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Troy Miller, Director of the Hulu Series Deadbeat

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There's little that producer/director Troy Miller hasn't done over the course of his three-decade-long Hollywood career. He's helmed episodes of your favorite television shows (including Parks & RecFlight of the Conchords, and Bored to Death), filmed shorts for the MTV Movie Awards, directed feature films, produced specials and shows with his company, Dakota Pictures, and shot segments for the Oscars. And last year, Miller teamed up with Mitch Hurwitz to revive Arrested Development—six years after the show's cancellation by Fox—producing and directing the show's fourth season for Netflix.

Miller's latest series, Deadbeat, follows hapless medium Kevin Pacalioglu as he helps ghosts while trying (and failing) to get his own life together; Hulu will drop its first season on April 9. We talked to Miller about the benefits of binge watching, the end of appointment television, and whipping up the perfect recipe for ghosts.

How did you get involved with Deadbeat? What drew your interest?
Kevin Beggs, who runs Lionsgate, had taken the writers' pitch, and then sent it over to me, as a friend, to read the pilot. I liked the pilot idea so much that I said "Count me in!" Then I developed the script with the writers, and with Charlotte Koh, the programmer at Hulu, driving it. We had all the scripts done before we started shooting, and then, from a director/producing standpoint, I treated this show like a movie.

Do you find that that's the standard procedure now when a show is being released all at once, on the Internet? That it's developed more like a feature film than like a typical TV show?
Not really. I think it becomes a financial necessity because the budgets are smaller. Also, when all the shows drop all at the same time, like what Hulu or Netflix are doing—I don't know so much about Amazon—you can weave in better story arcs. I've directed Parks & Rec and The Office and other shows, [where] you may only be a few weeks ahead. [This way, if] we just finished episode 8 and found out a lot of good things here, we can back and change up episode 2 and 3 so episode 8 is more fulfilling. When I write features or direct movies, the real fun of it, as a director, is stepping into something and crafting a whole world.

These people in these new companies can create apps that allow you to watch television on whatever device it is. I'll watch Hulu or Netflix on my television—it's pretty seamless now. It's a little bit alien but it's exciting to see they're trying in a different way. Not because they want to be different, but because they don't know any better and they're all such smart, creative people at these companies, it kind of engages you again. The creative community in Hollywood, anyway.

Are there benefits to this sort of method of releasing all the episodes at once? It changes the viewing experience, obviously. I have a lot of friends who binge watched LOST and they were like, "All the plot points were so obvious!" Because they were watching all the episodes one after the other.
It's funny that you mention Lost. That was my first binge viewing experience—Lost in its second year. It was over Thanksgiving, I think, and I hadn't even seen one [episode]. I got the first year on DVD and I watched all of them in three or four days. I'm a video game guy, too—I could play Call of Duty for six straight hours—and [watching Lost that way] was an immersive experience, like playing a video game. It made me really only want to have On Demand, whereas other shows, like The Sopranos—which is one of the greatest shows ever made—I would really look forward to watching it and seeing where the stories were going and I liked the anticipation.

But when there's so many other choices, what I find myself doing, even now, is recording them and waiting until I have three or four because I'd rather create a feature experience for myself, trick myself into watching more than one. It's like having the power like watching six episodes of Deadbeat—having the power to watch when I want to watch overrides the want of anticipation of the event of it coming in.

But it's changing. I have teenage kids, and all they know is Hulu and Netflix and this new world of television, as opposed to making an appointment to sit down and watch a television show. I think it's going away pretty quickly. So to be a director working there in this kind of revolution that's starting to happen, it's exciting because I'm crafting it as a fan, as a viewer, but also as a filmmaker. [Before, you'd think], I can't put something in Episode 3, because by Episode 6 or 7, the viewer will forget about it, but now, they're going to see it in another hour and a half.

Arrested Development was that way. That's the brilliance of Mitch Hurwitz. He was adding so many little clever nuggets throughout the show—the original series and the one we did this past season—so the binge seers were really rewarded and many went back and watched it again, to find even more little nuggets.

That's what we have in Deadbeat. Ultimately, in repeat viewing, people will find little things that we put in. Having all the scripts in advance, and doing it all at once, like a feature, it allows you to spend a little more precious time there.

I want to talk a little bit about the cast. I was surprised by Cat Deely, who plays Chamomile. Everyone knows her as a very sweet host on shows like So You Think You Can Dance, but she's such a villain in Deadbeat, and she's good at it. Can you talk about how she got involved and how you came by the rest of the cast?
That's in testament to our casting director, Cindy Tolan. She liked Cat on House of Lies—she had a guest role in that. I honestly haven't seen her dance show, but I saw that clip, and she did embody what an outspoken medium could be, but adding in an element of self-preservation with her evilness. Cat brought all that in. She just had such a strong point of view of what that character would be. And being able to kill them with kindness and then how she would react when the cameras were off, and she brought it on the first day. She just has this innate instinct at a performance level.

We looked and auditioned for [the Kevin Pacalioglu part] for four months. Tyler Labine is such an affable guy in life. He really did a lot of improv too. He took that character on and created it. He's really the breakout. He's been a working actor in subordinate roles and a couple of leads, but this is his first really lead role. We have an ensemble, but Tyler drives every scene. Everybody else has their own story arc, but it all seeds what Kevin's motivations are.

