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7 Secrets of a Game of Thrones Weapons Artist

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Game of Thrones YouTube Channel

Tommy Dunne was working as a welder when a friend hired him to make weapons for Braveheart. Nearly two decades later, as weapons master for Game of Thrones—which begins its fourth season on Sunday—he designs the show’s blades and bows, guiding them from sketches into the actors’ hands. He and a team of four artisans create hundreds of weapons per season, equipping everyone from the soldiers of Westeros and the men of the Night's Watch to the Khaleesi’s Dothraki warriors and the Wildings beyond the Wall. We asked him to share the tricks of his trade.

1. INSPIRATION COMES FROM HISTORY

Helen Sloan/HBO

“I look at different periods and different eras—Egyptian, monolithic,” Dunne says. His crossbows, longbows, composite bows, and ballistas are all modeled on real weapons. "We handmade a catapult for the Unsullied this year, which is quite a large item, and quite powerful," he says. "It’s two tons of oak, nine foot length by ten foot height, with wheels. We have a couple of ballistas, which again are of historical reference." He uses the web for research, of course, but relies heavily on his own library to get the scales just right.

2. MATERIALS, MEANWHILE, ARE MODERN


Photo courtesy Tommy Dunne/HBO

"Normally, we make a hero weapon, which is a little more presentable camera-wise—steel blade, brass crossguard, wooden handle, brass pommel, all that," Dunne says. "Obviously, we don’t fight with steel." Since actors can’t fight with actual steel swords, Dunne uses aircraft aluminum, which is strong but flexible. He also uses bamboo for training blades and rubber for weapons for extras or if the scene involves animals or stunts. "If the actor did fall or had to jump down quickly, there would be no injuries," he says. "We wouldn’t fight too much with rubber, unless there were stunts." The shields tend to be plastic—except the Unsullieds’. They get aluminum. "It varies in what we need," Dunne says. "We try to keep the shields strong, durable, lightweight, but flexible to a certain degree. We have to make sure they’ll withstand smashing together, but also, if someone falls over onto a shield, that they’re malleable and [the actor] won’t take as much of a hit."

Arrows, meanwhile, are basically the real thing. "Our arrows have rubber tips, but 99 percent of them have wooden shafts and copper ramming as well," Dunne says. "An arrow has a residual strength, so once you let go of that string on the bow, it creates a bend in the arrow itself. If you have weak wood, it will shatter straightaway."

3. THERE’S NO SLACKING WHEN IT COMES TO WEAPONS


Photo courtesy Tommy Dunne/HBO

Every weapon, whether it’s for a major character or a minor one, is made with the same exacting level of detail. Why? Dunne says that if there’s a particular extra you want to keep out of the camera’s eye because you slacked on his weapon, it’s pretty much a guarantee he’ll end up front and center. "The spears, the shields—if a camera touches it in any way, shape, or form, we have to make sure it looks its best," he says.

4. WEAR AND TEAR IS AN ART

Helen Sloan/HBO

You can’t expect characters to ride into their sixth epic battle of the season with weapons that look shiny and new—so Dunne makes sure to appropriately age and weather the props. "There’s nothing that would look brand spanking new or straight off the shelf—there would be areas that would be naturally worn from having your hand on the pommel or crossguard and that natural wear from constant use," he says. He might use sandpaper, stains, or dyes to make sure a buckle or blade shows its age.

5. WEAPONS ARE CUSTOM-MADE FOR THE ACTORS

Helen Sloan/HBO

In addition to considering a character's costume and backstory, Dunne has to take the actors’ proportions into account when designing their weapons. “You don’t want to make something that’s too small or too big or too weak for the actor,” he says. “The actors, they love us; we’ve had no complaints. There’s a lot of 'My weapon is cooler than your weapon.' The Mountain’s got such a big sword, and you get people going, ‘Why didn’t you make me that? Why can’t I have that?’ You’re not the Mountain! He’s a huge guy. Absolutely massive. It's one of those things."

6. JUST A FEW PEOPLE MAKE ALL OF THE SHOW'S WEAPONS

Tommy Dunne/HBO

On Game of Thrones, there are always two units shooting at once, and Dunne has to make sure that each unit is equipped with all of the weapons it could possibly need. All those weapons add up. "It’s a hundred for this, a hundred for that," Dunne says. "We have 50 for the Night's Watch, and 50 for the Boltons. There are 200 Unsullied; the most we’ve had is 350 to 400. There are spears and shields and daggers for all these guys. We get some big numbers."

