Betsy Paterson has been working in visual effects for over 25 years, but she has found a niche for herself of late as VFX Supervisor for television shows like Marco Polo and Carnival Row. After finishing last year’s movie, The Suicide Squad, filmmaker James Gunn decided to spin-off John Cena’s Peacemaker character into his very own HBO Max series, and Paterson signed on as VFX Supe.
There were many visual effects challenges on Peacemaker, including the title character’s sidekick — a photorealistic bald eagle named Eagly. Meanwhile, the primary villains of the series, an alien race referred to as “Butterflies,” would also need to be created with visual effects. Those key characters represented only part of Paterson’s expansive responsibilities, as the HBO Max series required nearly as many VFX shots as the biggest blockbuster movies.
Below the Line hopped on Zoom with Ms. Paterson for the following conversation about the visual effects work on Peacemaker.
BTL: I spoke to Guy Williams and Mark Gee from Weta FX who worked on Peacemaker [Editor’s Note: Look for that interview soon], and they also worked on The Suicide Squad, but you didn’t work on that, so how did you get involved in this series?
Paterson: I go way back with James, and this was a nice chance to work together. I do more episodic stuff than features these days, and it was his first episodic experience, so the timing just worked out.
BTL: Were they finished with post on The Suicide Squad by the time you started shooting in Vancouver?
Paterson: They were still finishing up, mostly. By the time we started shooting, they were done I think. After that… I mean, James works a lot, so I think he was still working weekends, polishing things up through most of the shoot.
BTL: How far in advance did you get involved? I’m not sure if there was any overlap between the two projects, but I feel like The Suicide Squad was finished and then sat for a while before being released.
Paterson: They were working on post the whole time. There were quite a lot of effects on that. I got involved it must have been September/October 2020, I think? Maybe even a month or two earlier than that, because I went up to Vancouver to get ready for the shoot in probably early November 2020, and then we shot the first half of ’21 and posted the second half, and here we are. Came out in January.
BTL: I know James is a fast writer, so I imagine he had all the episodes written for you to read in advance?
Paterson: He had all of them, yeah. It’s great to start to show, knowing what the entire story is. It really helps a lot to develop characters and really understand the vision for the whole thing.
BTL: When you got the scripts, what was the first thing you knew you had to nail or figure out. I have to assume it was Eagly or the Butterflies?
Paterson: Definitely the Butterflies and the cow were certainly a big challenge, but Eagly is what drew me to the project, because he’s really gotta feel like a member of the team, so that was the most important thing to get right, definitely. Having Guy and Mark and the Weta team really made us feel better. We knew we would be able to pull it off with those guys helping.
BTL: Peacemaker isn’t really a show for kids. I’m sure some parents might let their kids watch it, and I worry that any kids reading this might be upset that Eagly isn’t real. It might be like finding out that Santa Claus isn’t real, since Eagly looks so real.
Paterson: I’ve met some grown-ups who are upset that he isn’t real. That was our main goal is to just make people fall in love with him as a character, but also really believe that he was there and in the scenes
BTL: Were Guy and Mark sending you early versions of Eagly as they were developing him?
Paterson: We did a lot of pre-vis and post-vis with Proof, a pre-vis company here in LA, so we would send Guy and Mark, our really cartoony, rough animations, of, “He’s gotta go here, he’s gotta do this,” and then they would start sending stuff back pretty quickly. They really jumped on it, so maybe a month into shooting, we started seeing bits and pieces. So it was very good.
BTL: I think they mentioned that James was using a plushie of some kind on set to represent Eagly? It was nothing fancy like an animatronic or anything like that?
Paterson: We had a real built model made by one of the people that does eagle statues for people’s homes, and it had chicken feathers, was painted up, and looked very realistic. We would bring that out as reference for everybody to say, ‘This is how big he is,’ and we could look at the lighting in the scene on him and make sure he was going to look good. What John [Cena] dealt with most when he had to touch him and interact with him was just kind of like a gray pillow really, so that he could have something to touch and hold.
BTL: I’ve known James for some time, and I know that he’s so into practical stuff and doing as much in-camera as possible, but since he’s done Guardians of the Galaxy and then Suicide Squad, he seems to be veering more towards visual effects. I’m not sure if that’s just the nature of those movies.
Paterson: It’s really difficult to pull off creatures like Eagly and Rocket, and a giant starfish in Suicide Squad, without visual effects, but what both James and I are most interested in is using the best tool for the job and mixing practical effects with visual effects. It’s never just one or the other. Even with Eagly, we’d still have fans, making sure that the ground got disturbed properly. There are all sorts of things you can do to build a practical reaction of the world to the CG character. It’s a lot of mixing and matching between practical and visual effects.
BTL: Going back a bit, I know you’ve been working in VFX for some time. I know you were at Rhythm & Hues for a while, so are you based out of a specific VFX house now or freelance?