We were looking for a sidekick for Cat's character and we wanted someone who wasn't the same look—someone who was harried and put upon. Lucy Devito was in a play in New York, and she sent in a self-tape with only two takes on it with nobody off-camera. She just did it on her own. It became kind of a monologue and it was just captivating. She came in so well-prepared and had such a good grasp of the character that the writers quickly expanded it, and you will see toward the end of the season, her part just gets bigger and bigger.

And then Brandon T. Jackson, who is Kevin's sidekick/drug dealer, he was a real get, because it wasn't a big role for him and he's had lots of starring roles. He and Tyler already knew each other, and they knew from a comedic standpoint they'd have the right rhythms. As an improv director, I kind of just guided them a little, and let it go. A lot of the stuff they do, it was all them just riffing it out on the set.

I wanted to talk a little bit about the ghosts themselves. There are obviously some visual effects involved. How did you film them?
You know Freddy Wong? He's an example of a guy who does great homemade effects. With us, the budget is relatively low for a major effects show, but high for one of these cable or internet companies. So I had to basically retro-fit what effects I could do.

I wanted the ghost to be unobtrusive, in the everyday life, like Bringing Out the Dead. Not to align myself with anything as great as that, but just how Scorsese captured the ghosts in that film—the Nicolas Cage character can see people who have passed on, and they're just walking among us.

As a show that shoots in New York, we move very quickly, and we have portable green screens with us. Often times, you'll shoot and then shoot the ghost or transparency weeks later just on a green screen stage. But on Deadbeat, doing comedy, I had to have the rhythm of the scene. So it was not always the most cost efficient way, but we would do a scene with the ghost actor in it, and then do it again [without them], and I would direct Tyler or whoever the person driving the scene was where to look. It's a lot of cheated eyeline. And then we would pick it apart for how we would do the effects.

So that's kind of the technical part of it, but it's driven by, I think, the filmmaker's point of view—how do we make these ghosts just appear as if they are all around us and this one guy, Kevin, has a special gift that he can see them? It's hopefully discreet enough that when you're watching the show, you only see the ghosts in Kevin's point of view and you're occasionally reminded that oh, other people can't see them. Most times, when I cut to a wide or distant shot, you won't see the ghost, but when you're in coverage with Kevin, that's when you see the ghost. It's really driven by the point of view and then secondarily it is how do we do it and the economics.

The ghosts have a very distinct look—almost like they're undulating. How did you come up with that?
It's kind of a special recipe in the effects company we used, and I added in a kind of waviness to it. Our DP is a very talented filmmaker, and he was really pushing when we were doing our scouting, looking for reflections as if we’re seeing [the ghosts] through windows. We went for a few different paths while working and then came back to, what if the ghost was in a mirror? Then we added, basically, an after-effects layer. And it undulates and moves as if the ghost body is refracting the light. It came alive, and it's a lot of work. You’re doing frame by frame animation, and we had many effects artists working on many scenes at one time to make our schedule. I'd go in and supervise each one. Once you create the recipe, then everyone’s just following suit like any animated show.

When you're directing, you're sometimes also doing Steadicam. Why is that important for you to do? Does it give you a different take on the scene than standing back and watching it happen would?
I'm always active. I'm not a passive viewer. I'm very physical when I’m working. If I go off and freelance a show, I can just watch the monitor—I’m really crafting the rhythm of the scene. Whereas the shows that I’m creating, I’m in there with the actors talking as I’m going, and I’m doing repeated takes. I’ve been a handheld camera operated my whole career, and then it was a natural progression to being a steady cam operator which I’ve been for about the past ten years. On almost everything I direct, I’m also Steadicam, because I need to be with the actors—when I’m directing from a monitor in between takes, I’m talking to a DP, who's talking to a camera guy, who's talking to his dolly operator. There’s like three or four layers that it has to get through. [If I'm on Steadicam,] I can physically design the shot by telling an actor to step left or step right or say it again or do it louder or softer.

On Deadbeat, there are a lot of Segways—I have this system of mounting a big heavy Steadicam on a Segway, which allows me to do more repeats, faster shots. We used it a lot on Flight of the Conchords, too, in the last season. It's like a trick, part of my secret sauce that gives some of my stuff a different look. I find the tools that I need to get there quickly. When you're doing low budget shows, I keep my crew size to single digits by shooting it myself.

What's coming up next for you?
When I'm not on a movie or television series, I tend to fall back into development at my production company, Dakota Pictures, trying to get into more interesting projects going. We are bringing out new reality shows that are done from a film point of view. We're expanding our company, adding directing executives to the development department, all driven by this success we had with Netflix last year and Hulu this year.

The want of most of new cable seems to be going towards this lower budgeted, high production value alternative comedy world—which my company, if you look its history, it’s kind of a last man standing. There are not a lot of companies that still are independent, not owned by a studio, they take all the financial risk, and also have a creative showrunner such as myself in senior management.

As a producer, I'm producing an incredible pilot now called Dr. Brown for FX with Phil Burgers, who is a really talented performance artist. It's a perfect show for us because much like Mr. Show or Tenacious D or Flight of the Conchords or even Bored to Death—those are all shows we produced—it has a cult following. There's specialness to them. Whereas Arrested Development, Mitch Hurwitz brought me in on that, but it kind of encapsulated all that specialness, so I do feel like the audience and the world is catching up to what I've been doing for 25 years. Now, it's more exciting that the stuff I've wanted to do, people are asking me to do instead of me asking them. It's coming to us, so I just want to take advantage of those opportunities.

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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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