CLOSE
Original image

10 Landmark Moments in Animation History

Original image

1. 1914: A Prehistoric Dinosaur Leads the Wave of the Future

In the early 20th century, theaters were already showing animated films on the big screen, but the characters were usually no more than spokesdrawings for various advertisers. That is, until Winsor McCay drew his way onto the scene in 1914. The legendary cartoonist, who'd earlier become famous with his classic comic strip, "Little Nemo," believed that animated characters could hold an audience's attention without the help of a sales pitch. With that in mind, McCay created the groundbreaking film Gertie the Dinosaur.

The most innovative part about the movie's animation was the way McCay interacted with it. Gertie actually started out as part of McCay's "chalk talk" vaudeville act, and rather than having Gertie attempt talking via speech balloons, McCay spoke for both of them. Standing on stage next to a projected image of the dinosaur and holding a whip, he would bark out commands like, "Dance, Gertie!" Then, suddenly, the image would change and she would obey. In another sequence, McCay would toss an apple behind the screen and the impish dinosaur would appear to catch it in her mouth.

Eventually, McCay was ready to let Gertie loose on the big screen by herself. Using cell animation and drawing thousands of illustrations of his beloved dinosaur, he turned Gertie into one of the first successful character-based animated cartoons. With such ingenuity and style, it's clear why McCay was often called "The Father of American Cartoons."

2. 1920s: Charles Lindbergh and the Queen Fall for the Same Cat

felix.jpg
Because live-action films were such a big hit with moviegoers, early cartoon characters were often modeled on popular actors of the day. One such cartoon character was Master Tom—a black feline with enormous eyes and an inviting ear-to-ear grin. His creator, legendary animator Otto Messmer, based the cat's personality on silent-film star Charlie Chaplin. Fitting because, within a year, a slightly boxier version of the cat, now named Felix, started appearing regularly in animated shorts before Chaplin's feature films.

The fact that cartoon characters were still speaking in speech balloons hardly affected Felix's popularity. By 1923, the cat's star power at the box office rivaled not only Chaplin's, but Buster Keaton's and Fatty Arbuckle's, as well. From Germany to China, people were fascinated by the technology that enabled Felix to take his tail off and turn it into a pencil or a question mark or a shovel, and they couldn't wait to see what gags Messmer would dream up next. In fact, the wily feline became such a celebrity in Great Britain that Queen Mary named her own cat after him. Back in America, Felix's popularity continued to soar, literally, as a picture of him accompanied Charles Lindbergh on his historic flight across the Atlantic. The character's adventures didn't stop there, though; Felix was also the first image ever successfully transmitted by RCA during its early TV experiments.

3. 1920s: Doing It for the Kids

oswald.jpg
Although Walt Disney's impact on the world of animation can't be downplayed, much of the credit for the studio's trademark style belongs to animator Ub Iwerks. A boyhood pal of Walt's, Iwerks served as Disney's righthand man. And where Disney had the business sense, Iwerks had the technical know-how to create characters that moved with fresh elasticity. Mickey Mouse's predecessor, Oswald the Lucky Rabbit, was Iwerks' creation. Oswald had big floppy ears that appeared almost rubbery when he walked. So while characters like Felix the Cat might have squeezed themselves through telephone lines, Disney characters had a softer profile. Ultimately, it upped the hugability factor, and that paid off with a whole new audience—children.

4. 1928: When the Mouse Speaks, People Listen

steamboatwillie.jpg
While Disney's animation house floated by for a while, it wasn't until Walt made his first "talkie" that America truly started buzzing about him. 1928's Steamboat Willie signaled the end of the silent-film era. Disney had followed engineers' experiments with sound and film throughout the 1920s, and he was convinced talkies were the future. Even though Mortimer Mouse (who Disney's wife wisely re-christened Mickey) never actually speaks a complete sentence during Steamboat Willie, he more than makes up for it with his whistling—not to mention his energetic xylophone performance on the teeth of an open-mouthed bovine.

The combination of dazzling, synchronized music and pictures of a kid-friendly, large-eared mouse made Mickey and Walt Disney household names. In fact, the success of Steamboat Willie spawned a stream of new films, including 1929's The Opry House—the movie in which Mickey dons his trademark white gloves for the first time.

5. 1930s: Marketing Kills the Animation Star

fantasia-mickey.jpg
Although cartoons continued to be made for adults first, children second, one thing in the industry did change. From about 1930 onwards, many of Disney's merchandising efforts were geared toward kids. In addition to Mickey Mouse dolls, there were combs, watches, pencils, T-shirts, coins, and even bedsheets—all of them exported the world over. It wasn't long before Mickey became one of the most recognizable symbols of America. In 1935, The League of Nations proclaimed Mickey Mouse a "symbol of universal goodwill."

