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via YouTube

Why Did Soap Operas Look Different From Other TV Shows?

Original image
via YouTube

Soap operas, "soaps" or "my stories," as many a grandmother has called them, are dramas presented in a serial format on daytime television or radio. Their name comes from a time when old serial dramas broadcast on radio had soap manufacturers (Procter & Gamble and Lever Brothers, to name a couple) as sponsors and/or producers. They also, you probably remember, looked really really crappy.

There are two main reasons for this lack of visual quality, both of which were rooted in the problem of soap operas' time slots and scheduling. Daytime TV shows generally don't pull in as much advertising revenue as evening programs, and many soap operas air daily instead of weekly, so low budgets, short production times and quick turnaround are the name of the game.

The Lighting Game

via YouTube

Soap opera lighting is a major reason the shows look the way they do.

Backlighting, part of the three-point lighting setup often used in television production, helps "lift" actors out of the background. This is especially useful for productions that are shot on a lower-quality medium and in small interior sets, which soaps often are. The problem is that shooting on videotape on a small set can reduce the subtlety of the lighting technique. Actors in the foreground often wind up very noticeably backlit, something that doesn't happen on shows with larger sets, or shows that are recorded on film.

Soaps and other lower-budget shows also look "off" because they're often evenly lit across the entire set to facilitate simultaneously shooting with more than one camera. This lighting/shooting method means the actors can move around and the lights don't have to be reset for every shot. This allows for fewer takes and costs less, but it also means more diffuse, less natural-looking lighting in the final product.

On Tape

via YouTube

The filming medium (that is, what the show is recorded on) and the way the show is shot make up the the other half of the equation. Soaps have often been shot on various types of videotape to keep costs down, and compared to prime time shows and big budget movies shot on film, they can look a little flat. Shooting with videotape also gives you a lower resolution, and to compensate, soaps have always made heavy use of close-ups.

Time and budgetary constraints and the multi-camera setup also require soaps to edit differently than prime time shows. Soaps usually use static cameras, since dollies would mean more opportunities for mistakes, more takes, and more cost. Angle shifts are usually accomplished by cutting from one camera to another and any movement tends to be simple zooming, which you're about as likely to see in a movie as you are to see sweeping pan shots and long-take tracking shots on daytime TV.

Of course, daytime soaps have taken a big hit in recent years, and only four of the classics—The Young and the Restless, The Bold and the Beautiful, General Hospital and Days of Our Livesremain on air. They all made the switch to broadcast in high definition, which was a costly upgrade, but one that greatly improved viewability. For a couple of years, All My Children and One Life to Live briefly found new life on Hulu, where they were also filmed and streamed in high definition. But old habits die hard, and the term "soap opera effect" still persists as a way to describe the glossy, overly polished look that shows or TV settings can take.

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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:

501069-OpeningCeremony2.jpg

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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