The Long Take: What's the Big Deal Already?

Ah, the long tracking shot -- cinema's most pretentious device. Sure, they can be fun and flashy, but like a loud and insecure extrovert, they also tend to draw a lot of attention to themselves. Isn't the point to get lost in the story?

As a young cinephile, of course, I loved them. They're the fastball of cinema language, and when used well, they can be masterful: in The Shining, for instance, when Kubrick follows young Danny at knee-level as he rides his Big Wheel through the hotel (one of cinema's first Steadicam shots, by the way), it draws us in, creating an almost unbearable amount of suspense. Classic examples abound, like the opening shot of Orson Welles' Touch of Evil (feel free to skip past the text at the beginning):

Of course, Evil is a classic, and it's tough to aspire to classic-hood. Another famous tracking shot, the long and hilarious opening of Robert Altman's The Player, works beautifully because it references Welles' shot directly without being pretentious -- instead falling somewhere between homage and parody. (Apologies for the French subtitles here; YouTube has been pretty scrupulous about axing popular-but-copyrighted content lately):

In a very real way, young director P.T. Anderson (Boogie Nights, Magnolia, this year's magnificent There Will Be Blood) inherited the mantle of Robert Altman -- Anderson's complex ensemble scenes, where the camera roves between different conversations and people talk over one another in a more or less natural way, recalls Altman's best work (Nashville, for instance), and when Altman was directing what was to be his final picture, A Priarie Home Companion, he was in such failing health that he elected P.T. Anderson to be something like his Vice-Director, with the understanding that if Altman died during the shoot, Anderson would finish it. Which is a long-winded way of saying, Anderson is a guy who loves long takes, and he does them well, and if Altman thinks the kid's alright, then I do, too. (Insert smiley here, however inappropriate in the text of a blog.) Blah blah blah -- check out the opening shot of Boogie Nights, which sets the mood perfectly, introduces most of the film's important characters, and gets your foot tapping to boot, and you'll see what I mean ... it's Altman, Scorsese and I Am Cuba all rolled into one. (More iconic tracking shots can be found by clicking the links above.)

I know, I know. I'm supposed to be writing about how annoying tracking shots can be, but I've just spent three paragraphs extolling them. The trouble is, if you're going to do one of these shots, you have to do it really well, or it can become a spectacular, attention-grabbing failure. Coppola said something while he was making Apocalypse Now, that if you strive for greatness, the danger is that you'll fall just slightly short of your goal and end up making something that's just pretentious. Pretentious wants to be great, but isn't. I would put the "famous" long tracking shot in this year's Oscar contender Atonement in that category: pretentious, distracting and kind of pointless -- it stops the story in its tracks while the director shows off. Here's a clip of it (with the sound replaced, thanks YouTube, sigh):

In sum, I think the tracking shot is a dangerous proposition, but one we're seeing more and more of, in part thanks to the increasingly lightweight nature of cameras -- but just because you can shoot for 60 minutes without cutting doesn't necessarily mean that doing so makes you a cinematic genius. Anyway, I'd love to hear your thoughts on the matter -- and please keep in mind that this brief list above is by no means meant to be complete!

Original image
iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
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
Cs California, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0
How Experts Say We Should Stop a 'Zombie' Infection: Kill It With Fire
Original image
Cs California, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0

Scientists are known for being pretty cautious people. But sometimes, even the most careful of us need to burn some things to the ground. Immunologists have proposed a plan to burn large swaths of parkland in an attempt to wipe out disease, as The New York Times reports. They described the problem in the journal Microbiology and Molecular Biology Reviews.

Chronic wasting disease (CWD) is a gruesome infection that’s been destroying deer and elk herds across North America. Like bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE, better known as mad cow disease) and Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, CWD is caused by damaged, contagious little proteins called prions. Although it's been half a century since CWD was first discovered, scientists are still scratching their heads about how it works, how it spreads, and if, like BSE, it could someday infect humans.

Paper co-author Mark Zabel, of the Prion Research Center at Colorado State University, says animals with CWD fade away slowly at first, losing weight and starting to act kind of spacey. But "they’re not hard to pick out at the end stage," he told The New York Times. "They have a vacant stare, they have a stumbling gait, their heads are drooping, their ears are down, you can see thick saliva dripping from their mouths. It’s like a true zombie disease."

CWD has already been spotted in 24 U.S. states. Some herds are already 50 percent infected, and that number is only growing.

Prion illnesses often travel from one infected individual to another, but CWD’s expansion was so rapid that scientists began to suspect it had more than one way of finding new animals to attack.

Sure enough, it did. As it turns out, the CWD prion doesn’t go down with its host-animal ship. Infected animals shed the prion in their urine, feces, and drool. Long after the sick deer has died, others can still contract CWD from the leaves they eat and the grass in which they stand.

As if that’s not bad enough, CWD has another trick up its sleeve: spontaneous generation. That is, it doesn’t take much damage to twist a healthy prion into a zombifying pathogen. The illness just pops up.

There are some treatments, including immersing infected tissue in an ozone bath. But that won't help when the problem is literally smeared across the landscape. "You cannot treat half of the continental United States with ozone," Zabel said.

And so, to combat this many-pronged assault on our wildlife, Zabel and his colleagues are getting aggressive. They recommend a controlled burn of infected areas of national parks in Colorado and Arkansas—a pilot study to determine if fire will be enough.

"If you eliminate the plants that have prions on the surface, that would be a huge step forward," he said. "I really don’t think it’s that crazy."

[h/t The New York Times]