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11 Notable Actors' Screen Tests for Famous Roles

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Thanks to the miracle of concept art and screen tests, there’s an alternate dimension of blockbusters where Nic Cage was Superman, Jeremy Sisto has Leonardo DiCaprio’s career, and a Sam Kinison biopic dominated the box office.

1. Nicolas Cage, Tim Burton’s Superman

Tim Burton tried to make a Superman feature starring Nicolas Cage with a script by Kevin Smith (the film had a number of scripts over the years, most of which—including Smith’s—drew from the classic Death of Superman storyline). The failed feature was set to be called Superman Lives.

2. Eric Stoltz, Back to the Future

Eighties hunk Eric Stoltz didn’t just screen test for Robert Zemeckis’ beloved Back to the Future franchise—he was actually cast in the role of Marty McFly and filmed for several weeks. Stoltz’s work as Marty ultimately didn’t work for the film, and the creative team decided to replace him with Fox. Some of Stoltz's footage was included on the film’s 25th anniversary home release.

3. Tom Selleck, Raiders of the Lost Ark

Tom Selleck was all set to play Indy in Raiders of the Lost Ark, but had to turn the part down because of Magnum PI's filming schedule. The eventual 1980 writers' strike pushed back the Magnum shoot all the way to December, meaning that Selleck could have done both.

4. Kurt Russell, Star Wars

Harrison Ford is a lucky man. Four years before he took up Indy’s hat and whip, he beat out yet another big star for one of his calling card roles. Kurt Russell was once in the mix to star in Star Wars as Han Solo, but director George Lucas was already stuck on Ford’s talents—discovered when Ford was working as a carpenter at Lucas’ house, leading to Ford's roles in American Graffiti and the Star Wars series.

5. Robert De Niro, The Godfather

While Robert De Niro went on to snag a part in The Godfather Part II and win an Oscar for his portrayal of Vito Corleone, the actor was first up for a pair of roles in The Godfather. The then-unknown actor auditioned for both Sonny Corleone and Michael Corleone. He was, however, close to taking on the role of Carlo, before having to back out to star in The Gang That Couldn’t Shoot Straight. Director Francis Ford Coppola didn’t hold it against him, though, and allowed him back for the second film.

6. Marlon Brando, Rebel Without a Cause

Though Rebel Without a Cause now seems like the definitive James Dean performance, the role could have gone to Marlon Brando. Well, sort of. While James Dean starred in the 1955 Nicholas Ray film, the drama made the rounds in Hollywood for years before it finally morphed into the version we know today. When Rebel was first getting passed around Hollywood, Warner Bros. tried to drum up interest in both the unfinished script and Brando’s acting acumen, using a short screen test with Brando working his way through the material to get some buzz going.

7. Jeremy Sisto, Titanic

Somewhere, somehow, there exists a world where Jeremy Sisto has starred in all of Leonardo DiCaprio’s blockbuster film roles. Hey, it could have happened, especially if Sisto had won the role of Jack Dawson in James Cameron’s monster ship hit. Sisto’s take on the hero of the film was a bit more, well, sweet than DiCaprio’s spin on the material, but that’s not what really mattered in the end—it was Kate Winslet’s insistence that DiCaprio be cast opposite her.

8. Brad Pitt, Backdraft

Brad Pitt’s star-making turn in Thelma & Louise almost didn’t happen, simply because it was actor William Baldwin who was originally set to play the role of JD. Baldwin, however, jettisoned his Thelma role to take on the part of Brian McCaffrey in 1991’s firefighting brother drama, Backdraft, a part that almost went to Pitt. (Pitt auditioned for the part, as did Robert Downey, Jr., but Baldwin emerged victorious. Both Pitt and Downey made out okay.)

9. Dan Fogler, Sam Kinison Biopic

Tony Award-winning actor Dan Fogler has made a nice big screen career for himself with supporting roles in funny films, but Fogler would have been aces playing the ill-fated comedian in a planned biopic that never quite panned out. Fogler is electric in this screen test for the film (called Brother Sam back when it was actually going to happen), as he nails Kinison’s manic energy and in-your-face style in a way that never seems like a basic impression or parody.

10. Scarlett Johansson, Jumanji

Scarlett Johansson and Kirsten Dunst were both up for the same tween role in Jumanji, with Dunst eventually getting the part. Johansson’s test for the role is surprisingly serious and mature, and she sure doesn’t seem as flighty and terrified as Dunst’s Judy ended up being in the final film.

11. Henry Cavill, Superman: Flyby

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Let's bring it all back to the Man of Steel. Brit actor Henry Cavill may be the big screen’s newest Superman, but before he starred in Zack Snyder’s Man of Steel, he almost starred as the same be-tighted superhero in McG’s Superman: Flyby, which never actually got off the ground. Cavill was first attached to star in the film in 2004, but the feature was eventually reworked into Bryan Singer’s Superman Returns. He'll star in the upcoming Man of Steel sequel alongside Ben Affleck’s Batman.

