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Summit Entertainment/Lionsgate

9 Things to Know About Ender's Game

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Summit Entertainment/Lionsgate

Based on a book of the same name, Ender’s Game—which hits theaters today—takes place in a futuristic world where Earth has already been attacked by an insect-like alien race called Formics. To prepare for a potential future attack, the best and brightest of Earth’s children are trained, through increasingly difficult games of strategy, to become warriors. One, a 12-year-old named Ender Wiggin, emerges a gifted military leader. Here’s what you should know before you head to the theater.

1. It took nearly three decades to bring the book to the big screen.


Ender’s Game garnered Hollywood interest when it was published in 1985. But making a movie version actually happen was complicated: As author Orson Scott Card drafted version after version of the script, the project bounced from one producer to another, was picked up and then discarded by Warner Bros., and had a number of directors attached before Gavin Hood—who would also write the screenplay—came on board.

At least one person isn’t surprised it took this long to get an Ender’s Game movie made: Chartoff Productions’ Lynn Hendee, who optioned the rights for the book in the mid-’90s. "I've always thought it was going to take years to get this movie made because it's going to take the fans of the book who read it in their wonder years to grow old enough and be in positions of decision-making," she told Grantland.

Also instrumental in getting the movie made were Gigi Pritzker, founder of OddLot Entertainment; producer Roberto Orci, who has been involved in blockbuster sci-fi films from Transformers to Star Trek; and the visual effects company Digital Domain, which, for the first time, signed on to be a financial partner as well as a visual effects creator. Working with Hood, the company created a visual effects test reel of battle sequences as the director envisioned them; the team took that reel to Cannes, where more investors signed on, to the tune of $44 million.

Battle room concept art courtesy of Summit Entertainment/Lionsgate.

In 2011, Summit Entertainment signed on as co-investor and distributor, and the film version of Ender’s Game was officially on its way to being made.

2. The final script condensed the action of the book into a single year.

The book version of Ender’s Game takes place over several years. But that period of time wouldn’t work for the movie, so Hood placed all the action in a span of about 12 months. “Although I think Ender's Game is very faithful to the ideas and characters of the book, I think that it's got to be a slimmer version of the book and the book's complexities,” Harrison Ford, who plays Colonel Hyrum Graff, told Moviefone at San Diego Comic Con. “Also, the concentration on the internal thoughts of the character has got to be objectified and dramatized. I think Gavin Hood did a very good job with the screenplay.”

Among the things that got cut were a subplot where Ender’s siblings, Peter and Valentine, write political essays under pseudonyms and publish them to Earth’s global communication system, and Graff’s uncontrollable eating, which causes him to gain a lot of weight as the book progresses. “Been there done that for 42,” Ford told Moviefone, laughing. “I am not going in the fat suit again.”

3. The kids went to space camp...

Ender's Game Production Blog

What better way to prepare to portray kids living the military life in space than by going to space camp? According to the Ender’s Game production blog, “They had to train as though they were really headed into ZERO G. And this wasn’t just an afternoon spent taking a vanity tour. From the Manned Maneuvering Unit (MMU), which simulates extra-vehicular shuttle ­missions in Earth’s orbit, to the microgravity training chair that prepared astronauts for moonwalks during the Apollo program, the week at Space Camp was genuine prep for the feeling of reality that this movie deserves.”

The actors not only did a lot of stunt work, but slept in bunk rooms and ate space food. “We learned how to march and salute and a few of the things you would learn at a military camp,” Asa Butterfield, who played Ender, told ScreenCrave. “So that was pretty good, getting some of that understanding. It gives you an insight into what the characters were experiencing.”

Ender's Game Production Blog

On one hand, the training was great because it allowed the actors to bond and become great friends. On the other hand, it could be a bit of a nightmare. "There was all sorts of marching, running. 'Left face, right face' where you turn in different directions," Butterfield told "If one person in the group of about 100 extras, and 10 or so cast [members], made a mistake, everyone had to do 10 push-ups. And we'd be jogging and if one person fell behind, we'd have to do 10 push-ups." (There must have been a lot of push-ups—even the production blog talked about them!)

But the most difficult thing to do, at least for Butterfield, was “Waking up at 7 o’clock. That was painful.”

4. ...And had an astronaut tell them what Zero-G is like.

Summit Entertainment/Lionsgate

Another challenge was portraying Zero-G in the battle scenes, which the actors filmed in harnesses. “Harnesses aren't the most comfortable things you can wear,” Butterfield told io9. “It was hard work, we had a lot of physical training. And we spent a lot of time practicing getting the movements and pretending to be in zero gravity.” Thankfully, they had a chance to speak with someone who had first-hand experience. “An astronaut came in once to talk to us about moving in zero gravity and what it's really like in space so we could give the most believable performance,” Butterfield said. “You have to move really slowly…fluidly and smoothly. When you're in the harnesses to stop yourself from falling at the waist, which is where they're connected, you have to be tensed up. So keeping actions smooth whilst having your whole body completely tensed is surprisingly difficult.”

