to do a sim on our side, that maxed the amount of blood that was going down to the ground on the B side. Once we started doing it, we’re like, “Oh, you, you can add a lot of blood because it becomes really easy to turn that faucet on.” So you didn’t expect John to go up and be absolutely covered in blood. There’s definitely a lot of CG blood, there’s a lot of fallen augmentation, a lot of legs getting chopped off, and arms getting chopped off in the final fight.”

One of the more challenging sequences with CGI blood was when Royland Goff (Antonio Cupo)’s head blows up, as described by Mark Gee:

“We spent a lot of time working on getting the consistency of the blood, not only to be blood but like brain fluid as well. As the butterfly lifts his legs out of Goff’s head, you see the stringy bits on the end, and then he flies off, and the blood gets shaken off. So there was a lot of detail work on that. And James knew exactly what he wanted with that as well. So it was a tough one to crack, but we ended up getting it in the end.”

On constructing helmet effects for Peacemaker, particularly the sonic boom one which appears at the end of the first episode, Guy Williams explained that they had to make it look like a bomb crater to sell the effectiveness of Christopher Smith’s sonic boom:

“So we built the whole area that he’s sitting in so that we can make it look like the concrete was pushed down into the ground. And you understood that when the shockwave goes off, his helmet creates a force field to protect him and the immediate area so that everything other than him and the immediate area gets totally destroyed. It made for a nice little scene at the end when he’s sitting there having a remarkable moment. And then James says “Temper that back with a little bit of humor.” Eagly drops the possum in the foreground and nudges him.”

Mark Gee then shared a funny story on the effectiveness of the practical sonic boom effects:

“When they were using the sonic boom, the explosions were actually practical. In fact, there’s a funny story where one of the guys comes out holding the helmet and explodes. And they were using a dummy for that. But the producer walked away at some point, and didn’t seem to swap in the dummy for the real guy, and then just turned it around as it exploded. So we thought they actually killed someone on set [laughs].”

Photo courtesy of Wētā FX.

In designing the infamous cow, Guy Williams explained that they based it on multiple animals:

“One of the beautiful things about moviemaking is when we can see something that’s so obviously not natural, but we can empathize with it, we can associate with it, we can relate to it. So we had to put a lot of effort into detailing the cow. We found lots of references to elephants and hippos to try to figure out how that large skin would hang down and sag. You’re trying to figure out how to add all this detail so that when you look at it, you believe that they’re actually in the cabin with a cow. We put a giant space caterpillar in it and then it gets even more special. And this leads to the point where you have to read it on some of the shots after they’ve been shot because it’s not framing well enough for the cow or you’re not selling the scale of the cow enough. We would do a lot of takeovers on shots so that we could make sure the composition worked, always staying true to [Sam McCurdy’s] vision so that we aren’t we are changing the narrative that they were going for when they shot it.”

Photo courtesy of Wētā FX.

You can listen to our full conversation below and stream all episodes of Peacemaker on HBO Max:

[Quotes were edited for length and clarity]

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Written by Maxance Vincent

Maxance Vincent is a freelance film and TV critic, and a recent graduate of a BFA in Film Studies at the Université de Montréal. He is currently finishing a specialization in Video Game Studies, focusing on the psychological effects regarding the critical discourse on violent video games.

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