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No CGI Please: Special Effects Before Computers

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At this year's Academy Awards, Avatar—unsurprisingly—won the Oscar for Best Visual Effects. While the effects were truly stunning, there's something to be said for older special effects and the time and dedication put in to make imaginative masterpieces without the help of a computer. How did people come up with the cornerstones of modern film effects when the medium itself was brand new? Here are some of the most interesting special effects created before there were special effects.

It Starts With Beheadings

The first special effect came in an 1895 Edison Film, when Alfred Clark recreated the beheading of Mary, Queen of Scots. He had all the actors hold completely still, with the exception of the actress playing Mary, while he paused the camera. Then Mary was replaced with a dummy before filming started again.

Clark's effect may seem minor, but it was not only the birth of film special effects, but also stop-motion videos and animations. It's been said that some audience members thought a woman had actually sacrificed her life for the picture.

Straight to the Moon

One of the earliest "special effects" flicks was 1902's Le Voyage Dans La Lune.

As the Avatar of its time, the film left viewers marveling at the stunning fantasy worlds depicted onscreen. The effects were largely creations of George Melies, who directed hundreds of short films before working on this masterpiece. Melies brought together the effects used in these other films into one work of art, including double exposure, split screens and dissolves and fades.

Drawing Me In

If you've ever wondered about the birth of animation, you may want to see The Enchanted Drawing. In the film, the cartoonist for the New York Evening World, Stuart Blackton, draws a cartoon character and then adds things like a top hat, a bottle of wine and an empty glass. He then pulls the other items out of the picture and the picture's expression changes as they interact together. As you can see, the film inspired the future of animation.

The best known of these really early animations, though, was Gertie the Dinosaur, a film that featured newspaper cartoonist Winsor McCay interacting with an animated brontosaurus. This was the first example of a person appearing to enter an animation and interact with the cartoon, but it is often mistaken for the first animation ever. Even so, it was one of the first highly successful animations because audiences were so enamored with the personality of the massive beast.

Making Super Models

You probably already know that, even today, filmmakers use miniatures paired with forced-perspective photography to create realistic large-scale actions that are expensive, if not impossible, to do for real. You may not know that this effect dates all the way back to 1900. The 22-second film by director R.W. Booth and producer Robert W. Paul called "A Railway Collision" is agreed to be one of the earliest examples of this practice, but it's possible that earlier films, lost through the decades, may have also featured the effect.

One of the most famous early examples of model use was 1925's The Lost World. This ground-breaking film featured actors interacting with giant monsters. Willis O'Brien, who was later involved with King Kong, used small puppets that were filmed one frame at a time on mini-sets. The actors were then added by putting two negatives together on split screens (more on how they did that later).

The best-known examples of these effects came in the original Clash of the Titans. Only time will tell, of course, how modern computer animation stacks up against this historical film.

Screening the Blue Screen

You've probably heard of blue screening, the technology that lets your local weather person predict the future with a cool interactive map behind them. But how the heck did they do these types of things before you could tell a machine to put video A everywhere that blue appears in video B?

Of course, the process was much more complex in the beginning. When The Lost World portrayed humans running away from stop-motion animated monsters, they actually had to film things with an optical printer. This required blacking out all but the actors on the top film, then blocking out where the actors would appear on the stop-motion film and printing them onto a third roll of film.

The first film to use a blue screen behind the actors (which made it easier to print only them on the film) was The Thief of Bagdad (1940). Using this method, the film would be developed with a number of color filters to ensure that the blue background would disappear, while the actors and intended background would show up.

The effect first became digitized for The Empire Strikes Back. Nowadays, a green background is more commonly used. Why? Because blue is a more common clothing color.

The Background of Backgrounds

As you may have guessed, it was a lot harder to put people in front of imaginary background locations before computer animation was created. Instead, painted backgrounds were often used to portray most settings. Giant glass panels were originally placed behind the actors during filming. The first time this was done was in the 1907 film Missions of California, which used a massive matte painting of crumbling missions.

You likely have a better recollection of the glass matte paintings used in The Wizard of Oz though, which allowed Dorothy to travel to a massive city made of emerald.

For situations where a background needed to move—for example, when a dust cloud or wind needed to be incorporated—directors would often use a background projection instead. This required playing footage of the background on a screen behind the actors, then filming both at the same time, in the same frame.

The 1927 film Metropolis managed to create elaborate sets by projecting the top of a massive-looking building (often just a model) onto a mirror located in the top portion of the camera frame. The camera would then shoot the actors performing in front of a wall, which appeared to have the tops of the impressive sets seen in the projection. As you can see in the trailer, they also used a lot of models to create the urban cityscapes pictured.

Animated About Animatronics

One of the biggest complaints about CGI technology is that it still looks inferior to well done animatronics. These tricky effects actually were first used over 100 years ago, when Richard Murphy created a mechanical eagle for D.W. Griffith's Rescued From An Eagle's Nest in 1908. While the bird was not the best animitronic device, it set the stage for Jaws and other famous animatronic monsters.

Looks a Lot Like...

