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21 Things You Might Not Know About Gremlins

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You know not to get them wet, expose them to bright light, or feed them after midnight. But here are 21 things you might not know about Joe Dante’s creature-filled dark comedy classic, which turns 30 years old today.

1. ITS UNEXPECTEDLY DARK THEMES ARE PARTLY RESPONSIBLE FOR THE CREATION OF THE PG-13 RATING.

Truth be told, it’s Steven Spielberg who is really responsible for the introduction of the PG-13 rating. Both Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, which he directed, and Gremlins, which he executive produced, were rated PG upon their release, and subsequently criticized for not being kid-appropriate. To avoid being slapped with an R rating in the future, Spielberg suggested that the MPAA add a rating between PG and R. On August 10, 1984, Red Dawn became the first movie to be released with the new PG-13 rating.

2. BUT GREMLINS COULD HAVE BEEN A WHOLE LOT DARKER.

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The original Gremlins script, written by Chris Columbus, was much, much darker. Case in point: Earlier scenes included the Gremlins eating Billy’s dog then decapitating his mom and throwing her head down the stairs. Spielberg, director Joe Dante, and Warner Bros. were all in agreement that they should tone down the gore in order to make the movie more family-friendly.

3. CHRIS COLUMBUS DIDN’T WRITE GREMLINS WITH THE IDEA THAT IT WOULD ACTUALLY BE MADE.

He wrote it as a spec script and writing sample. It found its way into the hands of Spielberg, who explained that, “It's one of the most original things I've come across in many years, which is why I bought it.”

4. THE GREMLINS WERE INSPIRED BY MICE THAT INHABITED COLUMBUS’ APARTMENT.

“By day, it was pleasant enough,” Columbus noted of the Manhattan loft that he lived in while attending film school at NYU. “But at night, what sounded like a platoon of mice would come out and to hear them skittering around in the blackness was really creepy.” Those mice inspired the Gremlins.

5. THE SCRIPT DOESN’T INCLUDE MUCH GREMLIN DIALOGUE.

Much of the chatter spoken by Gizmo and the Gremlins is ad libbed, or in reaction to whatever is happening in the scene. Keeping the dialogue loose also allowed the filmmakers to localize the dialogue for the film’s various international markets.

6. HOWIE MANDEL IS THE VOICE OF GIZMO.

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It was the suggestion of voice actor Frank Welker, who voiced Stripe in Gremlins (and Fred on Scooby-Doo before that), that Howie Mandel be hired for the role.

7. BUT MANDEL DIDN’T SING “GIZMO’S SONG.”

The song was written by Jerry Goldsmith, who hired a 13-year-old girl who was a member of his synagogue to sing it for the film.

8. MICHAEL WINSLOW HELPED TO VOICE THE GREMLINS.

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Yes, this is the same Michael Winslow who is better known as “the guy who makes all those funny noises in the Police Academy film series."

9. TIM BURTON WAS IN CONTENTION TO DIRECT IT.

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There was a lot of buzz surrounding Burton after the success of his short film, Frankenweenie—so much so that Spielberg considered him to direct Gremlins. But the fact that Burton had yet to direct a feature film worked against him, and the gig was given to Joe Dante. A year later, Burton released his first theatrical feature, Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure.

10. SECURITY WAS TIGHT WITH THE GREMLINS.

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Because there was no CGI at the time of Gremlins, the creatures were animatronic puppets, each of which took a major chunk out of the film’s budget. Zach Galligan revealed that when leaving the set each night, security personnel asked the cast and crew to open the trunks of their cars to ensure that they hadn’t stolen any of the props.

11. BALLOONS CAME IN HANDY.

Creature creator Chris Walas used balloons in an innovative fashion: they were the secret VFX ingredient when the new Mogwai popped out of Gizmo’s body, and he used a balloon again to explode the Gremlin in the microwave.

12. PHOEBE CATES WAS A CONTROVERSIAL CASTING CHOICE.

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Given her sweet demeanor as Kate, it’s hard to imagine that not everyone was on board with casting Cates. But her infamous topless scene in Fast Times at Ridgemont High gave the studio pause about putting her in the lead.

13. CATES’ CHEMISTRY WITH ZACH GALLIGAN WAS WHAT GOT HIM THE ROLE.

Though there were better-known actors like Emilio Estevez and Judd Nelson in contention for the role of Billy, Spielberg cast his vote for Galligan, based on the chemistry he and Cates displayed during auditions.

14. IT’S THE FIRST FILM TO FEATURE THE NOW-ICONIC AMBLIN ENTERTAINMENT LOGO.

By now, Spielberg’s E.T.-themed logo for Amblin Entertainment is familiar to all moviegoers. But Gremlins marked its first on-screen appearance.

15. KINGSTON FALLS AND HILL VALLEY ARE ONE AND THE SAME.

If the fictional town of Kingston Falls in Gremlins looks familiar, that’s because it was filmed on the same set used for the town of Hill Valley in Back to the Future, released a year later.

16. THE FILM WAS ORIGINALLY SCHEDULED FOR A CHRISTMAS RELEASE.

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Offbeat as it may be, Gremlins is definitely a Christmas movie, and as such had been planned for release during the Christmas season. But when Warner Bros. realized it didn’t have a "summer movie" to put up against Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom or Ghostbusters, it moved up the release date. The film performed well and ended up being the fourth highest-grossing film of 1984, behind Beverly Hills Cop, Ghostbusters, and Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom.

17. KATE’S STORY ABOUT HER FATHER’S DEATH WAS A POLARIZING SCENE.

As a nod to the popular urban legend, Kate tells the story about how her father died while dressed up as Santa Claus and climbing down the chimney. When the rough cut was complete, both Spielberg and the Warner Bros. executives wanted it cut, as it wasn’t clear whether it was meant to be sad or funny. Dante insisted that that’s what made it a perfect metaphor for the film itself, and insisted it be kept in. In Roger Ebert’s three-star review of the film, he singled out this scene in particular, citing her story as being “in the great tradition of 1950s sick jokes.”

18. BILLY WAS SUPPOSED TO BE THE HERO.

At the end of the film, Gizmo saves the day by pulling up a window blind and exposing Stripe to sunlight. Originally, Gizmo lifted the first blind, followed by Billy. Spielberg suggested the scene be edited so that it was clear that it’s Gizmo, not Billy, who is the movie’s hero.

19. GIZMO AND STRIPE WERE THE SAME CREATURE AT ONE TIME.

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It was also at Spielberg’s suggestion that Gizmo’s role in the film grew. Originally, it’s the cute little Mogwai pet himself who transforms into Stripe the Gremlin. But Spielberg knew that audiences would want to see as much of Gizmo as possible, so he withdrew the idea so that they would appear as totally separate characters.

20. THE GREMLINS MAY RISE AGAIN.

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Though Gremlins did spawn a sequel (1990's Gremlins II: The Next Batch), there’s been much talk in recent years about a reboot of the original. In April 2014, Ain’t It Cool News reported that Warner Bros. had placed the film on the remake fast track.

21. BUT CHRIS COLUMBUS, FOR ONE, DOESN’T SEE HOW A REBOOT WILL WORK.

In a 2012 interview with Screen Rant, Columbus noted: “I think it’s impossible to re-create [Gremlins] in a CGI environment. I think it will inevitably lose some of its charm. Those are edgy Muppets in a sense and you don’t want to lose that sense of anarchy that those gremlins had, because behind the scenes are 25 puppeteers making them to come to life.”

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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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