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6 Influential Stop-Motion Movies From Ray Harryhausen

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Raymond Frederick “Ray” Harryhausen—who died today at age 92—was a pioneer and visionary in the filmmaking industry. Although he never directed a full-length feature film, his style of stop-motion animation special effects and his bold imagination directly impact nearly every genre movie from the 1940s to today. Harryhausen almost single-handedly kept the stop-motion animation technique alive for three solid decades before the advent of computer camera motion control and CGI.

He was inducted into the Science Fiction Hall of Fame in 2005, while directors like Tim Burton, Robert Rodriguez, James Cameron, and George Lucas pay homage to Harryhausen’s work in their films. Here are six of the most influential stop-motion Ray Harryhausen movies.

1. MIGHTY JOE YOUNG (1949)

Ray Harryhausen’s work on Mighty Joe Young—which was directed by Ernest B. Schoedsack, one of the directors of the groundbreaking 1933 movie King Kong—contributed to the film’s Academy Award win for Best Special Effects in 1949. The movie is known for its elaborate action sequences and larger-than-life characters. Mighty Joe Young is seen as one of the best examples of what stop-motion animation can offer.

2. EARTH VS. THE FLYING SAUCERS (1956)

The science fiction film Earth Vs. The Flying Saucers (also known as Invasion of the Flying Saucers) displayed an elaborate alien invasion that had UFOs crashing into a number of government buildings and monuments. Harryhausen incorporated military stock footage with stop-motion animation to bring the fictional event to life; his flying saucer design is the prototype for almost every alien invasion movie ever made. Director Tim Burton paid homage to Harryhausen’s work in his 1996 film, Mars Attacks!

3. THE 7TH VOYAGE OF SINBAD (1958)

The 7th Voyage of Sinbad was the first of three Sinbad movies released by Columbia Pictures. Harryhausen refined his stop-motion technique with a new system called “Dynamation," which incorporated stop-motion animation with lush and vivid color. It took him 11 months to complete the animation for the film, which features one of Harryhausen’s most iconic creations, the monstrous single-horned Cyclops. In 2008, the Library of Congress selected the film for preservation in the United States National Film Registry.

4. MYSTERIOUS ISLAND (1961)

Loosely based on Jules Verne’s novel, Mysterious Island was used by Shepperton Studios to showcase the high level of special effects the British movie studio could churn out and offer directors. Although the film was a box office disappointment, Mysterious Island is considered to be one of the finest examples of Harryhausen’s imagination and design.

5. JASON AND THE ARGONAUTS (1963)

Jason and the Argonauts is perhaps best known for the iconic sword fight featuring seven skeleton warriors, which took Harryhausen four months to complete. He considered Jason and the Argonauts to be his best film; it was nominated for the American Film Institute’s Top 10 Fantasy Films of all time. Director Robert Rodriguez paid homage to the skeleton sword fight scene in his 2002 film, Spy Kids 2: Island of Lost Dreams

6. CLASH OF THE TITANS (1981)

When people think of the 1981 film Clash of the Titans, the creatures that immediately come to mind are Harryhausen's terrifying Medusa and towering Kraken. After the film was released, Harryhausen retired from filmmaking (special effects in Hollywood movies like Star Wars and Superman made the stop-motion animation technique seem old fashioned). Director Louis Leterrier's 2010 Titans remake—which starred Australian actor Sam Worthington as Perseus and Liam Neeson as the mythological Greek god Zeus—didn’t incorporate stop-motion animation, but Harryhausen’s influence can still be felt: The creatures were updated versions of his stop-motion creations.

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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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What Happened to Jamie and Aurelia From Love Actually?
May 26, 2017
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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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