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7 Ways to Cope with Movie Star Deaths

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As The Dark Knight approaches the $450 million mark, Oscar buzz is building for the late Heath Ledger. Christopher Nolan has insisted that he did not digitally alter or use stand-ins to complete Ledger's scenes—this was the director's attempt to preserve the integrity of the late actor's performance. Unfortunately, that honor was not bestowed upon the legacies of other departed actors. Here are a few methods directors have used to fill the gaps left by deceased movie stars—some respectable, others not so much.

1. Make it an A-List Tribute

Ledger's final role will officially come in The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus, a magic-based film he was shooting when he died. Rather than abandon the film, director Terry Gillam has insisted that the show will go on. He has decided on a rather unconventional method to fill in the gap—using not one, but three, A-List actors (Johnny Depp, Colin Farrell and Jude Law) to complete the film. The scenes completed by Ledger are all set in the real world, whereas the film traverses through different realms. Ledger's face will be magically changed to that of other actors used to portray different incarnations of his character. Imaginarium, like Dark Knight, will be dedicated to Ledger when it is released next year.

2. Poorly Conceal the Actor's Absence

plan-9.jpgNot all movies have access to A-List stars, like the low-budget cult disaster Plan 9 From Outer Space. There are many things wrong with this movie, but one glaring problem was the fact that Bela Lugosi died before production even began. Director Ed Wood decided to use a few minutes of unreleased Lugosi footage originally intended for a movie called Tomb of the Vampire as the basis of the script and its major selling point. After the bizarre scene with a caped Lugosi inspecting flowers in his yard, his character was portrayed by chiropractor Tom Mason. Wood attempted to hide the fact that Mason looked nothing like Lugosi (and stood a foot taller) by concealing Mason's face behind a cape and having him slouch for the entirety of the film. Due to this and other ridiculous errors, the film has become a cult classic and is regarded by some as the worst movie ever made.

The hidden face technique was used decades later with the late Bruce Lee. During production for Game of Death, Lee took a leave of absence to film the big budget Hollywood kung fu movie Enter the Dragon. Lee tragically died after filming Enter the Dragon, and thus never completed Game of Death. In order to not waste unreleased footage of a man who had posthumously become a major star, production resumed six years later using a new script and a radically different plot. Two stand-ins with sunglasses, fake beards and mysterious shadows were used to portray Lee in new scenes involving his character. Lee's absence is most obvious in a scene in which a cardboard cut out of Lee's face is taped onto a mirror for a close-up shot. The film also controversially used actual footage from Lee's funeral and a close up of his actual body in a coffin for a scene in which Lee's character fakes his own death.

3. Send in the Stunt Doubles

Of course, using stunt doubles isn't such a big deal when only one or two scenes are needed to complete a film. Natalie Wood tragically (and some argue, suspiciously) drowned during a break in production for the 1983 science fiction film Brainstorm. Though principal photography was mostly complete at the time of her death, a critical climactic scene had yet to be filmed. Production was halted for two years while the studio and director contemplated what to do with the movie. The studio wanted to abandon the project and collect the insurance money. Eventually, the decision was made by director Douglas Trumbull to use obscured camera angles and a stand in to complete the remaining scenes. The film was a critically praised tribute to Wood, but a box office bomb.

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4. Use Computers

Brandon Lee died in a tragic on-set accident while filming The Crow. His death was almost twenty years after the mysterious death of his father, Bruce Lee, and just a month before the release of Dragon: The Bruce Lee Story, a big screen biography about his father. The Crow had just seven scenes left with Lee to film when he died on March 31, 1991. With the support of Lee's mother and fiancée, director Alex Proyas decided to complete the film using CGI technology to superimpose Lee's face on stand-ins. The film was a huge success when it was released in 1994, despite the notoriety of the devastating on-set accident.


The same CGI-masking technique was used to complete the unfinished scenes of Oliver Reed in Gladiator. Reed suffered a heart attack in Malta while wrapping up his role as the slave dealer Proximo. He was nominated for several awards for the role, and the film went on to win the Academy Award for Best Picture, as well as Best Visual Effects.

5. Cut and Paste

Just because the star of a successful film series died before a film is written doesn't mean it can't be made. The 1982 bomb Trail of the Pink Panther was made a year after the death of franchise anchor Peter Sellers, who portrayed iconic Inspector Clouseau. All of Sellers' scenes were constructed using archival footage, deleted scenes and outtakes from other Pink Panther films. It became pretty obvious which movies the scenes were pulled from based on the clothing and quality of the footage. The rest of the non-Sellers scenes were made concurrently with new footage for the next installment of the series, which did not use the Clouseau character. Apparently, no one wanted to watch a movie recycled from the editing room floor; it was a commercial and critical failure.

Sellers' widow Lynne Frederick was not amused by the cut and paste film; she successfully sued the production company for tarnishing her late husband's name and reputation. The franchise continued without Sellers or financial success in Curse of the Pink Panther and Son of the Pink Panther. When the franchise was revamped in 2006, Steve Martin was cast as Clouseau.

6. Cover it Up

When John Candy passed away in 1994 late in production for Wagons East, the filmmakers claimed that all of his scenes had been shot and would be used as is. Fans of Candy have noticed that at least one scene with Candy in a bar was recycled with a slightly different background, and that a stand-in was used in other scenes. Additionally, fans and critics suspect the script was altered to eliminate Candy's incomplete scenes. Despite being one of the last works of a beloved actor, the film was critically panned and bombed financially.

7. Scrap the Whole Thing

Sometimes it's best to place unfinished films on the shelf when a quality product cannot be made without a departed star. The final project of River Phoenix, a bizarre drama called Dark Blood, had only 11 days of filming remaining when he died in 1993. A few scenes have been made public by director George Sluizer, who legally owns all footage from the film. He has claimed that he intends to use the footage as part of a biography about Phoenix.

Marilyn Monroe's unfinished final project, Something's Got to Give, is one of the most notorious unfinished movies of all time. The film was a remake of the 1940 screwball comedy My Favorite Wife and suffered script and budget problems from day one. After failing to show up on set many times, Monroe was fired from the film, but as co-star Dean Martin stated, "No Marilyn, no picture." She was re-hired, but there was still no picture—she died on August 5, 1962, shortly before production was to resume. The nine hours of footage featuring Monroe, including a much talked about skinny dip scene, was placed in a Hollywood vault and left untouched for decades. To save face, Something's Got to Give was rewritten, recast with Doris Day and given the title Move Over, Darling and used many of the same sets and costumes from the Monroe shoot.

In 2001, the original scenes were touched up and developed into a 37-minute segment for the biography Marilyn: The Final Days.

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

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Opening Ceremony
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These $425 Jeans Can Turn Into Jorts
May 19, 2017
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Opening Ceremony

Modular clothing used to consist of something simple, like a reversible jacket. Today, it’s a $425 pair of detachable jeans.

Apparel retailer Opening Ceremony recently debuted a pair of “2 in 1 Y/Project” trousers that look fairly peculiar. The legs are held to the crotch by a pair of loops, creating a disjointed C-3PO effect. Undo the loops and you can now remove the legs entirely, leaving a pair of jean shorts in their wake. The result goes from this:

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Opening Ceremony

To this:

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Opening Ceremony

The company also offers a slightly different cut with button tabs in black for $460. If these aren’t audacious enough for you, the Y/Project line includes jumpsuits with removable legs and garter-equipped jeans.

[h/t Mashable]

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