An Interview with Jim Connell – By Duane L. Martin

Jim ConnellA while back Jim Connell sent me his CGI short entitled Saul Goodman to review, which I did in the November issue. While the animation in the short often looked like the kind of a thing you’d see in the cut scene of a video game, the story, the dialogue and the voice acting were all just incredibly amazing and totally immersing. I was completely awestruck by the film and knew instantly that an interview was in order. What follows is that interview…

* * *

As always, let’s start this off by having you introduce yourself to everyone and telling us all a little bit about yourself.

I’m Jim Connell, the writer, director and animator of “Saul Goodman”. I live in West Bridgewater, MA with my wife Dorin, who serves as both Executive Producer and Principle Muse in our company, Avant Guard Films. I’ve been working on film and video projects off and on since high school, but started Avant Guard back in college with my friend Tony DiMarco. About 6 years ago, I started experimenting with computer animation while working on the special effects of a horror film. In 2002, I took what I learned in CGI and produced “Placebo”. “Saul” is my latest film, which premiered this past October.

When did you first get the idea for Saul Goodman and what were some of your initial concepts for it? Did the final product end up somewhat different from your original idea?

The idea for the overall structure of “Saul” came years back, when I was a film student in Boston, as kind of a writing challenge to myself. I wanted to make a film that was a random, stream-of-consciousness ride until the last few minutes, when a hidden clue is revealed, connecting all the pieces. The key to making it work would be to make those anecdotes entertaining on their own so the audience would forgive the film for not having a narrative, plot, or even a point, and just enjoy the ride. I filed this idea in the back of my head under a working title “North Station”, the real train station I passed through on the way to school.

Once I decided to actually sit down and write it, I began to second-guess the wisdom of throwing seeming randomness at the audience for 25 minutes. People may not pay attention to details when they think they’re pointless, making the ending revelation seem arbitrary. So, I changed the name to “Saul Goodman”, showing it scrawled in blood during the opening credits in hopes people might ask “Who is Saul Goodman?” and “Why was the last act of this dead man to scrawl that name on a wall?” I hoped these questions, and this thread of mystery, would keep people interested.

The story in the film is surprising and incredibly well written. How long did it take to write the script and how many revisions did you have to go through before you felt like it was production ready? Also, what were some of your inspirations for the story and how you wanted it to play out?

Thanks. The biggest and most obvious inspiration is “The Usual Suspects”, but it’s also got elements of “Forrest Gump” and “JFK”. It took me about two weeks to write the first draft, subsequent drafts to polish and streamline took another couple weeks. I already had the overall outline mentioned earlier. I just needed to think up some interesting stories for the old man to tell.

I read up on urban myths, political scandals, and conspiracy theories to get ideas for the first 2 stories, which were also inspired by real public figures (Brittany Spears, Unabomber, etc). For the third, I decided to use an unrelated idea I’d been sitting on for a couple years about a technological breakthrough intended to bring greater beauty to the world, but instead leads to chaos, death and disaster. I thought it would make a nice climax, and besides, stories of noble, ambitious idealism collapsing in spectacular failure always cracked me up.

To keep the real clues hidden, I had the storyteller throw in a bunch of unrelated jokes, asides, and tangents, a few times allowing the narrative to by hijacked by the listener. During the production, I deleted a few lines here and there and added 2 or 3 visual clues that weren’t in the original draft, but the final version is almost exactly as I first wrote it.

Eric ScheinerWhat sort of hardware and software was used to create the film, and how long did it take to complete it from start to finish?

The character animation was done using e-Frontier’s Poser which was then imported into Newtek’s Lightwave 3D, where all the rendering was done. I used Adobe After Effects to edit, and Bias’ Deck to mix the sound. The whole project took about 2 1/2 years to complete, working part time. I split the rendering work between my 4-year-old PowerMac G4 and my 8-year-old PowerMac G3 that sadly passed away shortly after completion.

