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6 Memorable Movie Musical Moments That Were Recorded Live

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Much ado is being made about the fact that the movie musical version of Les Miserables, out December 25, did not use pre-recorded vocals. Instead, the actors sang live to a piano track played through earpieces; the full orchestra was added in post-production.

Though director Tom Hooper and the cast will claim this is “groundbreaking,” that’s not exactly true. According to Slate, “Even if you eliminate non-narrative concert and experimental films—which typically record vocals live—there are movie musicals that counter Hooper’s claim. As film scholar Lea Jacobs explains, musical numbers at Paramount Studios were recorded live on set ‘whenever possible’ as early as 1931, and RKO recorded singers live—accompanied either by a live orchestra present off-screen or a recording of the score—until 1934’s The Gay Divorcee.”

Hollywood’s pre-recording began with a 1929 musical called The Broadway Melody, says John Kenrick, author of Musical Theatre: A History and the creator of Musicals101.com. “When MGM was doing its film of The Broadway Melody, they had what became a hit song, ‘The Wedding of the Painted Doll,’” he says. “When they filmed it, they were not happy with the look of it, but they didn’t want to blow a fortune doing it over. MGM’s sound supervisor, Douglas Shearer, said 'Look, you can save a bundle if you just refilm the number and use the existing soundtrack. There's no reason it can't be done.'”

After that, Hollywood realized it could pre-record its musicals in a sound studio, which gave them high quality music and vocals, top quality pictures, and saved tons of money—and they haven’t looked back since. But advances in technology have allowed the cast of Les Mis to sing live on set, take after take. “I think it’s a brilliant idea,” Kenrick says. “Most of the performers in this film have a background in live musical theater, and they can bring that immediate quality to the screen without having to worry about lip syncing. They’re actually performing for a change.”

In honor of Les Mis, here are a few other movie musicals with memorable numbers recorded live.

1. Al Jolson, The Jazz Singer, 1927

The first full-length “talkie” film also prominently featured musical numbers performed by Al Jolson, who performed in blackface. “The Jazz Singer was done live on set, because that’s simply what made the most sense,” Kenrick says. All of the early [movie musicals] were done live on the set with the orchestra there, just off camera in most cases. And in one or two cases, like The Jazz Singer, the orchestra was on camera because it was convenient.”

2. The Cast of The Love Parade, 1929

The numbers in this 1929 musical starring Jeanette MacDonald and Maurice Chevalier were “were filmed and recorded live on the set,” Kenrick says. “But that was also the year that Broadway Melody came out. That’s when pre-recording began to take over.”

3. The Cast of Love Me Tonight, 1932

Even though pre-recording was becoming the norm, there were still movie musicals recorded live on set, including Love Me Tonight—also starring Jeanette MacDonald and Maurice Chevalier—which recorded a full orchestra and vocals simultaneously while filming.

4. Rex Harrison in My Fair Lady, 1964

As phoneticist Henry Higgins in both the stage and movie versions of My Fair Lady, Rex Harrison was required to sing patter songs—a type of number which is more spoken (and usually quickly, at that) than sung. For the movie, “[Harrison] said ‘The patter songs are just too intricate,’ so while everyone else’s numbers are pre-recorded, every song he does in My Fair Lady was recorded on set,” Kenrick says. “While that was more expensive, it worked. His performance is dynamic, it’s fresh, there’s vitality to it. He won the Academy Award, and he had also won the Tony for that part.” Harrison also sang live in 1967’s Dr. Dolittle.

5. Barbra Streisand in Funny Girl, 1968

All of Barbra Streisand’s numbers in Funny Girl—in which Streisand played the legendary Fanny Brice—are pre-recorded, save for the beginning of the film’s final number (mid-way through the song, the pre-recording takes over). “Streisand made her reputation as a nightclub and stage performer,” Kenrick says. “Funny Girl was her film debut, and people had always wanted her to sing Fanny Brice’s most famous song, ‘My Man.’ At the beginning of the number, she’s breaking down in tears—it would have been almost physically impossible to lip sync that. How do you lip sync to a breakdown? So it made sense for her to do the number live to capture the Streisand performance style.”

6. Julie Andrews, Star!, 1968

It would have been impossible to record what is arguably Julie Andrews’ most famous number, “The Sound of Music,” live on set. Not so for at least part of the closing number of Star!, "The Saga of Jenny." Andrews sings while giving an acrobatic performance, starting at 2:28 in the video above. Impressive.

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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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