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The Stories Behind 6 Famous Masks

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Just in time for Halloween, here are a few behind-the-scenes tidbits about some famous masks (of both the scary and not-so-spooky variety).

1. Leatherface

Portions of the classic horror film The Texas Chainsaw Massacre were based on the crimes of serial killer Ed Gein, but the trademark Leatherface mask was inspired by a far more personal (and equally grisly) experience. Writer/director Tobe Hooper had a doctor friend who'd once confided to him that, while a pre-med student, he'd sneaked into the morgue and harvested the skin from the face of a cadaver to make a Halloween mask. Bob Burns, the movie's art director, took several of Leatherface's props home with him after filming wrapped, including one of the three original "killing" masks, which he mounted on a Styrofoam head and sprayed with a transparent sealant. He kept the head in a shoebox in his closet for many years before selling it to a friend, who then auctioned it on eBay for an undisclosed sum. The successful bidder was a horror film fanatic who now proudly displays the mask in his home in a specially built air-tight case.

2. Guy Fawkes

guy-fawkesBritish actor James Purefoy was the original freedom fighter in the 2005 film V for Vendetta, but he quit the project after a few weeks because of the Guy Fawkes mask required for the role. Not only did he find it hot and uncomfortable, as filming progressed he realized that he would never be seen onscreen without it. His own face would be completely incognito throughout the picture, which is a bitter pill for any actor to swallow. "Even Spiderman gets to take his mask off once in a while," he complained. Hugo Weaving replaced him and earned a Best Actor nomination from the Australian Film Institute for his work.

3. Robin

robinThe Lone Ranger-style mask that "Robin" wore on TV's Batman exposed more of his face on-camera, which meant extra work for actor Burt Ward. Batman's cowl was concealing enough that a stuntman could easily step in for Adam West during vigorous fight scenes. But Burt had to roll with most of the punches thrown his way, as a stunt double would be immediately noticeable without a lot of extra (read: expensive) editing. Luckily Ward had a black belt in karate and had previously worked as a professional figure skater, so he not only had the moves, but also a high pain threshold.

4. Ghostface

ghostfaceThe "Ghostface" mask from the film Scream only debuted 13 years ago, but since that time it has consistently ranked right up there with Frankenstein and Dracula in terms of sales every Halloween. Even though Ghostface made its big screen debut in 1996, the actual original mask was created back in 1991 by Tony Gardner of Alterian Effects (the same studio responsible for the ghoulish make-up in Michael Jackson's "Thriller" video).

5. Darth Vader

darthWhen the evil Darth Vader was finally unmasked in Return of the Jedi, the face revealed was not that of British bodybuilder David Prowse, who'd worn the costume for the first three films. It was actor Sebastian Shaw, whom George Lucas allegedly chose because he looked more "paternal." Prowse claims, however, it was to keep his face off screen (even though the villain's mug was covered with disfiguring make-up) to discourage him from negotiating a higher salary for future films.

6. Halloween

myersHalloween, like most indie horror movies, was filmed on a shoestring budget, with precious little money available for expensive props. Back in the 1960s, a particular episode of Star Trek required the studio's prop department to make a death mask of Captain Kirk (William Shatner). Once that episode was in the can, some bean counter at Paramount decided to capitalize on the cult popularity of Star Trek and authorized a Halloween mask to be manufactured and available in stores. Of course, by the time the Halloween propmaster was scouring shops for discounted scary items, the Shatner mask was on the 99-cent rack. Spray paint it white, cut the eye holes a little larger and voilà "“ the perfect murder mask for Michael Myers.


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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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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Name the Author Based on the Character
May 23, 2017
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