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How Malfunctioning Sharks Transformed the Movie Business

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Before Steven Spielberg became Hollywood royalty, he was just another young director with a giant shark problem.

It was July 1974, and 27-year-old Steven Spielberg was sure his career was over. He’d been on location in Martha’s Vineyard for three months, waiting for the overdue star of his new movie Jaws. And now, as he watched the first lunges of the $250,000 mechanical shark in action, Spielberg’s heart sank. The beast was anything but menacing. His eyes crossed. His teeth were too white. His jaws didn’t close properly. And he had a big dimple that made him look like Kirk Douglas.

The shark was just the latest of Spielberg’s setbacks.

Before Jaws, movies weren't shot on the ocean. Hollywood studios simply tossed a boat in a tank and projected moving scenery behind it. But Spielberg wanted realism. And he paid for it. Boating mishaps and near drownings had almost killed several cast and crew members.

Rough waters and drifting tides made for chaotic filming. Most days, once the crew had anchored the 12 tons of rigging into place and waited out unwanted boats on the horizon, Spielberg was left with just two hours of afternoon light to shoot. As Spielberg burned through his $4 million budget and 55-day shooting schedule, the cast and crew turned mutinous. Angry locals left dead sharks on the production office’s porch. Studio execs worried the film wouldn’t deliver. And Spielberg lived in constant fear of having the plug pulled. Word in Hollywood was that the young director was finished. But Spielberg, who felt “like Captain Bligh” on a sinking ship, was determined to complete his movie, shark or no shark.

A Picture Book of Fears

When a Long Island fisherman caught a 4,500-pound great white in 1964, author Peter Benchley took notice. “What would happen if one of those things came around and wouldn’t go away?” he asked. Ten years later he turned the idea into the bestselling novel Jaws. Benchley’s book sparked an immediate bidding war in Hollywood, with Universal coming out on top—all before it even hit shelves.

Spielberg wasn’t the studio’s first choice as director. Universal initially approached Dick Richards, but when Richards kept referring to the story’s predator as a "whale,” the producers lost patience. Enter the young and ambitious Steven Spielberg. His résumé included more TV movies and episodes of Columbo than feature films. And his one stab at the big screen, The Sugarland Express, had drawn critical raves but tanked at the box office. Still, the suits were impressed by his confidence. Spielberg’s vision for Jaws was part high adventure, part horror: “a picture book of fears, phobias and anxieties.”

Spielberg had his own doubts about the project. As a new director, he had art-house aspirations and dreamed of making critically acclaimed films. But he knew that one more flop would torpedo his career. He had to make Jaws a blockbuster.

To do that, he needed a truly terrifying shark. Producers wanted Spielberg to hire someone to train a great white—an impossibility. The director toyed with rubber props before ultimately deciding the only real answer was to build a remote-controlled mega-shark—a 25-footer that could swim, leap in the air, and munch on human prey. Every special effects company in Hollywood called the task impossible. Undeterred, Spielberg lured effects guru Bob Mattey out of retirement. Famous for designing the giant squid in the 1954 film 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, Mattey assured the director he could build the perfect monster.

With three sharks in production (collectively nicknamed Bruce, after Spielberg’s lawyer), Spielberg focused on the screenplay, which had gone through four writers and five drafts. The script was still unfinished as shooting began, so Spielberg hired his friend Carl Gottlieb to do the final polishing on set. Though it made the studio nervous to use a sitcom writer whose credits included The Odd Couple and All in the Family, Gottlieb proved to be one of the movie’s secret weapons.

Each night he sat with stars Roy Scheider, Richard Dreyfuss, and Robert Shaw, taking notes as they improvised unfinished scenes. In Gottlieb’s hands, a straight monster flick became a character-driven film. And many of the flick’s most memorable lines—including “You’re gonna need a bigger boat”—came out of his process.

During the first three months of production, Spielberg focused on bringing fictional Amity Island to life. Whether orchestrating hundreds of extras through a beach panic scene or refereeing an off-screen battle of egos between Shaw and Dreyfuss, the director remained calm and confident. But as he prepared to take his cameras onto the high seas, one question remained: Where was the shark?

What Would Hitchcock Do?

When Mattey finally delivered Bruce, Spielberg began to panic. On its first day on the job, the shark promptly sank to the bottom of Nantucket Sound. Within a week, saltwater had eroded Bruce’s electric motor, and he had to be refitted with a system of pneumatic hoses. Every night, Bruce also had to be drained, scrubbed, and repainted. Even by diva standards, Bruce was high-maintenance.

“I had no choice but to figure out how to tell the story without the shark,” Spielberg said. “So I just went back to Alfred Hitchcock: ‘What would Hitchcock do in a situation like this?’ ... It’s what we don’t see which is truly frightening.”