5. Ender’s Game was filmed at a NASA facility.

Wikimedia Commons

The production filmed in New Orleans, where homes and schools stood in for the Wiggins' house and Ender’s Earth-bound school. When it came time to build the sets for the movie’s command school and otherworldly military base, the production set up shop in unused warehouses at NASA’s Michoud Assembly Facility, which has 1.87 million square feet of space. The location not only gave the production the room it needed to build its elaborate sets, but also provided access to experts on physics and astrophysics they might not have spoken to otherwise. “The studios ... were huge warehouses,” Butterfield told Collider. “There was a gate at the back that said top secret, and you could see stuff behind it, like space ships covered in bin liners. It was quite cool.”

6. They tried to do as much of the battle room scenes practically as possible.

Summit Entertainment/Lionsgate

Though Digital Domain had created a CG test reel of the Battle Room sequences, Hood was determined to do as much of the scenes practically as possible, which meant building huge sets and hanging his actors from harnesses controlled by cables and motorized arms. But some things were still manipulated digitally, including, occasionally, an actor’s movement. “If you don’t do a completely smooth move, it can result in incorrect physics,” visual effects supervisor Matthew Butler told the New York Times, which breaks down the creation of one battle room sequence in this piece. “We stabilized the content and repositioned some of it.” Other completely digital characters were added to the scenes as well.

7. The costumers invented the fabric for the students’ flash suits.

Ender's Game Production Blog

Building the world of a futuristic sci-fi movie often requires thinking outside of the box. According to the production blog, only synthetic fabrics were used to create the students’ uniforms, but the Command School flash suits—which, in the film, will immobilize a portion of the body when hit with the beam of an opposing team’s raygun—had to be made, in the words of the blog, from "thin air." Costume designer Christine Bieselin-Clark used “virtually non-existent fabrics designed by our incredible production team. The idea was to take cues from ‘extreme sports’ to inspire our design, using real world practicality as opposed to the heightened reality of superhero spandex and a cape.”

Butterfield told io9 that the suits weren’t very comfortable. “They look incredible, when you're wearing them,” he said. “[But] you're very hot, to say the least.”

8. The actors—and director—played pranks on each other on set.

Summit Entertainment/Lionsgate

Hailee Steinfeld, who plays Petra, told Moviefone that the film’s young stars “had this thing where we would literally scare each other everywhere we went.” But even director Hood got in on the pranking action. “Moises Arias, who plays Bonzo Madrid, had to shave his hair for the ending scene,” Steinfeld said. “Moises handled it very well, but you could see he was a little, you know, taken aback by looking at himself in the mirror and this drastic change. And Asa and I walked on set and Gavin turns around and has a black eye. My heart dropped. I was like, ‘What just happened?’ And [Gavin] goes, ‘I told him. I told him that he could take it out on me because I made him shave his head.’ And I was literally, like, crying. I was like, ‘Moises would never do that. What's happening?’ And then they were like, ‘Just kidding! It's makeup!’ That was the biggest prank.”

9. At least one real-life military man has praised Ender's leadership abilities.

In Ender’s World, a book of essays on Ender’s Game, Retired U.S. Air Force Colonel Tom Ruby writes about what makes Ender an exceptional leader. “He was not the accidental hero. Ender was for real,” Ruby writes. “Bad leaders in Ender’s Game and throughout history are threatened by other people’s competence. They luck into victory. They intimidate rather than motivate. Ender, on the other hand, seeks out intelligent subordinates and is confident enough not to have to be the best or smartest. He knows his abilities and the strengths and weaknesses of his team and seeks victory over adulation. In this sense, Ender is like one of the best bosses I ever had. … I think the lessons military leaders can learn from Ender’s Game are numerous and simple.”

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
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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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© Nintendo
Nintendo Will Release an $80 Mini SNES in September
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© Nintendo

Retro gamers rejoice: Nintendo just announced that it will be launching a revamped version of its beloved Super Nintendo Classic console, which will allow kids and grown-ups alike to play classic 16-bit games in high-definition.

The new SNES Classic Edition, a miniature version of the original console, comes with an HDMI cable to make it compatible with modern televisions. It also comes pre-loaded with a roster of 21 games, including Super Mario Kart, The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past, Donkey Kong Country, and Star Fox 2, an unreleased sequel to the 1993 original.

“While many people from around the world consider the Super NES to be one of the greatest video game systems ever made, many of our younger fans never had a chance to play it,” Doug Bowser, Nintendo's senior vice president of sales and marketing, said in a statement. “With the Super NES Classic Edition, new fans will be introduced to some of the best Nintendo games of all time, while longtime fans can relive some of their favorite retro classics with family and friends.”

The SNES Classic Edition will go on sale on September 29 and retail for $79.99. Nintendo reportedly only plans to manufacture the console “until the end of calendar year 2017,” which means that the competition to get your hands on one will likely be stiff, as anyone who tried to purchase an NES Classic last year will well remember.

In November 2016, Nintendo released a miniature version of its original NES system, which sold out pretty much instantly. After selling 2.3 million units, Nintendo discontinued the NES Classic in April. In a statement to Polygon, the company has pledged to “produce significantly more units of Super NES Classic Edition than we did of NES Classic Edition.”

Nintendo has not yet released information about where gamers will be able to buy the new console, but you may want to start planning to get in line soon.