The making of Eagly, the "Peacemaker" scene-stealing, butt-kicking eagle whose hugs are miracles

James Gunn, VFX Supervisor Betsy Paterson and voice actor Dee Bradley Baker spoke to Salon about our feathered hero

By Hanh Nguyen

Senior Editor

Published February 13, 2022 11:00AM (EST)

"Peacemaker" main titles (HBO Max)
"Peacemaker" main titles (HBO Max)

The following story contains spoilers from "Peacemaker" Episode 7, "Stop Dragon My Heart Around."

Not all heroes wear capes. Some of them are birds and can fly on their own, thank you very much.

That's the case with Eagly, the breakout star of "Peacemaker," the action-comedy series spun off from James Gunn's 2021 film "The Suicide Squad." John Cena plays the jingoistic Chris Smith, aka Peacemaker, who's been away in jail for four years. After recovering from a Suicide Squad mission, he visits his father Auggie (Robert Patrick) – not for the chilly and belligerent reception – but to retrieve a new helmet and his pet bald eagle.

Their warm bond is clear. Eagly greets Peacemaker with happy screeches, wing flaps . . . and a hug. 

"I read an article about a vet who saved an eagle with a broken wing, didn't see the eagle for years, and, when he did, the eagle went crazy with joy and hugged him,"  Gunn explained via email about his inspiration for creating Eagly. "I liked the idea that Peacemaker has a soft spot for one of the more notoriously grumpy birds – who also has a soft spot for him."

As for the name that one brave soul dared to call "unoriginal," Gunn said, "I just don't think Peacemaker would put much thought into naming his pet, and he'd just call him whatever was the first thing that came to mind."

RELATED: Bald eagles are making a comback

As one might expect, hugging eagles aren't easily found, so Eagly had to be created from scratch. Weta Digital (VFX) and Proof Inc. conceived of and delivered the visuals, a nearly photo realistic bird.

"[James Gunn] talked about Eagly being as real as possible," said VFX Supervisor Betsy Paterson over Zoom. "But at the same time, he needs to feel like a pet. It's obvious that Eagly adores Peacemaker. Their relationship is much more like a dog and pet parent, rather than your typical bird-trainer kind of thing. We wanted to establish that kind of easy familiarity between them and that he was very easily as protective of Peacemaker and loves Peacemaker."

Veteran voice actor Dee Bradley Baker also helped bring Eagly to life. Having voiced thousands of characters ranging from platypuses and monkeys to aliens and Star Wars clones, Baker first collaborated on Gunn's "The Suicide Squad" to provide the sounds for Ratcatcher 2's pet rat, Sebastian.

"They called me to problem solve, and I did Sebastian and really all the rats," Baker told Salon in a Zoom call. "I was doing rat sounds for a whole day with James Gunn and the group, and they loved it . . . And because of that, I think that that I earned their trust, and they just called me in to do Eagly."

The hatching of Eagly: design and vocal conception

PeacemakerEagly screaming at Chris on "Peacemaker" (HBO Max)

While the VFX crew studied videos of eagles to get Eagly's movements and mannerisms, they also went straight to the source to design his body.

"We did bring in a real eagle, scanned him, and did lots of photographs for reference," said Paterson. "He's a little bit bigger than a typical eagle, but there certainly are eagles his size."

Boosting Eagly's size was done for practical reasons, especially since one of his trademarks is hugging Peacemaker.

"We decided he just needs to be a little bit bigger because John's such a big guy, that the average eagle looked a bit small next to him," said Paterson. "We pumped that up about 20%. You need large wings to reach around John Cena."

RELATED: Hugs are back! But do you really want one?

There were two practical models made to stand in for Eagly as well. One was for actual interactions with Cena. Paterson said, "Anytime you see him pet Eagly or they hug he's got this bowling pin-shaped gray pillow that he's hugging so that way he could have something physical to react with."

PeacemakerEagly giving a hug to Christopher Smith / Peacemaker on "Peacemaker" (HBO Max)

The second Eagly model looked far more realistic and functioned as a stand-in for the actual shoots. 

"We had a taxidermist, a kind of model guy come in," said Paterson. "It wasn't an actual dead eagle; it was fake. I guess there's a big market for people who want something that looks like a dead eagle in their house. But basically, they construct it and use chicken feathers. It looked very real. 

"We took that out and we walked it through every single shot that Eagly so we could see what his presence would be," said Paterson. And what the light would look like on his feathers for shadows and for the DP to make sure that Eagly has his hero light."

Eagly does not work quickly. The whole process from start to finish with the visuals took about a year.

"While we were shooting [the series] WETA was building the model and starting to do animation tests," said Paterson. "So while we were on set, we would start to see the animation tests come in so we could say, 'Oh, hey look, this  going to work this way.' It would inspire James. As soon as he saw the the animation, he was like, 'OK we got to we got to put in as much Eagly as possible because that's going to be everybody's favorite character.'"

Once the animated Eagly is added to the show, Baker comes in to add the vocal touches. 

