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Director Christopher Nolan Discusses Making His First Film, Following

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Last night, director Christopher Nolan visited the IFC Center in New York City to screen his own restored print of his first film, Following. After showing the film (as well as one of his early shorts, Doodlebug), Nolan and incoming Village Voice film critic Scott Foundas discussed the film’s restoration, the challenges behind making Following—and how it compares to making big budget films like Inception and the Batman trilogy.

Shot in London over the course of a year with practically no budget, Following is a non-linear neonoir about a struggling writer who follows people in hopes that they’ll provide inspiration for his first novel. The restored version of the film will have a Criterion Blu-ray release on December 11. “It makes me feel very old, to talk about restoring my first film,” Nolan joked. The director shot Following in black and white 16mm in 1998. “We cut a negative, made one print from that, [and] it looked amazing,” he said. “It played the first film festivals, and then we had to blow it up to 35mm for distribution, and it never looked quite like what it was supposed to look like or sound like it was supposed to sound.” For the past couple of years, in preparation for the Criterion release, Nolan has supervised the restoration of the film, “going back to the original negative and finally making it look the way it was supposed to look.”

The Inspiration

Two things inspired Nolan was inspired to make Following: Life in his crowded London neighborhood, and the burglary of his apartment. “You’d go out of your flat and you’d be surrounded by people. I became interested in the idea of looking at individuals and saying, 'What’s that person’s story?'” Nolan said. “Right around that time, somebody broke into the flat.”

Particularly powerful for him was coming home to see that his door had been smashed in. “I realized that the door was just plywood, and that was never keeping anybody out,” he said. “What was keeping people out was the social protocols that we have that allow us to live together. I was interested in the certain types of people who would stop observing those protocols, and why that would be.”

Writing and Filming

Though the film was always intended to have a non-linear structure, Nolan wrote the script in chronological order first, then went back and rearranged it—“on the page, not in the edit suite,” he said—which taught him a valuable lesson. “What I found was that there was so much rewriting involved to try to make a comprehensive and flowing narrative that when it came time to write Memento, I did the opposite, and I never looked at it reordered in any way,” he said.

Nolan wanted a non-linear structure for the film in part because it would fit the sporadic shooting schedule. “We’d shoot one day a week and we kept that up for most of a year, sometimes skipping a weekend or whatever,” he said. “It was truly a no-budget effort, and I’d written the script to accommodate that. The non-linear chronology helped us keep continuity in an organic way.”

Shooting in black and white rather than color gives Following its highly stylized, neonoir feel—and there were other benefits, too. “In black and white, it's much more possible to hide some of your budgetary constraints,” Nolan said. “When you have absolutely no money and absolutely no resources, [trying] to achieve color cinematography is extremely difficult. [With black and white,] it’s much more possible to get some kind of level of style to the thing—quickly and easily throwing in some lights and shadow and going with that.”

He and his friends filmed in their own apartments and in friends’ restaurants, and grabbed many shots on the fly. Only Lucy Russell, who plays the blonde, would go on to have a career in acting.

Independent Filmmaking versus Studio Films

Because he didn’t have a ton of money for film stock and processing on Following, Nolan wanted to avoid doing a large number of takes—so he had his actors rehearse for 6 months, as if they were doing a play. “When there’s a little mistake [in a play], the actors don’t stop and go ‘I need another one.’ They just get through,” he said. “So I thought we could [go] to a location that we had for an hour, jump in, do a scene we’d done 100 times before and film it, and give them one or two takes—most of the film is first takes, some are second.”

Knowing what he now knows, he said, “I would never try to do something like that. It was mad, really. But that’s the joy of when you’re first starting out—you don’t know the restrictions you’re putting on your actors and they just rose to it and gave these great performances.”

Whether or not Nolan runs rehearsal these days, he said, depends on the actors. “It’s is a peculiar proposition, because you can get maybe a few days, maybe a couple of weeks,” he said. “There are directors who massively value that, and I went into that process valuing that. But for me it’s about what the actors want and need. Quite often, larger scale films accommodate [rehearsal] on the day.”

But there's one thing that hasn’t changed: The work he does as a screenwriter and director. “It’s exactly the same,” he said. “And that’s what I’ve always loved about filmmaking. Your job as the director is to really have blinders and not be aware of the artifice—where the crew is, where the trucks are, and that kind of thing. Your job, really, is to try to be the audience on set. So I found that process of trying to devise a shot, trying to understand how it’s going to make you feel as an audience member, and how it’s going to fit into the story, to be exactly the same process [just on a bigger scale]. So however much things change, it’s the same process, and that’s the process you value. That’s what you love.”

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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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Name the Author Based on the Character
May 23, 2017
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