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CBS Films

A Brief History of Felines on Film

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CBS Films

There’s nothing quite like the thrill of seeing a well-trained animal dazzle on the big screen, and cats are no exception. In fact, cat actors are frequently more impressive than the rest of the animal kingdom, simply because it’s hard to imagine getting cats to do anything they don’t want to do.

And yet professional cat acting still exists, against all odds. Next up in the great hall of cat performances? A smattering of star turns in Joel and Ethan Coen’s upcoming film Inside Llewyn Davis. While marketing for the film has focused on just one handsome orange tabby (often seen tucked under the arm of leading man Oscar Isaac), Inside Llewyn Davis actually utilized a number of cat actors for the production—a process the brothers found pretty difficult. "The whole exercise of shooting a cat is pretty nightmarish because they don't care about anything," Ethan told NPR. "As the animal trainer said to us, 'A dog wants to please you. A cat only wants to please itself.' ... In True Grit we had a vulture, a trained vulture ... that was a pain. But I would take a vulture over a cat. The cat was just horrible." 

Still, the cat acting work in Inside Llewyn Davis is quite exceptional, especially considering that its furry stars were asked to do things like jump out windows, act calm while being hustled down a busy city street, and run around a noisy New York City subway car. Some human actors couldn’t do that without flinching.

The history of cat acting is long and rich and just a bit fuzzy, much like a Maine Coon or a Norwegian Forest, and it’s one you’ll want to cuddle up to as soon as possible.

From Edison to PATSY

Like so many other things, we have Thomas Edison to thank for the very first cat actors. Way back in July of 1894, Edison himself reportedly made the very first viral cat video when he put two cats into a tiny boxing ring and let them hash it out (with a little help from a human handler) and recorded the results on film. They may not have been professionals, but these two certainly looked the part.

A likely candidate for first feline in a feature film is the unnamed star of Edgar G. Ulmer’s The Black Cat. While the identity of the cat actor playing the eponymous black cat is unknown, the sleek kitty’s frequent appearances throughout the 1934 film are integral to the feature’s plot (and scares).

Since The Black Cat, a number of cinematically-inclined felines have graced the silver screen. Cat from Breakfast at Tiffany’s, played by the well-known star Orangey (who was also sometimes called Jimmy and Rhubarb), was the only feline to win a staggering two PATSY Awards (Picture Animal Top Star of the Year, the animal actor's version of an Oscar). Other PATSY winners of the feline variety include Pyewacket from Bell, Book and Candle, Syn Cat from That Darn Cat!, and Morris from those classic 9Lives commercials.

The Unnamed Meowers

Despite that handful of recognized (and recognizable) cat actors, there are also plenty of famous roles filled by unnamed cats—like Jake from the 1978 film The Cat From Outer Space, Binx from 1993's Hocus Pocus, and Jones from 1979's Alien. And one of the most famous unnamed cats around showed up in seven James Bond films.

The prize pet of notorious baddie Blofeld, this white Turkish Angora had screen time in From Russia With Love, Thunderball, You Only Live Twice, On Her Majesty's Secret Service, Diamonds Are Forever, For Your Eyes Only, and Never Say Never Again, and spent most of his (or her!) time simply being stroked by its owner in a nefarious fashion. Though Blofeld’s cat never got a name, he was a major player in the Blofeld world—it was his very appearance that would often signal just who the bad guy was (the character was played by various actors over the years and was occasionally just an anonymous villain, albeit one with his own cat).

Blofeld’s cat has become so famous that he’s even been parodied—many times!—from Mr. Bigglesworth in the Austin Powers films to the Inspector Gadget cartoon series.

Cats and Dogs, Living Together...

Of course, there are plenty of animal-centric films that keep our four-legged friends in business. Two of the best examples—Homeward Bound: The Incredible Journey and The Adventures of Milo and Otis—relied almost exclusively on the skills of their various animal actors, including cats who needed to get along with dogs to make the whole thing work. Tiki the Himalayan played Sassy with some serious, well, sass in the former film, performing alongside both a Golden Retriever and an American Bulldog.

The latter film also required cat and dog relations to remain strong on set, with the various cats that played curious orange tabby Milo absolutely having to get along with the various pugs that played the more straight-laced Otis. Filmed over a period of four years, the identities of the many stars of Milo and Otis still remain unknown (and continued claims of animal abuse, all of which have been shot down, haven’t helped). We’ll likely never know who played who (and over which age period), but the feline stars of Milo and Otis handily exhibited some of the best cat acting of the century.

More recently, the Harry Potter franchise featured a jaw-dropping number of animal actors (including cats, rats, owls, and many more), all of whom were expected to act and behave while wild, magical, wacky things (read: green screen) were going on around them. The standout cat actor of the eight-film series was undeniably Crookshanks, Hermione Granger’s notoriously crotchety cat (who also happens to be half-Kneazle, at least in the world of the books). In the films, a stunning male Persian named Crackerjack played the role of Crookshanks. (You can see Crackerjack and his trainers in action in the video below.)

A consummate performer, Crackerjack reportedly endured a great indignity in service to his work—his trainers would gather bits of his shed fur, roll it into balls, and clip them back on to him in order to really pump up his rough and slightly mangy appearance. Somebody cast a little, cat-sized Oscar for Crackerjack, who certainly seems due for a Lifetime Achievement Award after years of going through that just to deliver a good performance.

Cats, of course, are still cats—and sometimes their independent streak can get in the way of their craft. Such is the case with Montie, a former understudy to famous cat actor Vito Vincent, who was summarily dismissed from the Broadway production of Breakfast at Tiffany’s earlier this year. The New York Post reported back in May that Montie got the sack for acting “unruly.” You know, like a cat. Montie’s firing even made it to the gossip pages of Page Six, where it was mentioned alongside the apparent demands of Vito (Vincent? Mr. Vincent? Sir? Meow?) that he have his own car and driver each night and the news that Montie was set to be replaced by a kitty named Moo.

Cat acting, it seems, is not just all fluffy balls of string and belly rubs—it’s work (and deserving of a treat or two).

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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.