"They had temped in what I think are real eagle or hawk sounds, which sounded pretty good," said Baker. "But they couldn't cover all the nuances of the bird's expression and all the specific behaviors of all of it. For a creature, I don't think of it as sound effects; it's acting. Usually the creature, there's something going on up here. And there's conversational aspects to the subtext of what the creature is uttering. That's why they need an actor."

You can see Eagly in action capping the glorious "Peacemaker" opening credits sequence in which the cast dances in a jerky manner to "Do Ya Wanna Taste It" by Wig Wam. At the very end, Eagly flies in and squawks, isn't quite in the right spot and has to adjust. Take a look:

"All that James said was, 'I want him to fly him to the front and do a ta-da, but WETA came up with the little 'checking his mark and shuffling into place' thing, which we all loved immediately," said Paterson. "It's subtle, but you can definitely see him doing it. We had the title sequence to work with, so we knew that slightly awkward dance, that weird attitude that James was going for. WETA did a great job of coming up with just that little touch that kind of felt like he was part of that whole weird, awkward mood."

"I watch it every time, I don't skip it," said Baker about the main titles. The animated touches to Eagly made it easy for him to match the vocalizations to the picture.

"There's all these little details that the animators did that are quite beautiful, they're quite realistic," he said. "It's not just a screech; there's little squawks and little hmm's and ha's and hesitations. There's all these little, details to the expression that are already animated. You've got to make sure that to to lip-sync that or beak-sync that just right."

Fleshing out the fledgling

PeacemakerEagly sitting in a car on "Peacemaker" (HBO Max)Eagly isn't just an eagle, but a character on "Peacemaker" with his own personality. 

"I've worked on a lot of character creature shows, and what happens is, as it develops, they they become a character in their own right," said Paterson. "You start to respect that character, even though they're made up and say, 'Well, Eagly really wouldn't do that,' or, 'This is what Eagly would do in this situation.'" 

Besides giving great hugs, Eagly is also a bird of prey, and thus drops his catches at Peacekeeper's feet as a gesture of care by providing food. 

"We had a stuffed possum and a stuffed squirrel, and so we would drop the practical things in," said Paterson. "But most of the time, they would end up getting replaced with a CG version of it that looked exactly like it because as soon as Eagly touches it, it has to be seem to interact with him."

And while Eagly's love of Peacekeeper is undeniable, so is his distrust of others. Now that Peacemaker has joined a black ops team known as Project Butterfly that targets aliens known as Butterflies, Eagly encounters many more humans. In one scene, he and team member Economos (Steve Agee) climb into the backseat of a car, and Eagly pecks him persistently.

"He cues off of Peacemaker, and Peacemaker's always annoyed by Economos," said Paterson. "And in general, Eagly doesn't like anyone except for John. He's always wary and doesn't want to get too close to anybody except for John."

Eagly also gives Peacemaker's team member Leota Adebayo (Danielle Brooks) a peck upon first meeting her. Perhaps she shouldn't have scoffed at the idea of a hugging eagle, even when Peacemaker had told her, "You don't want to believe in miracles, that's on you."

Check out their meeting in this HBO Max clip:

Eagles aren't necessarily known for their expressive faces, like dogs have, and pushing the animation to try and create expressions would've made Eagly seem less realistic. 

"It's very subtle. All of us working on it have pets, and all of that goes into it," said Paterson. "Once the character moves further along you can do a lot just with a head turn and a look. Only once or twice we did very subtle widening or shrinking of his eyelids just to kind of emphasize things. But the animators were fantastic with just the slight attitude adjustments, the head cocks."

Sometimes, Eagly is animated in such a way that Baker has to wing it, so to speak, when it comes to creating the right vocalizations.

"There's a scene with Eagly sticking his face out the window of a car and letting us tongue loll," said Baker. "What do you do with that? Is there a sound? Maybe there is, maybe there's not, but you're not going to get that from an eagle library. It's all to picture, it's what plays and what feels right with the comedy or the emotion of the scene."

Although there is not an eagle library, Baker did record a range of vocalizations so that there would be an Eagly library that the production could use to make the character express himself just so.

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"I've got a pretty good ear for those kinds of things," said Baker. "I grew up with a connection to animals and I watched animal documentaries and monster movies to add to my database of sounds. Then I try copying them and messing around with them. 

"After recording to picture, I record a lot more sounds than they need," he continued. "I'll hit little beats of moments or behavior like confusion or anger or curiosity. It's like a little sound bucket for each of these emotional beats. They have the choice to later just assemble the sandwich any way that they wish. It's got to be a broad enough palette of usable acting moments."

Eagly takes flight (and in a fight)

PeacemakerEagly on "Peacemaker" (HBO Max)"I wanted to see him hug Peacemaker and kick ass," Gunn said about scenes on his Eagly wishlist. "And in the show he had ample opportunity to do both."

In particular, we see Eagly do both in a recent episode. Throughout the series, Peacemaker has been reckoning with a traumatic past and his father Auggie, who is a racist supervillain known as the White Dragon. It all comes to a head when Auggie decides that his son is now expendable. 

When Auggie and his white supremacist followers catch up to Peacemaker and begin to pummel him, Eagly proves that he's no mere pet by entering the fray. He dives, swoops and attacks the men while also dodging gunfire. 