Using old hardware certainly made the rendering process challenging and time consuming. For one scene (10 seconds where three large generators explode), I started the render, left for my wedding / two week honeymoon, and when I returned, the job was just finishing. I’m in the process of upgrading all my hardware and software now, and hope to upgrade my animating process using motion capture (mocap) technology for my next project.


Was it difficult choosing your voice actors, and what was that process like?

Selecting the main actors was actually the easiest part. Both have been friends of mine for many years, and I wrote the characters specifically for them. John Cammarata’s a college buddy, fraternity brother, and one of the smartest and most entertaining guys I’ve ever met. He’s got a Law Degree, a Masters Degree in Micro Biology, and a way of telling jokes, anecdotes and stories that’ll have you rolling on the floor with laughter. I knew he’d be the perfect guy to deliver lines like “aforementioned ass-pounding” or the “legality of poking the rusty bullet hole”.

Eric’s done theater, television, film and radio so he’s a real pro. He has this great voice with a real, genuine, likable quality, which is why he’s so good at playing heroes and good guys. I knew this would come through and work to the story’s advantage, but I also knew that he could turn that voice sarcastic, cynical, menacing, even sinister on a dime, which was essential for this part.

When I got them together, they had their characters down already. The only real direction I gave them was about the pace (when to talk fast/slow), and context (what’ll be on screen while they talk). On paper, the scene where Eric explains in detail the physics of a hit & run accident isn’t really funny, but when paired with the visual of equations layered over the bloody hit, it always gets a big laugh from the audiences. We live in a sick world.

My brothers Angel and Paul Connell played the other speaking parts. Angel’s a writer, actor and film maker in his own right with his company Parousian Pictures. He gave voice to the tragic Doctor Kaishwa. His part was mostly grunting and screaming, but the two actual words he utters, “It’s beautiful!” actually add some pathos to the poor bastard he plays. Paul’s a real-life cop, and as such was the only choice for the cop who arrests “Saul” at the end.

Did you find it difficult to bring out the proper emotions and reactions with animated characters? How much of a process is it to work that sort of thing out?

It’s a very tedious, technical process that taxed my sanity to the brink. I took each dialogue sound file and (a) lip synched the dialogue, (b) animated the facial features, and (c) animated the body language for each character. I had to then adjust dozens of key frames multiple times until it looked as credible as I could, map out the camera angles, and run multiple test renders to insure it worked as a scene. This process consumed most of the project time, and yet, I was never satisfied with the result. This is why, for my next project, I need mocap…for the film’s quality and my own mental health.

John CammarataTell us something about your past work. You did another short previously called Placebo. What was that about?

It’s a half hour parody of diet and fitness infomercials heralding the “miracle new diet pill” Placebo that “harnesses the power of the mind” to help people lose weight. “Placebo” was my first venture into computer animation. I wrote, directed and starred in it as one of the hosts, former porn star Lou Dax (as in “lewd acts”). Some of the “Saul” cast were present as well; John voiced one of the testimonials, while Angel voiced the announcer, and our medical “expert” Dr Holdger Harry Johnson. Even my wife Dorin had a cameo.

It was a celebration of all the junk science, empty promises and appalling social messages behind most fitness infomercials, complete with 8 testimonials from Moe Rahn, Plennie Foctup, Anna Rexia and more. It was great practice for doing character animation and lip-synching, which I’d never done before. I couldn’t have done “Saul” without the practice of “Placebo”.

How much of a progression do you feel you made in quality, look and feel between Placebo and Saul Goodman? Was there a huge jump there or was it mostly just little things?

It was a huge jump in many respects. “Placebo” parodied the standard infomercial format, so it was mostly static shots of people talking, unlike “Saul” which has dozens of locations, explosions, and a cast of thousands. With “Saul”, I also played with every camera move I could; dollies, cranes, rack focus, etc. and as many post-production techniques as I could; composting, distortion effects, etc.

In terms of 3D design and animation, I also think “Saul” is far ahead of “Placebo”. I was able to create immense sets in “Saul” (the train station, fusion laser lab, colonial town, etc), which weren’t necessary for “Placebo”, and use volumetric effects (fire, smoke, explosions, etc) for the first time.

