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7 Films That Were Incredibly Difficult to Make

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Most movies are easy to make. Then there are these monuments to the determination of their directors, casts, and crews.

1. The Wizard of Oz

The original tin man—Buddy Ebsen—was hospitalized because his aluminum powder makeup had coated his lungs. He had to convalesce in an iron lung. Toto was a pain to work with, too. It took more than 12 takes to get the dog to follow the gang down the Yellow Brick Road. The film changed directors no fewer than five times, and Margaret Hamilton (the Wicked Witch) suffered severe burns to her hands and face when her makeup caught on fire.

2. Apocalypse Now

Looking to make the Vietnamese landscape as real as possible, director Francis Ford Coppola shot the movie in the Philippines. Filming was supposed to take five months and ended up taking over a year. Typhoon Olga destroyed the set and ruined one month’s worth of shooting. Martin Sheen also suffered a heart attack.

3. Fitzcarraldo

The most famous scene from Werner Herzog’s classic depicts a huge steamship getting dragged up a hill. Most directors would have pulled the scene off with miniature effects. But Herzog was not like most other directors. His team tugged a real 320-ton steamship up a hill—all without special effects.

4. Titanic

At one point during the filming of Titanic, an angry crewmember spiked the team’s soup with a hallucinogen—over 50 people had to be rushed to the hospital. Shooting was also delayed when cast members came down with colds and kidney infections. Turns out that spending hours in cold water is bad for your health!

5. Jaws

Spielberg’s three mechanical sharks—all named Bruce—consistently malfunctioned. It took 14 people to operate them. Pneumatic hoses filled with salt water, internal frames fractured from water pressure, the skin corroded, and the sharks got tangled in seaweed. To make life easier, Spielberg revised the script so the shark made as few appearances as possible. The decision made the film more suspenseful. “The shark not working was a godsend,” Spielberg later said.

6. Cleopatra

The 1963 epic starring Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton was originally budgeted for $2 million, but Cleopatra racked up a $44 million bill. (The team burned through $4 million before shooting a frame!) Cleo started in London, relocated to Rome, switched directors, and saw numerous big name actors ditch filming mid-shoot.

7. American Graffiti

The cast and crew had trouble behaving on and off set. Harrison Ford was arrested during a barroom brawl, a crewmember was arrested for growing pot, Paul Le Mat hurt Richard Dreyfuss after throwing him into a swimming pool, and someone set George Lucas’ hotel room on fire.

However arduous these films were to make, historians agree that each one was worth the difficulty. As is Eric Jonrosh’s epic masterpiece The Spoils of Babylon, which you can catch on IFC at 10/9c on January 9.

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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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Name the Author Based on the Character
May 23, 2017
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