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12 Early Short Films By Famous Hollywood Directors

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By Scott Meslow

If last weekend's number one movie, Mama — in which two adopted children are beset by a malevolent creature they call Mama — sounds familiar, it may be because you first encountered the film in its original three-minute short form when it was released in 2008. (Watch the original short version of Mama below.) On the strength of the three-minute version, Guillermo del Toro (of Pan's Labyrinth fame) tapped director Andres Muschietti to expand the short into a full-length film of the same name. But Muschietti is hardly the first director to cut his teeth on self-produced shorts before moving up to a big directing gig. Here, 12 early short films by famous Hollywood directors. (Warning: Some videos may contain strong language.)

1. What's a Nice Girl Like You Doing in a Place Like This? (1963) 
Directed by Martin Scorsese (Goodfellas, The Departed, Hugo)

As an NYU film student, Martin Scorsese made a series of well-received short films — including The Big Shave, a darkly satirical indictment of the Vietnam War — but the most accessible is this briskly paced short, which tells the story of a man who becomes obsessed with a picture on his wall.

2. Six Men Getting Sick (1966) 
Directed by David Lynch (Blue Velvet, Mulholland Drive, Inland Empire)

David Lynch's unsettling style, a trademark of his mature work, first made its appearance in a number of early short films — but none more so than Six Men Getting Sick, which is more or less what it sounds like.

3. Vincent (1982) 
Directed by Tim Burton (Edward Scissorhands, Alice in Wonderland, Frankenweenie)

Like David Lynch, Tim Burton seems to have emerged as a filmmaker fully formed in his early work. Vincent is a beautifully executed, delightfully twisted stop-motion short that gleefully pays homage to the classic horror films that have inspired so much of Burton's oeuvre.

4. The Discipline of D.E. (1982) 
Directed by Gus Van Sant (Good Will Hunting, Milk, Promised Land)

The ever-ambitious Gus Van Sant offered a powerful early film in this black-and-white adaptation of William S. Burroughs' story of the same name from his 1973 collection Exterminator! In order to get permission from Burroughs to make the film, Van Sant simply visited his apartment after finding his address in the telephone book.

5. Luxo Jr. (1986) 
Directed by John Lasseter (Toy Story, A Bug's Life, Cars 2)

This John Lasseter short, which follows two desk lamps as they play with a ball, was the first CGI-animated movie to be nominated for an Oscar (for Best Animated Short Film). In homage to Luxo Jr.'s success, Pixar has featured a hopping lamp in its logo ever since.

6. My Best Friend's Birthday (1987)
Directed by Quentin Tarantino (Pulp Fiction, Kill BillDjango Unchained)

Quentin Tarantino directed, cowrote, and starred in this 70-minute amateur film, which took four years to complete. But fate had something else in store for the budding director: Half of the film was lost in a fire that broke out during the editing process, resulting in the incomplete 36-minute cut that remains.

7. Geometria (1987) 
Directed by Guillermo del Toro (Blade II, Pan's Labyrinth, 
Hellboy II: The Golden Army)

There's a reason that Guillermo del Toro remains so supportive of filmmakers like Andres Muschetti — he also got his start in short films, including this strange specimen, in which a high school student turns to black magic in order to pass a math exam.

8. Mae Day: The Crumbling of a Documentary (1992) 
Directed by Kevin Smith (Clerks, Dogma, Red State)

When Kevin Smith's student documentary on transsexual performer Mae Day fell apart before completion, he and co-director Scott Mosier came up with an ingenious solution — turning their existing footage into a short documentary about how they had failed to make a documentary.

9. Bottle Rocket (1994) 
Directed by Wes Anderson (The Royal 
Tenenbaums, The Fantastic Mr. Fox, Moonrise Kingdom)

Director Wes Anderson catapulted himself and stars Owen and Luke Wilson to Hollywood fame with the 13-minute short version of Bottle Rocket, which they reworked into a feature-length film in 1996.

10. Doodlebug (1997) 
Directed by Christopher Nolan (The Dark Knight, Inception, The Dark Knight Rises)

Before trying his hand at feature-length independent filmmaking with 1998's Following, Christopher Nolan made this surreal three-minute short, in which a man races around his decrepit apartment, trying to catch the "doodlebug" of the film's title.

11. Gulp (2001) 
Directed by Jason 
Reitman (Juno, Up in the Air, Young Adult)

Jason Reitman's quirky directorial sensibility shines through this short film, in which a young man goes to extreme lengths to save his pet fish when he accidentally puts it into fresh water instead of salt water.

12. Alive in Joburg (2006) 
Directed by Neill 
Blomkamp (District 9, Elysium)

Neill Blomkamp's short faux-documentary about extraterrestrials who become refugees in Johannesburg was so well-received that he was tapped to expand it into 2009's critically-adored sleeper hit District 9.

Watch Andres Muschietti's original Mama short: 

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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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May 23, 2017
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