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13 Things You Might Not Know About Sleeping Beauty

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Walt Disney’s Sleeping Beauty quietly turns 55 this year. I’m betting there’s more fanfare when Maleficent comes out later this year, but until then, we’ll do our best to pick up the slack with a few facts you probably didn’t know about this ‘50s fairy tale.

1. Versions of Sleeping Beauty have been published by both Charles Perrault and the Brothers Grimm. Perrault called his heroine Aurora, while  the Grimms' "Little Briar Rose" referred to their princess as, well, Briar Rose. Disney split the difference and used both names. 

2. Prince Phillip is said to have been named after another royal that Americans would have been familiar with during that time period: Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh, the husband of Queen Elizabeth II. They had only been married for 12 years at the time Sleeping Beauty was released, and she had been Queen for just seven. 

3. Instead of three quirky fairies, the original version included seven, as in Perrault's story. (Other versions include up to 13, making the evil fairy the unlucky addition.) The gifts the seven fairies bestowed in Perrault's tale were beauty, wit, grace, dance, song, and music. In Disney's Sleeping Beauty, this was truncated to beauty and song. Hm. 

4. Mary Costa, the voice of Sleeping Beauty, is a professional opera singer and has performed in more than 40 operatic roles on stage. She sang at a memorial service for John F. Kennedy at the request of Jackie Kennedy after Jackie heard her sing "The Star-Spangled Banner" at the Academy Awards. She was also one of the original Chrysler Girls. Here she is with Bing Crosby in 1971.

5. Costa is originally from Knoxville, Tennessee, and her southern accent almost prevented her from getting the job. Animator Marc Davis said that after some deliberation, the team decided that if an Englishwoman like Vivien Leigh could pull off a southern accent for Gone with the Wind, a southern girl could sustain an English accent for Sleeping Beauty.

6. Though Mary Costa provided the voice for Aurora, Helene Stanley was the live action reference. She also served as the reference for Cinderella and Anita from 101 Dalmatians. Here she is providing movements and expressions for the animators on the Disneyland TV show.

7. So now you know that Helene Stanley provided the live-action model and Mary Costa provided the voice—but there was at least one other inspiration for Princess Aurora’s features and body type: Audrey Hepburn.

8. When the fairies discuss how to help the king and queen early on in the film, Merryweather makes cookies in the shape of a classic Mickey Mouse head.

Image courtesy of Disney Hidden Secrets

9. Although it’s a classic now, Sleeping Beauty was not a darling at the time. Critics thought the movie moved slowly and lacked character development.

10. In fact, Sleeping Beauty was such a box office bomb (at least, compared to the cost of production) that the company decided that princess movies weren’t exactly the wave of the future. They didn’t make another princess movie until 30 years later, when The Little Mermaid was released in 1989. 

11. Another reason it took six years to bring Princess Aurora and friends to life was that Walt was kinda sidetracked with another project at the time: Disneyland. The castle there was originally supposed to be named after the original Disney princess, Snow White, but in order to promote the film, Imagineers changed it to Sleeping Beauty Castle.

12. The fairytale book that opens the movie was real and was entirely handpainted by Eyvind Earle, the man responsible for the entire look and feel of the movie. It was restored in 2008 and is now part of the Disney Archives, where it is sometimes put on display at events. 

Photo by Stacy Conradt

13. Walt worried about the constant comparisons to Snow White and Cinderella, so he worked with Earle to come up with the stylized, angular Sleeping Beauty look, which was very painstaking and time consuming. “That’s why it took us six years and $6 million to make Sleeping Beauty. But to us, it was worth it,” Walt once said. Earle also worked on Peter Pan and Lady and the Tramp, among others.

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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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May 23, 2017
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