Still, Dunne's staff isn't huge. "We have between four to six people, probably an average of four people, in the workshop at any time: myself, a model maker, a blacksmith, a coordinator," he says. "You get used to it—you work in there 12 or 14 hours a day. It’s really hard to train people, because it’s quite a skilled profession." Dunne and his team make clay models of the weapons, then send them to the foundry. The foundry will create a small part of the weapon, Dunne says, and it's when that part comes back that the work really begins. "For example, deburring, recessing and drilling, shaping to fit the sword blade, polishing and applying antiquing fluid, aging and relinishing," he says. "So the foundry only plays a small part in the process depending what that part is." On some of the designs, 90 percent of the weapon is handmade and doesn't go to the foundry at all.

Dunne is looking ahead, too, to methods that are more high-tech. "With 3D printing, we can do it in one shot and then send the print to the foundry," he says. "It’s something I want to look into a little more this year."

7. YOU HAVE TO KNOW HOW TO USE THE WEAPONS TO MAKE THEM

"If you have no knowledge about the weapon, you’re just making an item," Dunne says. "Everything is made in conjunction with knowing what the weapon does and how it should react and interact with other weaponry. It’s not just make something and then give it away and then suddenly you find that somebody has to fight with it." Dunne works closely with the fight coordinator to find out what's required of a weapon before he starts training an actor how to use it.

CHOOSE YOUR WEAPON

Game of Thrones Wiki

Dunne tells us specifically what went into making some of the show's signature weapons.

ICE SWORDS: "The wight’s weapon—when they’re walking or on horseback with the White Walkers—is a bit more intricate because it’s an ice sword, but you don’t see much of them, really. These are clear resin swords that are oven-baked—it’s clear glass that looks like a shard of ice. It’s quite intricate."

NEEDLE: "In the case of Arya’s sword, Needle, we wanted to make it look like what it sounded like, and give a little bit of elegance, remembering that it was more for a girl and a child at the same time—a small item which is quite delicate and quite finite."

FLAMING ARROWS: "A normal arrow might be 32 inches, but for flaming arrows [like we used in Season 2’s Battle of the Blackwater], we add another six to eight inches to a larger piece of wood. Then we put on a foam wad that is impregnated with a chemical mix and we burn it, so it’ll be blue, depending on the mix that the special effects team puts on them."

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technology
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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Health
200 Health Experts Call for Ban on Two Antibacterial Chemicals
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In September 2016, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) issued a ban on antibacterial soap and body wash. But a large collective of scientists and medical professionals says the agency should have done more to stop the spread of harmful chemicals into our bodies and environment, most notably the antimicrobials triclosan and triclocarban. They published their recommendations in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives.

The 2016 report from the FDA concluded that 19 of the most commonly used antimicrobial ingredients are no more effective than ordinary soap and water, and forbade their use in soap and body wash.

"Customers may think added antimicrobials are a way to reduce infections, but in most products there is no evidence that they do," Ted Schettler, science director of the Science and Environmental Health Network, said in a statement.

Studies have shown that these chemicals may actually do more harm than good. They don't keep us from getting sick, but they can contribute to the development of antibiotic-resistant bacteria, also known as superbugs. Triclosan and triclocarban can also damage our hormones and immune systems.

And while they may no longer be appearing on our bathroom sinks or shower shelves, they're still all around us. They've leached into the environment from years of use. They're also still being added to a staggering array of consumer products, as companies create "antibacterial" clothing, toys, yoga mats, paint, food storage containers, electronics, doorknobs, and countertops.

The authors of the new consensus statement say it's time for that to stop.

"We must develop better alternatives and prevent unneeded exposures to antimicrobial chemicals," Rolf Haden of the University of Arizona said in the statement. Haden researches where mass-produced chemicals wind up in the environment.

The statement notes that many manufacturers have simply replaced the banned chemicals with others. "I was happy that the FDA finally acted to remove these chemicals from soaps," said Arlene Blum, executive director of the Green Science Policy Institute. "But I was dismayed to discover at my local drugstore that most products now contain substitutes that may be worse."

Blum, Haden, Schettler, and their colleagues "urge scientists, governments, chemical and product manufacturers, purchasing organizations, retailers, and consumers" to avoid antimicrobial chemicals outside of medical settings. "Where antimicrobials are necessary," they write, we should "use safer alternatives that are not persistent and pose no risk to humans or ecosystems."

They recommend that manufacturers label any products containing antimicrobial chemicals so that consumers can avoid them, and they call for further research into the impacts of these compounds on us and our planet.

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