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Disney Songwriting Legends Reflect on Their Careers

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Disney

Every Disney fan knows Richard Sherman and Alan Menken. Even non-fans can’t help but know their songs practically through osmosis. You don’t have to be a Disneyphile to know the earworm “It’s a Small World” (Sherman) or hum along to “A Whole New World” (Menken).

The two songwriting legends are teaming up for a once-in-a-lifetime concert on Saturday as part of the D23 Expo in Anaheim. The show will consist of some greatest hits, a couple of lesser-known pieces, and a bit of conversation about their careers and friendship. Here’s a little taste of the kind of conversation we can expect. Check back next week for clips from what’s sure to be an amazing performance.

What’s your favorite song written by one another?

Alan Menken: You look at “Supercalifragilistic” and I know that’s so known, but that’s really—there could not have been an “Under the Sea” without a “Supercalifragilistic.” It’s a combination of the exuberance, the rhythm, the cleverness of the lyrics and the catchiness of it—it just gets into your system. It set the standard, set the bar for what Howard [Ashman, Menken’s songwriting partner] and I did.

Richard Sherman: [He has] so many gorgeous, gorgeous songs. He’s a great melody writer, wonderful harmonies. I fell in love with a song called “Suddenly Seymour,” [from Little Shop of Horrors] ... it's such a passionate song, a wonderful explosion of emotion. "Part of Your World” gets to me. It just does it. I just love that song. But if you try to pick one, it’s just impossible. We’re both fans of each other and I think that makes it kind of fun.

How did you choose which songs to perform together at the D23 Expo?

AM: It’s always a challenge picking out just the right material for an audience. We did have some requests from our hosts, and the way they've structured it made it somewhat easy to decide on songs.

RS: We try to do a potpourri, not a complete rundown of anything in one particular film, but kind of a sampling of things over the years. It was kind of a fun thing, looking at all my children and saying, "Which one am I going to take on the outing?"

Are there any songs that unexpectedly became hits?

RS: It’s a funny thing about when we did Poppins, I remember that Bob and I wondered which is the [song] that’s going to happen. Robert said, "I'm absolutely sure it's was going to be 'Stay Awake.'" It was just a little lullaby and he loved it, but it never stood out on its own. And I said “Chim Chim Cheree” will never be popular, it’s just a minor thing, you know, and it's about about a chimney sweep, and that became a giant thing.

AM: I had a similar thing with Little Mermaid: "Kiss the Girl" was really our single, and of course "Under the Sea" is the song that really emerged. "Part of Your World" was one we almost lost entirely. It wasn’t necessarily working at one point during the film.

What’s it like to perform for people who live and breathe Disney?

AM: It’s fun, it really is fun. It’s a really powerful, shared experience. I’d be lying if I didn’t say that it wasn’t kind of a pleasant ego trip, because everything I’m doing up there, they’re reacting so exuberantly to. It’s just great fun, really.

Are there any Disney films you’re dying to have made into a theatrical production?

RS: Alan has certainly the record in this by far, but there’s a couple of things I’m kind of looking forward to seeing. The Jungle Book is now on its feet. And I have another couple of things, but I don’t want to talk too much.

AM: It will be neat to see Hercules. We’re working on a cruise ship version of Tangled. Who knows if it will find its way to the stage?

RS: So many factors have to take place before it’s a reality, so I don’t like to talk about too many things unless they’re really on the road to reality.

AM: I tend to be more of a blabbermouth.

On their Disney songwriting processes:

AM: The process for me is very much the process of writing a musical. Disney has been the studio that has been—especially in our lifetime—the most supportive of writing songs in that way. Where the difference comes in, in it being Disney, is a sense of responsibility, a sense of the message of the song and the approach to storytelling. You know that this is an audience that will embrace what you do and take it to heart entirely, so you have to cherish the audience as you write these songs. The Disney tradition—number one, it’s a great American classic tradition—and it’s something where you don’t want to go over certain lines. You want to poke fun but you don’t want to poke fun in a way that’s hurtful. The company is very sensitive to that, and once you've been associated with the company for a long time,  you become very sensitive to that. But you definitely want to skate as close to that line as possible because that’s where all the fun is.

RS: You have to either write for a character or the character of an experience like “Small World” or “Carousel of Progress.” When we first saw audio animatronic figures being featured in the Tiki room and we came up with a little calypso song called “The Tiki Tiki Room,” we weren’t writing for a person or a character or anything else. Everything is its own challenge, whether it be a building or a fictional character or a marvelous make-believe lady like Mary Poppins.

On meeting each other and developing a friendship:

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RS: I didn’t know Alan at all, but I felt I knew him in a sense through his wonderful songs and his melodies and I realized that this guy likes to write the way I like to write; this man can carry on a wonderful tradition.