When it comes to special effects, my personal favorites are some of the most simple—the use of one thing to portray another. For example, the tornado seen in The Wizard of Oz was actually just a twisted silk stocking being hit by the wind from a fan. When close-ups were needed, they instead used a burlap bag that emitted a massive cloud of dust.

I've heard that the original Star Trek used a lot of clever tricks to create space sets, like pouring oatmeal over a lightbulb to create a sun. I couldn't find much information on this while researching this article, so maybe my mind is playing tricks on me. Has anyone else heard something similar? And what are your favorite old school effects?

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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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8 Common Dog Behaviors, Decoded
May 25, 2017
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Dogs are a lot more complicated than we give them credit for. As a result, sometimes things get lost in translation. We’ve yet to invent a dog-to-English translator, but there are certain behaviors you can learn to read in order to better understand what your dog is trying to tell you. The more tuned-in you are to your dog’s emotions, the better you’ll be able to respond—whether that means giving her some space or welcoming a wet, slobbery kiss. 

1. What you’ll see: Your dog is standing with his legs and body relaxed and tail low. His ears are up, but not pointed forward. His mouth is slightly open, he’s panting lightly, and his tongue is loose. His eyes? Soft or maybe slightly squinty from getting his smile on.

What it means: “Hey there, friend!” Your pup is in a calm, relaxed state. He’s open to mingling, which means you can feel comfortable letting friends say hi.

2. What you’ll see: Your dog is standing with her body leaning forward. Her ears are erect and angled forward—or have at least perked up if they’re floppy—and her mouth is closed. Her tail might be sticking out horizontally or sticking straight up and wagging slightly.

What it means: “Hark! Who goes there?!” Something caught your pup’s attention and now she’s on high alert, trying to discern whether or not the person, animal, or situation is a threat. She’ll likely stay on guard until she feels safe or becomes distracted.

3. What you’ll see: Your dog is standing, leaning slightly forward. His body and legs are tense, and his hackles—those hairs along his back and neck—are raised. His tail is stiff and twitching, not swooping playfully. His mouth is open, teeth are exposed, and he may be snarling, snapping, or barking excessively.

What it means: “Don’t mess with me!” This dog is asserting his social dominance and letting others know that he might attack if they don’t defer accordingly. A dog in this stance could be either offensively aggressive or defensively aggressive. If you encounter a dog in this state, play it safe and back away slowly without making eye contact.

4. What you’ll see: As another dog approaches, your dog lies down on his back with his tail tucked in between his legs. His paws are tucked in too, his ears are flat, and he isn’t making direct eye contact with the other dog standing over him.

What it means: “I come in peace!” Your pooch is displaying signs of submission to a more dominant dog, conveying total surrender to avoid physical confrontation. Other, less obvious, signs of submission include ears that are flattened back against the head, an avoidance of eye contact, a tongue flick, and bared teeth. Yup—a dog might bare his teeth while still being submissive, but they’ll likely be clenched together, the lips opened horizontally rather than curled up to show the front canines. A submissive dog will also slink backward or inward rather than forward, which would indicate more aggressive behavior.

5. What you’ll see: Your dog is crouching with her back hunched, tail tucked, and the corner of her mouth pulled back with lips slightly curled. Her shoulders, or hackles, are raised and her ears are flattened. She’s avoiding eye contact.

What it means: “I’m scared, but will fight you if I have to.” This dog’s fight or flight instincts have been activated. It’s best to keep your distance from a dog in this emotional state because she could attack if she feels cornered.

6. What you’ll see: You’re staring at your dog, holding eye contact. Your dog looks away from you, tentatively looks back, then looks away again. After some time, he licks his chops and yawns.

What it means: “I don’t know what’s going on and it’s weirding me out.” Your dog doesn’t know what to make of the situation, but rather than nipping or barking, he’ll stick to behaviors he knows are OK, like yawning, licking his chops, or shaking as if he’s wet. You’ll want to intervene by removing whatever it is causing him discomfort—such as an overly grabby child—and giving him some space to relax.

7. What you’ll see: Your dog has her front paws bent and lowered onto the ground with her rear in the air. Her body is relaxed, loose, and wiggly, and her tail is up and wagging from side to side. She might also let out a high-pitched or impatient bark.

What it means: “What’s the hold up? Let’s play!” This classic stance, known to dog trainers and behaviorists as “the play bow,” is a sign she’s ready to let the good times roll. Get ready for a round of fetch or tug of war, or for a good long outing at the dog park.

8. What you’ll see: You’ve just gotten home from work and your dog rushes over. He can’t stop wiggling his backside, and he may even lower himself into a giant stretch, like he’s doing yoga.

What it means: “OhmygoshImsohappytoseeyou I love you so much you’re my best friend foreverandeverandever!!!!” This one’s easy: Your pup is overjoyed his BFF is back. That big stretch is something dogs don’t pull out for just anyone; they save that for the people they truly love. Show him you feel the same way with a good belly rub and a handful of his favorite treats.

The best way to say “I love you” in dog? A monthly subscription to BarkBox. Your favorite pup will get a package filled with treats, toys, and other good stuff (and in return, you’ll probably get lots of sloppy kisses). Visit BarkBox to learn more.

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