All that attention came with plenty of responsibility, though. The economic pressure of the marketing strategy forced Disney to erase Mickey's mischievous side and turn him into an all-around Mr. Nice Guy. And while the move succeeded in boosting merchandising sales, it did the opposite for Mickey's on-screen popularity. The mouse's star power was soon usurped by the naughtier, hot-tempered Donald Duck, who made it cool to be bad. Disney attempted a comeback for the mouse by giving Mickey a more bad-boy role in 1940's Fantasia, but the film was a box office flop. It wasn't until The Mickey Mouse Club premiered in 1955 that Mickey began to regain his star status.

6. 1930: Betty Boop Gets Sexed Up (and Shot Down)

betty-boop.jpg
During the early days of animation, Disney's studio wasn't the only one having trouble defining its characters' personalities. Max Fleischer (creator of Popeye) also had a giant hit on his hands with the seductive, garter-wearing flapper Betty Boop. However, some theater managers began reporting that their conservative audiences found the pint-size coquette too risqué, and in 1935, Betty became the first cartoon character to be censored by the Hays Office. Forced to make a change, Fleischer responded by transforming her into a more wholesome and domesticated lady. Sadly, the makeover proved fatal. By the end of the decade, Betty had fallen into her own Great Depression, never to be heard boop-boopy-dooping again.

7. 1933: Toons Get Looney

looney-tunes.jpg
Four of the most original and creative artists ever to come along—Tex Avery, Chuck Jones, Friz Freling, and Robert McKimson—had a different philosophy when it came to their animated creations: the zanier, the better. As the minds behind such classic characters as Daffy Duck, the Tasmanian Devil, Elmer Fudd, and Bugs Bunny, the animators made sure their stars ran wild, shouted at the top of their lungs, and killed, maimed, blew up, slugged, shot, and destroyed their foes. They even dressed 'em up in drag when the occasion called for it. As the Warner Brothers slogan promised at the beginning of each film, these were, indeed, Looney Tunes.

But it wasn't just their wackiness that made the Looney Tunes the largest collection of animated stars any studio had ever created. It was their animators' inventiveness. Bugs and Daffy were two of the first characters aware of their own cartoon-ness, which meant they were not only characters, but actors, as well. And while Felix the Cat may have been able to turn his tail into a baseball bat, Bugs Bunny could play pitcher, catcher, umpire, and himself all at the same time.

8. 1941: Animators Strike Back

disney-unfair.jpg
Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs
might have had a happy ending, but for the animators working behind the scenes, things were less than fairytale. Cramming to meet the film's deadline, many artists worked well into the night with the understanding that they'd get bonuses once the film earned back its money. The film grossed oodles, but instead of doling out bonuses, Disney earmarked his handsome profits for a new studio he wanted built in Burbank. Fighting back, the Screen Cartoonists Guild went up against the Disney powerhouse in 1941. The ensuing strike lasted more than two months, and it took a White House intervention to halt it. The dispute was only settled when F.D.R. sent in mediators and forced Walt to cave.

Although the strike served as a disappointing reality check in the animation world, it ultimately sparked a series of positive changes in the industry. Artists were finally given on-screen credit for their work, and wages for 40-hour weeks doubled.

9. 1942: X Marks the Rating

bugs-bunny.jpg
At times, the Warner Brothers' lunacy knew no bounds. During World War II, they created racy cartoons solely for American soldiers stationed in Europe. Full of expletives, X-rated images, and the occasional scatological humor, these animated shorts featured an inept trainee named Private Snafu. Amazingly, one of Snafu's writers was Ted Geisel, better known as Dr. Seuss.

Other wartime WB cartoons created for regular civilian consumption featured edgy characterizations of Hitler and Mussolini that would never pass military muster today. For instance, in "Bugs Bunny Nips the Nips," Bugs sells ice cream bars stuffed with hand grenades to Japanese soldiers he affectionately calls "Slant Eyes." Not exactly politically correct by modern standards.

10. 1956: Cartoons Go Prime Time

mcboing-boing.jpg
Following the disillusionment of the Disney strike in 1941, hundreds of animators were motivated to set out on their own. Zachary Schwartz, David Hilberman, and Stephen Bosustow were three of the most notable Disney artists to take the opportunity to head in a new direction. The result was United Productions of America, better known as UPA.

Whereas every year Disney pushed its cartooning style further toward realism and literalism, UPA pushed its style toward contemporary art. Disney's characters were soft and cuddly, while UPA's were angular and almost cold. And while Disney was mainly interested in animating animals, UPA made humans the stars of its films—and it paid off.

One of its first big hits was Gerald McBoing-Boing (the brainchild of Dr. Seuss, who collaborated with UPA on the series), which beat out both Tom & Jerry and Mr. Magoo for the 1951 Oscar. In 1956, CBS turned the film short into a Sunday afternoon TV series. And although the show didn't last nearly as long as later animated series such as The Flintstones, McBoing-Boing—and the UPA animators—have had a huge impact on the world of animation. From the minimalist backgrounds of Spongebob Squarepants to the flat, cutout look of South Park, the studio has influenced more than a half-century of cartoons by showing animators that it's OK to avoid realism altogether.