The idea of the unseen enemy completely changed the film’s direction. It shapes the opening scene where a girl goes for a midnight swim and becomes the shark’s first victim. We see her legs underwater. We hear the ominous notes of John Williams’s score. And then we watch as she’s yanked down and dragged violently through the sea. The crew achieved this terrifying effect by tying ropes around actress Susan Backlinie, then playing a game of aquatic tug-of-war.

The sidelined shark also prompted Spielberg’s creative use of the ocean itself. He wanted the water lapping at the lens to make the audience feel like they were not only “in the ocean, but about to drown.” Cameraman Bill Butler invented a “water box” with glass windows that allowed cameras to be submerged. Gottlieb deepened the constant state of anxiety by stirring humor into the horror. Almost every appearance of the shark comes directly on the heels of a joke—the careful orchestration of screams, laughs, and foreboding silence keeps the audience emotionally off balance.

An exhausted Spielberg finally returned to Hollywood 159 days and nearly $8 million later. But his work wasn’t over. With the help of veteran editor Verna “Mother Cutter” Fields, he pieced the movie together. The New England weather haunted him—the wildly varying light and changing skies made for endless headaches as they matched footage. Massive reels of Bruce had to be cobbled into cohesive bursts of terror. To add an extra scare, Spielberg reshot part of one scene in Fields’s backyard pool, dumping powdered milk in the water to approximate the murky ocean. But even after finalizing the film, Spielberg doubted the results. Would his shark movie scare audiences, or would it be the “laugh riot of ’75”?

Legacy

Spielberg didn’t know it, but his malfunctioning sharks were about to radically alter Hollywood’s business model. All the shooting delays meant that Jaws couldn’t hit its planned release date, right in the heart of 1974’s lucrative Christmas season. Instead, Universal made the gutsy call to hold the film until summer, a season that had traditionally been the dumping ground for cinematic afterthoughts.

Then something unbelievable happened. Test screenings that spring drew such positive reactions that MCA/Universal’s stock price shot up by several points. Certain that it had a hit, Universal seized the momentum with a marketing blitz. Studios had always shied away from using expensive television spots to market films, but Universal dropped an unheard-of $700,000 to saturate prime-time programming with 30-second trailers.

The opening strategy was equally aggressive. Traditionally, high-profile movies opened in New York City or Los Angeles before slowly spreading to other cities and then trickling into small towns months later. Wide releases were generally reserved for duds; studios would cast a wide net to maximize ticket sales before negative word of mouth killed a film. But after the ad campaign made Jaws the summer’s can’t-miss flick, Universal went all-in on the release, and the movie opened in an unprecedented 465 theaters on June 20, 1975.

The gambles paid off—Jaws grossed $60 million in its first month. It went on to become the first film to top $100 million, eventually hauling in an astonishing $260 million. Critics were just as enthusiastic. The New Yorker’s Pauline Kael dubbed it “the most cheerfully perverse scare movie ever made.” The film was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Picture, and it won three other Oscars.

Spielberg would later say, “Jaws should never have been made—it was an impossible effort.” Yet all those frustrating days at sea and short-circuiting sharks got the young director exactly what he had always wanted. By creating the prototype for every summer blockbuster that followed, Spielberg earned the freedom to make artier films like The Color Purple and Schindler’s List. He went into his next project, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, armed with a bigger budget, more creative control, and the knowledge that sometimes the biggest obstacles were actually his biggest assets.

This article originally appeared in mental_floss magazine.

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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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Nick Briggs/Comic Relief
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What Happened to Jamie and Aurelia From Love Actually?
May 26, 2017
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Nick Briggs/Comic Relief

Fans of the romantic-comedy Love Actually recently got a bonus reunion in the form of Red Nose Day Actually, a short charity special that gave audiences a peek at where their favorite characters ended up almost 15 years later.

One of the most improbable pairings from the original film was between Jamie (Colin Firth) and Aurelia (Lúcia Moniz), who fell in love despite almost no shared vocabulary. Jamie is English, and Aurelia is Portuguese, and they know just enough of each other’s native tongues for Jamie to propose and Aurelia to accept.

A decade and a half on, they have both improved their knowledge of each other’s languages—if not perfectly, in Jamie’s case. But apparently, their love is much stronger than his grasp on Portuguese grammar, because they’ve got three bilingual kids and another on the way. (And still enjoy having important romantic moments in the car.)

In 2015, Love Actually script editor Emma Freud revealed via Twitter what happened between Karen and Harry (Emma Thompson and Alan Rickman, who passed away last year). Most of the other couples get happy endings in the short—even if Hugh Grant's character hasn't gotten any better at dancing.

[h/t TV Guide]

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