Primary photo courtesy of NY Daily News

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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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8 Common Dog Behaviors, Decoded
May 25, 2017
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Dogs are a lot more complicated than we give them credit for. As a result, sometimes things get lost in translation. We’ve yet to invent a dog-to-English translator, but there are certain behaviors you can learn to read in order to better understand what your dog is trying to tell you. The more tuned-in you are to your dog’s emotions, the better you’ll be able to respond—whether that means giving her some space or welcoming a wet, slobbery kiss. 

1. What you’ll see: Your dog is standing with his legs and body relaxed and tail low. His ears are up, but not pointed forward. His mouth is slightly open, he’s panting lightly, and his tongue is loose. His eyes? Soft or maybe slightly squinty from getting his smile on.

What it means: “Hey there, friend!” Your pup is in a calm, relaxed state. He’s open to mingling, which means you can feel comfortable letting friends say hi.

2. What you’ll see: Your dog is standing with her body leaning forward. Her ears are erect and angled forward—or have at least perked up if they’re floppy—and her mouth is closed. Her tail might be sticking out horizontally or sticking straight up and wagging slightly.

What it means: “Hark! Who goes there?!” Something caught your pup’s attention and now she’s on high alert, trying to discern whether or not the person, animal, or situation is a threat. She’ll likely stay on guard until she feels safe or becomes distracted.

3. What you’ll see: Your dog is standing, leaning slightly forward. His body and legs are tense, and his hackles—those hairs along his back and neck—are raised. His tail is stiff and twitching, not swooping playfully. His mouth is open, teeth are exposed, and he may be snarling, snapping, or barking excessively.

What it means: “Don’t mess with me!” This dog is asserting his social dominance and letting others know that he might attack if they don’t defer accordingly. A dog in this stance could be either offensively aggressive or defensively aggressive. If you encounter a dog in this state, play it safe and back away slowly without making eye contact.

4. What you’ll see: As another dog approaches, your dog lies down on his back with his tail tucked in between his legs. His paws are tucked in too, his ears are flat, and he isn’t making direct eye contact with the other dog standing over him.

What it means: “I come in peace!” Your pooch is displaying signs of submission to a more dominant dog, conveying total surrender to avoid physical confrontation. Other, less obvious, signs of submission include ears that are flattened back against the head, an avoidance of eye contact, a tongue flick, and bared teeth. Yup—a dog might bare his teeth while still being submissive, but they’ll likely be clenched together, the lips opened horizontally rather than curled up to show the front canines. A submissive dog will also slink backward or inward rather than forward, which would indicate more aggressive behavior.

5. What you’ll see: Your dog is crouching with her back hunched, tail tucked, and the corner of her mouth pulled back with lips slightly curled. Her shoulders, or hackles, are raised and her ears are flattened. She’s avoiding eye contact.

What it means: “I’m scared, but will fight you if I have to.” This dog’s fight or flight instincts have been activated. It’s best to keep your distance from a dog in this emotional state because she could attack if she feels cornered.

6. What you’ll see: You’re staring at your dog, holding eye contact. Your dog looks away from you, tentatively looks back, then looks away again. After some time, he licks his chops and yawns.

What it means: “I don’t know what’s going on and it’s weirding me out.” Your dog doesn’t know what to make of the situation, but rather than nipping or barking, he’ll stick to behaviors he knows are OK, like yawning, licking his chops, or shaking as if he’s wet. You’ll want to intervene by removing whatever it is causing him discomfort—such as an overly grabby child—and giving him some space to relax.

7. What you’ll see: Your dog has her front paws bent and lowered onto the ground with her rear in the air. Her body is relaxed, loose, and wiggly, and her tail is up and wagging from side to side. She might also let out a high-pitched or impatient bark.

What it means: “What’s the hold up? Let’s play!” This classic stance, known to dog trainers and behaviorists as “the play bow,” is a sign she’s ready to let the good times roll. Get ready for a round of fetch or tug of war, or for a good long outing at the dog park.

8. What you’ll see: You’ve just gotten home from work and your dog rushes over. He can’t stop wiggling his backside, and he may even lower himself into a giant stretch, like he’s doing yoga.

What it means: “OhmygoshImsohappytoseeyou I love you so much you’re my best friend foreverandeverandever!!!!” This one’s easy: Your pup is overjoyed his BFF is back. That big stretch is something dogs don’t pull out for just anyone; they save that for the people they truly love. Show him you feel the same way with a good belly rub and a handful of his favorite treats.

The best way to say “I love you” in dog? A monthly subscription to BarkBox. Your favorite pup will get a package filled with treats, toys, and other good stuff (and in return, you’ll probably get lots of sloppy kisses). Visit BarkBox to learn more.

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