Original image
iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
technology
arrow
Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
May 21, 2017
Original image
iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva

Jacques Mattheij made a small, but awesome, mistake. He went on eBay one evening and bid on a bunch of bulk LEGO brick auctions, then went to sleep. Upon waking, he discovered that he was the high bidder on many, and was now the proud owner of two tons of LEGO bricks. (This is about 4400 pounds.) He wrote, "[L]esson 1: if you win almost all bids you are bidding too high."

Mattheij had noticed that bulk, unsorted bricks sell for something like €10/kilogram, whereas sets are roughly €40/kg and rare parts go for up to €100/kg. Much of the value of the bricks is in their sorting. If he could reduce the entropy of these bins of unsorted bricks, he could make a tidy profit. While many people do this work by hand, the problem is enormous—just the kind of challenge for a computer. Mattheij writes:

There are 38000+ shapes and there are 100+ possible shades of color (you can roughly tell how old someone is by asking them what lego colors they remember from their youth).

In the following months, Mattheij built a proof-of-concept sorting system using, of course, LEGO. He broke the problem down into a series of sub-problems (including "feeding LEGO reliably from a hopper is surprisingly hard," one of those facts of nature that will stymie even the best system design). After tinkering with the prototype at length, he expanded the system to a surprisingly complex system of conveyer belts (powered by a home treadmill), various pieces of cabinetry, and "copious quantities of crazy glue."

Here's a video showing the current system running at low speed:

The key part of the system was running the bricks past a camera paired with a computer running a neural net-based image classifier. That allows the computer (when sufficiently trained on brick images) to recognize bricks and thus categorize them by color, shape, or other parameters. Remember that as bricks pass by, they can be in any orientation, can be dirty, can even be stuck to other pieces. So having a flexible software system is key to recognizing—in a fraction of a second—what a given brick is, in order to sort it out. When a match is found, a jet of compressed air pops the piece off the conveyer belt and into a waiting bin.

After much experimentation, Mattheij rewrote the software (several times in fact) to accomplish a variety of basic tasks. At its core, the system takes images from a webcam and feeds them to a neural network to do the classification. Of course, the neural net needs to be "trained" by showing it lots of images, and telling it what those images represent. Mattheij's breakthrough was allowing the machine to effectively train itself, with guidance: Running pieces through allows the system to take its own photos, make a guess, and build on that guess. As long as Mattheij corrects the incorrect guesses, he ends up with a decent (and self-reinforcing) corpus of training data. As the machine continues running, it can rack up more training, allowing it to recognize a broad variety of pieces on the fly.

Here's another video, focusing on how the pieces move on conveyer belts (running at slow speed so puny humans can follow). You can also see the air jets in action:

In an email interview, Mattheij told Mental Floss that the system currently sorts LEGO bricks into more than 50 categories. It can also be run in a color-sorting mode to bin the parts across 12 color groups. (Thus at present you'd likely do a two-pass sort on the bricks: once for shape, then a separate pass for color.) He continues to refine the system, with a focus on making its recognition abilities faster. At some point down the line, he plans to make the software portion open source. You're on your own as far as building conveyer belts, bins, and so forth.

Check out Mattheij's writeup in two parts for more information. It starts with an overview of the story, followed up with a deep dive on the software. He's also tweeting about the project (among other things). And if you look around a bit, you'll find bulk LEGO brick auctions online—it's definitely a thing!

Original image
Nick Briggs/Comic Relief
entertainment
arrow
What Happened to Jamie and Aurelia From Love Actually?
May 26, 2017
Original image
Nick Briggs/Comic Relief

Fans of the romantic-comedy Love Actually recently got a bonus reunion in the form of Red Nose Day Actually, a short charity special that gave audiences a peek at where their favorite characters ended up almost 15 years later.

One of the most improbable pairings from the original film was between Jamie (Colin Firth) and Aurelia (Lúcia Moniz), who fell in love despite almost no shared vocabulary. Jamie is English, and Aurelia is Portuguese, and they know just enough of each other’s native tongues for Jamie to propose and Aurelia to accept.

A decade and a half on, they have both improved their knowledge of each other’s languages—if not perfectly, in Jamie’s case. But apparently, their love is much stronger than his grasp on Portuguese grammar, because they’ve got three bilingual kids and another on the way. (And still enjoy having important romantic moments in the car.)

In 2015, Love Actually script editor Emma Freud revealed via Twitter what happened between Karen and Harry (Emma Thompson and Alan Rickman, who passed away last year). Most of the other couples get happy endings in the short—even if Hugh Grant's character hasn't gotten any better at dancing.

[h/t TV Guide]

SECTIONS
BIG QUESTIONS
BIG QUESTIONS
WEATHER WATCH
BE THE CHANGE
JOB SECRETS
QUIZZES
WORLD WAR 1
SMART SHOPPING
STONES, BONES, & WRECKS
#TBT
THE PRESIDENTS
WORDS
RETROBITUARIES