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Beyond Gertie: 9 Films of Winsor McCay

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On February 8, 1914, famed cartoonist Winsor McCay demonstrated before a live audience his considerable talents “controlling” Gertie, the “only dinosaur in captivity.” A painstaking blend of onstage performance and hand drawn animation, McCay made his creation dance, scolded her, fed her and then got carried away by her. He wasn’t the only one. The audience in Chicago’s Palace Theatre loved it. A theatrical release followed, with new scenes filmed to replace McCay’s live interactions. It is the best known film of a pioneering artist and illustrator—but he made others.

1. Little Nemo (1911)

McCay’s Sunday strip featuring the dream-addled boy, Nemo, was his longest-running continuous work and the only strip to move with McCay to William Randolph Hearst’s newspaper empire. The intricate detail and hand painted panels provided McCay a large field to play with perspective and experiment with just how fine a line he could draw.

All of the film’s characters and design elements, including the cartoon plasticity, come from the strip, though it has little of the strip’s intricate nature. Four thousand rice paper drawings provided all the action, done by McCay himself in about a month. Much of the film is just McCay drawing and getting laughed at by his friends. Featured is a handy crank device for quickly flipping finished pages to check their continuity. For the animated portion, Nemo mostly bends his friends Flip and (the now deeply offensive) Impie out of shape. The character is the artist’s revenge.

2. and 3. Dream of the Rarebit Fiend series – The Pet; The Flying House (1921)

McCay’s other popular dreamscape strip, Dream of the Rarebit Fiend, traded on the belief cheese on toast gives you nightmares.

The Pet takes off an actual Rarebit strip where a couple’s puppy grows to monstrous size, including the attempts to kill it. McCay’s penchant for large mouthed animals eating everything is again on display, as is his love for flying machines.

"The Flying House" was drawn by McCay’s son Robert under dad’s supervision; word balloons replaced standard dialogue frames. McCay makes special mention that the flyover of the Earth and Moon is astronomically correct—until the Moon giant shows up with a fly swatter. Well, it was a good dream.

4. How A Mosquito Operates (1912)

McCay’s first Rarebit short was based on an actual strip from 1907. The artist really liked giant mosquitos, putting them into several Rarebit strips, as well as his editorial work and Little Nemo in Slumberland. 

5. Sinking of the Lusitania (1918)

McCay completed this film, his most ambitious, on his own time. A prolific and sought-after editorial cartoonist, McCay had been prevented by Hearst from honoring the 1915 U-boat attack on the passenger liner Lusitania.

Twenty-five thousand drawings done by a team of artists create a poetic depiction of a tragedy. The waves reach for the liner’s deck while it steams powerfully along. A theatrical curtain pulls across the ship after we are told all aboard ignore warnings for their safety. In a technical detail, the film states the first work was capturing “the moving sea.” Even there, the U-boat is hunting, seen only briefly by its periscope.

6. Flip’s Circus (1918-1921)

Probably McCay’s best recurring character from the Nemo strip, Flip gets top billing failing to do what McCay had done—tame the cartoon beast. Unreleased in McCay’s lifetime, Flip’s Circus gives a glimpse of his film process. Chalk slates stand in for interstitial cards and serve as editing notes, reminders of where to cut down to the individual drawing. Pause at the 1:00 mark for a grand McCay animal menagerie.

In the clip above, Flip’s Circus is followed by a third Rarebit Fiend, Bug Vaudeville. It has technical prowess but it’s a little boring. The potato bug boxing is fun though, and it all comes together in the end.

7. The Centaurs (1921)

McCay imbues his centaurs with their expected grace, poise, and ability to kill a bird with a stone for no reason. Poor storage damaged much of this film, so only this fragment survives. The line quality of its main characters and watercolor nuance of its scenery show a masterful touch years before Disney’s Bambi or Snow White. That said, as inventive as McCay was, he also went too easily for caricature. Grandma Centaur’s spectacles and Victorian bob take us right out of the picture.

8. and 9. Gertie (1914) and Gertie on Tour (1921)

McCay took several months in 1913 completing 10,000 drawings for Gertie, again on rice paper. About the only person who didn’t like Gertie was McCay’s boss, Hearst. McCay was allowed to continue the Nemo strip on occasion, but taking time off to animate a dinosaur went a stretch too far, and Hearst curtailed him. The movie house version, above, was produced to dodge Hearst and keep McCay’s name in lights. Gertie’s 1921 sequel, Gertie on Tour, remained unreleased.

One of the 20th century’s most prolific illustrators, McCay thought his animation was his greatest work, but he produced no more films for the last 13 years of his life. His animation technique, however, pioneered the modern industry. Walt Disney knew that. In the 1950s, in regards to the mammoth Disney animation studio, Disney said privately to McCay’s son Robert, “Bob, all this should be your father’s.”

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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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Nick Briggs/Comic Relief
What Happened to Jamie and Aurelia From Love Actually?
May 26, 2017
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Nick Briggs/Comic Relief

Fans of the romantic-comedy Love Actually recently got a bonus reunion in the form of Red Nose Day Actually, a short charity special that gave audiences a peek at where their favorite characters ended up almost 15 years later.

One of the most improbable pairings from the original film was between Jamie (Colin Firth) and Aurelia (Lúcia Moniz), who fell in love despite almost no shared vocabulary. Jamie is English, and Aurelia is Portuguese, and they know just enough of each other’s native tongues for Jamie to propose and Aurelia to accept.

A decade and a half on, they have both improved their knowledge of each other’s languages—if not perfectly, in Jamie’s case. But apparently, their love is much stronger than his grasp on Portuguese grammar, because they’ve got three bilingual kids and another on the way. (And still enjoy having important romantic moments in the car.)

In 2015, Love Actually script editor Emma Freud revealed via Twitter what happened between Karen and Harry (Emma Thompson and Alan Rickman, who passed away last year). Most of the other couples get happy endings in the short—even if Hugh Grant's character hasn't gotten any better at dancing.

[h/t TV Guide]