Do you have a new film in the works right now or any thoughts on what you’d like the next one to be about?

I’m working on a script for an action-adventure film with elements of James Bond, Aeon Flux and Indiana Jones. It’ll be similar to “Saul” in that it will have a complicated, non-linear narrative done mostly in flashback, but will be larger in scope and lighter in tone. I’ve mapped out some action set pieces that, if I can do them properly, will be massive in scale, firepower and body count. I’m hoping to complete by late 2007 or early 2008. I can’t fix a date, but I can promise much mayhem and death.

Do you have any future ambitions towards making a live action film, or are you going to stick with CGI exclusively?

Yeah, I’ve written two feature length, live action horror scripts and have three other features outlined (2 comedies and an action). The horror films could be made on an indie budget, but with my day job in the corporate world, I don’t have any time to produce it, or raise financing. Obviously, if financing became available from a studio or some other source, I’d be happy to direct, but barring that, I’d just be content to sell the screenplays.

What do you think are the biggest benefits to making CGI films over live actions ones? Also, what are some of the biggest drawbacks?

The biggest advantage CGI offers is a nearly limitless canvass, there’s really no story too big or too small that can be told with CGI. You can create huge crowds, massive explosions and immense sets right in your home PC. CGI can also be far less expensive than equivalent live action films, and can be done in your spare time, so it’s a perfect tool for small filmmakers to tell big stories effectively.

On the other hand, there’s almost no suspension of disbelief in an all CGI movie, especially a low budget one, so the amount of genuine empathy or connection the audience has with your characters will be limited. This means that authentic tears, scares or thrills will be hard to come by.

Ricardo PozaSaul Goodman has been sent out to some film festivals and has had several reviews. What’s the reaction been like and have you been surprised by any of it?

So far, the reviews have all been positive, including from the wise, insightful and prescient editor of Rogue Cinema. It’s been an official selection at six festivals thus far, including the Louis Vuitton Hawaiian International, and won “Best of Fest” at the Worcester Underground Film Festival. What’s surprised me so far is how different audiences have responded to different scenes. What one audience will snicker at, another audience will break out into uproarious laughter at. Some of the small, throwaway gags in the movie have gotten a bigger response than some of the bigger, scene punch lines.

I’ve done a few Q&A sessions after screenings of “Saul”, and I’ve been surprised by how few people had questions about the plot. I was worried that the overall conspiracy plot might be too complicated or abstract for audiences to get on first viewing. I got dozens of questions about the script writing and animation process, but only a couple related to the conspiracy, so that was a pleasant surprise.

Are you going to be attending any of the film festivals where it’s going to be shown?

Dorin and I attended four out of the six festivals so far, and plan on attending many as practical in the spring season. After working on “Saul” for so long, there’s nothing more gratifying than seeing a live audience reaction to it.

Is there anything else you’d like to mention or talk about before we wrap this up?

Having watched “Saul” probably 500 times, there are only two things that make the viewing experience fresh for me: the audience’s reaction and Ricardo Poza’s music. I don’t think you can overstate the importance of music in a film with as many different stories, themes and tones as “Saul”, and I think Ricardo’s music was essential to making it all work. My requests of Ricardo’s work were often contradictory. I asked for the music of a sinister thriller, a comedy, a romance, a colonial period piece, and a sci-fi action piece…all while maintaining an overall continuity to the sound.

The score he came with up does all that. It accentuates the action without drowning it out and has a drama and beauty all it’s own. While creating “Saul” I left spac
s open between the dialogue where I knew music would play, but upon hearing Ricardo’s music, I actually added frames to certain scenes so the music could play longer. I extended the opening credit length by 50% (two weeks of additional rendering) when I fell in love with his opening music, and he suggested it would work better longer. It’s hard to explain the difference to those who haven’t seen “Saul” without the music, but I really think his score was essential to making it work. Kick-ass job on the trailer too.

* * *

If you’d like to find out more about Saul Goodman, you can check out the film’s website at http://www.saulgoodman.net.