Paterson: No, I’ve been independent since Rhythm and Hues, so for the last seven or eight years. Right as I left Rhythm and Hues was right about when streaming and the more high-end episodic stuff was taking off. I found it a really interesting area, and I like the pace of it. Features, you’re spending the same amount of time to do two hours’ worth of stuff. On the streaming shows, we shoot a little bit longer, but the overall schedule is about the same as for a feature, but what we’re doing is usually eight hours, so it makes you have to be efficient. It kind of cuts down on a lot of the changes. You get to really think about what you’re doing and have to plan it out and do it the right way from the start in order to pull off these big feature-level effects on a TV schedule and budget.
BTL: Weta seemed to do a lot on this one, so what other vendors did you end up using?
Paterson: We used Crafty Apes for quite a bit of the rest of the stuff because we did have a lot of comps and set extensions and things like that as well, so they helped us out quite a bit.
BTL: By now, you must be used to the crazy time zone differences while communicating with vendors, especially with Weta in New Zealand.
Paterson: They’re not so bad, really. They’re three hours later or three hours earlier, but a day ahead, so on our Sunday, it’s Monday for them, so we come in on Monday morning, we have a bunch of stuff to look at from them.
BTL: I was curious how you decided to split up the VFX shots. I guess Weta is generally known for its creature work.
Paterson: They did the creatures, and then the non-creature shots were Crafty Apes. We had a few other vendors come in at the end when we had so much stuff to do. We had to call in extra help.
BTL: This was completely made in the pandemic, so all the shooting was done with COVID protocols, I assume?
Paterson: We tested three times a week, we had masks. Poor James had to be in this little plastic cage on set so that nobody could breathe on him. It was tough, but it went well. We didn’t actually get shut down at all the whole time which was an accomplishment at the time in Vancouver.
BTL: We should also talk about some of the other things like the Butterflies, which are an interesting concept, especially when they’re incorporated into a crazy fight sequence like the one in one of the later episodes. What’s happening on set when James is shooting stuff like that, which will involve so many visual effects?
Paterson: It was tough with the butterflies in the scene where they come into the police station and the jail. It’s a lot of stunt people and extras to kind of understand these invisible creatures, so it was a lot of James and I running around saying, ‘No, no, you gotta open your mouth to let the butterfly in before you fall on the ground.’ There were a lot of rehearsals and choreography going on with the stunt coordinator. It was tough, but it helped, and we had pre-vis at the time, so we could show everybody, ‘This is what’s going to be happening.’ That and the scene where Eagly is attacking all the guys were the hardest probably to stage and choreograph, because getting that many people to react to these things in real-time, when they can’t see anything, it’s tough.
BTL: How much stuff did you actually pre-vis before shooting began?
Paterson: Not a lot. The scene with Eagly in the fight, we had pre-vised a couple of shots of what it would look like for him to attack somebody and have them fall over. A lot of it was “stunt-vis.” The stunt team would choreograph stuff, and then we’d go back and forth, and we’d be like, ‘No, Eagly probably couldn’t fly around that fast to get to that other guy, so we need to add a little more time here.’ Those big scenes were more stunt pre-vis than visual effects pre-vis, but the whole end scene with the cow in the cavern, there was a lot of pre-vis going into that, because obviously, we didn’t have a set that big, so we were only shooting a little corner of the real place. We had to be able to understand what was happening in the rest of the space so that the actors knew what to look at [and] where to go.
BTL: The guys from Weta also mentioned the Quantum Closet, which was also mostly done using visual effects?
Paterson: We had set pieces, the stuff right around them, kind of in a circle. [Those were] all practical set pieces but yes, extending beyond that was all blue screen. The whole idea was to make it look like it could go on for infinity.
BTL: Does James draw stuff? I don’t think I’ve ever talked to him about that.
Paterson: He does his own storyboards. I wouldn’t say he draws — they’re very “stick figure-y,” but especially once you get used to them, it helps a lot, because you understand what sort of action and framing he’s looking for.
BTL: I’m also interested in learning more about what was done with visual effects for Peacemaker’s helmets.
Paterson: It was a mix. We used the real shiny helmets, but they needed a lot of work because they reflected the camera guys and all kinds of stuff in them, so anytime there was a scene where they’re wearing the helmet, especially in close-ups, we shot a lot of HDRIs [High Dynamic Range Images] anyway, getting the full 360 photographs of the environment. But those scenes were especially important, and we had to get them so that we could reflect the environment back into the helmet… after painting out all the set things that weren’t supposed to be in there. There were a few shots where we had to go CG. [For] a lot of them, we were able to do it with just patching and paint work. Craft Apes helped with quite a bit of that.
BTL: Obviously, James went from this show to Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3, but was he also writing stuff for you to prep for Season 2?
Paterson: I don’t think he’s written the scripts yet, but he’s probably starting to work on them, knowing him, now that he’s done shooting on Guardians [and] starting post now. I would imagine it won’t be ’til next year sometime that he’ll really start digging deep into Peacemaker again.
Season 1 of Peacemaker is now streaming on HBO Max. Look for our interviews with two of its VFX supes from WetaFX very soon.