The scene doesn't last long, but the entire sequence took at least half a year to put together.

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"Stunts were rehearsed probably for two weeks or so," said Paterson. "We had 20 stunt guys, and I would have to say, 'He's gonna fly in here, and he's gonna hit you, and then he's gonna hit you,' to get the choreography right with this invisible thing. They all had to really imagine it. It was quite tough to get them all all kind of in sync and reacting properly to the thing that they couldn't see."

On top of that, in order to see the fight from the eagle-eyed view, the cameras also had to swoop around. "The cameramen's got to fly around and follow him through the air. So there was a lot of me standing there saying, 'No, no, you go like this and like that.' Shooting it took a couple of days."

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Paterson continued, "Then of course, the animation, and then editing took quite a while to get exactly the right angles to tell the story of what's going on. We were able to adjust Eagly's movements so that he hits everybody just at the right time as they fall over. I think it's really effective and really feels like he is participating and helping out in that fight. So yeah, it was probably six or eight months from beginning to end."

Eagly is taken out during the fight, however, when he attacks Auggie, who punches him out cold with an armored powered fist. Even on a superhero series that has cartoon-like violence, it's disturbing to see an animal harmed, even a digitally created one. Seeing Eagly down, Peacemaker breaks free of his assailants and attacks his father . . . and eventually kills him.

"That was definitely the emotional heart of it," said Paterson. "It's really what leads Peacemaker to do what he does. He sees his best friend hurt, possibly dead. He doesn't know at that point. He needed that motivation to cross the line the way that he did."

PeacemakerEagly and Christopher Smith / Peacemaker on "Peacemaker" (HBO Max)As with any actor, a good scene partner helps to sell a performance, and Baker makes a point to give credit to Cena for helping create the emotional bond with Eagly on screen.

"John Cena plays it beautifully," said Baker. "He connects with Eagly, and that's not easy to do, for an actor to connect with this digital creature. That requires really good acting imagination to do that kind of green-screen acting to a puppet or a reference ball.

"If he didn't, it wouldn't matter how well I'm performing Eagly because the relationship wouldn't be there. But happily, it's already halfway there because of what he's giving. And so I'm able to give that back on the other side once the digitization of the animation is finished. It's a very interesting, fraught process and kind of confounding to me how it even gets done to work so beautifully. But I think it certainly does in 'Peacemaker.'"

After the fight, Peacemaker brings Eagly to a vet's office for treatment, but even then it's not clear whether the bird will pull through. It's an affecting scene when Adebayo witnesses Peacemaker praying for his friend's recovery and then seeing the two embrace when Eagly wakes. The hug is Adebayo's proof of miracles.

"It was definitely very emotional for everybody to think, 'Oh my God, Eagly's hurt," said Paterson, 'which helps sell it even more when he walks out of the vet's office on his own two legs. It made us all feel better."

And that's just one more way Eagly is not like the average eagle. In many scenes, this giant bird of prey decides to walk around instead of flying. 

"Something I had never thought about that much, was how eagles walk, because he does spend quite a bit of time on the ground walking around," said Paterson. "They have a pretty goofy walk and they have a lot of attitude through their walk, so we  we pushed that up a bit. James really liked him having that kind of gangster attitude in his walk."

RELATED: Why is walking so good for the brain? 

Perhaps this is why when they leave the vet's office, Eagly doesn't fly but walks alongside the Project Butterfly members. It doesn't seem like the most efficient or elegant way for Eagly to travel, but that's not the point.

"It was definitely James that wanted the walking," said Paterson. "The director of that episode Brad Anderson had this idea that well, he's just been injured, so maybe maybe Peacemaker should carry him. We did shoot a version like that, but it just it wasn't right. 

"So we went with the one where he's doing the walk. It was intentional because he's part of the team at that point. So to just have him swoop through wouldn't have really sold that. We had a lot of fun. As soon as WETA showed it to us, that was everybody's favorite shot. 'That's going into marketing,' James said."

With only one episode left in the season, Eagly is more important than ever. "He is a full-fledged member of the team at that point [in the finale]," said Paterson. "He's given a very difficult mission. And I won't tell you whether or not he succeeds."

Overall, Paterson has been surprised and gratified at the loving reception for Eagly. "I've worked in this business a very long time and worked on many things. But this is the first time I've got people random people from my past emailing me like, 'Oh my god, I love Eagly.'"

Baker added, "I'm very proud of Eagly. Long may he fly!"

The "Peacemaker" finale streams Thursday, Feb. 17 on HBO Max.

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By Hanh Nguyen

Hanh Nguyen is the Senior Editor of Culture, which covers TV, movies, books, music, podcasts, art, and more. Her work has also appeared in IndieWire, and The Hollywood Reporter. She co-hosts the "Good Pop Culture Club" podcast, which examines the good pop that gets us through our days, from an Asian American perspective. Follow her at Hanhonymous.

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Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Animation Betsy Paterson Dee Bradley Baker Eagly Hbo Max James Gunn Peacemaker Reporting Tv Vfx Voice Acting