AM: [There is a] graciousness and generosity in Richard that’s unique in our business. Truly unique. It’s something to my dying day that I will always appreciate, and it’s a very rare quality. You can sense that in his songs but it’s there in the man. The way he and his wife have treated me has been so generous—it’s had an immense effect.

What are you looking forward to seeing at the D23 Expo?

AM: There will be a lot of friends there. I think it’s mostly an experience that’s oriented toward being with people rather than exhibits for us.

RS: I think it's just experiencing the joy that's being exuberated by all of these people—

AM: Exuberated! I like that!

RS: You like that? I just made that up.

AM: I like that, I do! You just witnessed where the Sherman Brothers brilliance comes from.

RS: Make the word work for you.

On working with Walt:

RS: I always felt honored that I was working for his company, and for him, when he was with us ... Walt set a high standard for the both of us when he had these great songwriters of the past, who wrote the great scores for Pinocchio and all of these wonderful, wonderful pictures that came before our time. [They are] wholesome, beautiful entertainments that uplift the spirits. They're not depressing; they're uplifting. We’re lucky to have done that kind of work.

On his brother and songwriting partner Robert Sherman, who passed away last year:

RS: Bob never was much of a performer. He was always little bit on the shy side. But he would have joined me [at the D23 Expo] on a couple of little choruses and stuff. But I’m representing the both of us—that’s what I do.

Which of your songs was the most challenging to develop?

RS: We were trying to top a very pretty song we had written [for Mary Poppins] and we were told, "We want something with a little more pep in it." Say the same thing but say it in a very "up" way as opposed to this ballad we had just written. We wanted . . . kind of a little slogan that Mary Poppins could sing that would give the children the idea that if you have a happy attitude, a hard job becomes easier. My brother’s son Jeff came home from school one day and he had the Salk vaccine, and Bob said “Did it hurt?” And the little guy said, “No, they put the medicine on a cube of sugar, and then we took it like candy, it was easy.”
Bob came in the next day and said, "I got a title for us: 'A Spoonful of Sugar Makes the Medicine Go Down.'”

And I said, “Oh my god, it’s terrible. No, wait, it’s wonderful!” It became a really big smash hit for us, but that was a tough one.

On the secret to longevity:

RS: I have a good time. I never feel like I’m working. I was blessed from the time early on with doing my hobby, my hobby was writing songs. I’d be happy to do it without getting any money for it. I love writing songs and the challenge of writing different kinds of things, so it was always a fun thing for me. If I didn’t [have fun], I would have retired years ago. I’m 85, but I don’t feel it. I have my health and I have my enthusiasm.

On their favorite “obscure” songs:

AM: I’m very proud of “Will the Sun Ever Shine Again.” That was a song written very close to the 9/11 event. We were all, especially in New York, in a real state of trauma, and that was a song that very much captured the emotion of everyone at the studio.

You know, I love “The Gospel Truth,” the song that opened up Hercules. I thought that song was a lot of fun and I really enjoyed producing that and writing that. "If I Never Knew You” from Pocahontas. We lost it the first time around; we got it back when it was re-released. I think it was a very emotional song that I'm very proud of.

RS: [At the D23 Expo] I’m going to sing something that’s not thought of as one of my big hits, but I personally have a great deal of attachment to it. I don’t want to tell you because that’s going to be a surprise for everybody.

Is there a main message you’d like to get across to Disney fans?

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RS: Disney fans already know, but I’ll just say it: There’s a wonderful thing called being positive in your life as opposed to being negative—being on the upside of the coin. Both Alan and myself have been blessed with the "chore" of writing things for very upbeat ideas. They’re not depressing. They’re not cynical. They’re positive; there are strong feelings of goodwill in them. And I think all of the Disney fans will recognize that immediately.

There’s nothing cynical about our work, none of us.

The biggest, wonderful gratification I get is the fact that people get joy out of my work. That they feel good about it and they have a good time and they feel happy about it, and that’s truly my reward.

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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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Opening Ceremony
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These $425 Jeans Can Turn Into Jorts
May 19, 2017
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Opening Ceremony

Modular clothing used to consist of something simple, like a reversible jacket. Today, it’s a $425 pair of detachable jeans.

Apparel retailer Opening Ceremony recently debuted a pair of “2 in 1 Y/Project” trousers that look fairly peculiar. The legs are held to the crotch by a pair of loops, creating a disjointed C-3PO effect. Undo the loops and you can now remove the legs entirely, leaving a pair of jean shorts in their wake. The result goes from this:

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Opening Ceremony

To this:

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Opening Ceremony

The company also offers a slightly different cut with button tabs in black for $460. If these aren’t audacious enough for you, the Y/Project line includes jumpsuits with removable legs and garter-equipped jeans.

[h/t Mashable]

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