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YouTube/Erin McCarthy

12 of the Most Distracting Extras in Movie History

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YouTube/Erin McCarthy

Background actors, also known as extras, have one of the most important jobs on a film shoot. They contribute to the overall believability of a scene while making it easier for filmmakers to control a set or location. But sometimes, extras draw attention to themselves—either intentionally or unintentionally—and break the main focus of the scene.

1. Star Wars

When Luke Skywalker, Han Solo, Princess Leia, and Chewbacca are trapped in one of the trash compacters on the Death Star, a group of Stormtroopers manage to unseal a blast door to find C-3PO and R2-D2 in a control room. As the Stormtroopers enter, one of them hits his head on the blast door. While this was considered a blink-and-you'll-miss-it moment from the original Star Wars, George Lucas added a "thud" sound effect in its special edition to highlight the gaffe. 

2. Back to the Future Part III

At the very end of Back to the Future Part III, Doc Brown shows up in Hill Valley 1985 in a brand new time machine made from the locomotive he used to help Marty get back to the future. When Doc is introducing his new family to Marty and Jennifer, you can clearly see Doc's youngest son Verne, played by Dannel Evans, gesturing for help and then pointing to his groin. It appears that the very young Evans needed to go to the bathroom, but didn't want to stop the take.  

3. North By Northwest

Before the iconic chase scene on Mount Rushmore, Eve Kendall "shoots" Roger Thornhill in the National Park's cafeteria. After multiple and noisy takes, you can see a little boy in the background anticipate the shot and plug his ears before she fires the gun.

4. Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory

During the "Candy Man" song, one of the little girls almost gets smacked in the jaw when the creepy candy store clerk lifts the hatch to let the children behind the counter. Fortunately, the little girl has ninja-like reflexes to divert injury.

5. Ghostbusters

Just before the Ghostbusters battle Gozer the Gozerian, they greet cheering fans just outside of Dana Barrett's Central Park West apartment building. One of the fans is an overly-enthusiastic businessman who screams, "Ghostbusters, alright!," as he draws attention to himself and away from the Ghostbusters.

6. Quantum of Solace

In Quantum of Solace, James Bond is at a pier and behind him is an extra who appears to be sweeping air with a broom that is not touching the pavement.  

7. The Dark Knight Rises

While Batman and Catwoman are on a rooftop fighting Bane's goons, one of the henchmen poses in a fighting stance and then falls to the ground without getting hit.

8. Everything Must Go

Salesman Nick Halsey visits Delilah, one of his old high school classmates, to re-evaluate his life. She has two children now and their first appearance seems normal enough with the pair playing in the front yard. However, when the film cuts back to the children in the background, they appear to be frozen in place, while Nick and Delilah reminisce.

9. Coach Carter

When undefeated Richmond High School varsity basketball coach Ken Carter cancels the big game with Fremont because of his team's poor grades, the school's fan base gets extremely upset and vocal about his final decision. One extra was overly furious, as he proceeds to comically shake his fist and jeer at Coach Carter.

10. The Last Samurai

When Captain Nathan Algren returns to his Japanese camp, his horse kicks one of the Samurai extras in the crotch as Algren dismounts. The extra is clearly a professional, because he just lines up into formation until the end of the scene. 

11. Teen Wolf

After the Beacon High School Beavers win the basketball game at the tail end of Teen Wolf, you can see an extra in the gym's bleachers expose her underwear. She starts to cover up her unzipped jeans with a red sweater, as the character Scott Howard hugs his dad. Once you notice this moment, you'll never watch Teen Wolf in the same way again.

12. Being John Malkovich

When John Malkovich spills onto the New Jersey Turnpike after being inside of his own head, he gets angry with Craig Schwartz for making a business out of his inner thoughts and experiences. After he threatens to sue Schwartz, an extra throws a beer can at Malkovich's head when he begins to walk away. According to Being John Malkovich director Spike Jones, this moment wasn't scripted and a drunken extra thought up the scenario after multiple long and boring takes. 

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
technology
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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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Stephen Missal
crime
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New Evidence Emerges in Norway’s Most Famous Unsolved Murder Case
May 22, 2017
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A 2016 sketch by a forensic artist of the Isdal Woman
Stephen Missal

For almost 50 years, Norwegian investigators have been baffled by the case of the “Isdal Woman,” whose burned corpse was found in a valley outside the city of Bergen in 1970. Most of her face and hair had been burned off and the labels in her clothes had been removed. The police investigation eventually led to a pair of suitcases stuffed with wigs and the discovery that the woman had stayed at numerous hotels around Norway under different aliases. Still, the police eventually ruled it a suicide.

Almost five decades later, the Norwegian public broadcaster NRK has launched a new investigation into the case, working with police to help track down her identity. And it is already yielding results. The BBC reports that forensic analysis of the woman’s teeth show that she was from a region along the French-German border.

In 1970, hikers discovered the Isdal Woman’s body, burned and lying on a remote slope surrounded by an umbrella, melted plastic bottles, what may have been a passport cover, and more. Her clothes and possessions were scraped clean of any kind of identifying marks or labels. Later, the police found that she left two suitcases at the Bergen train station, containing sunglasses with her fingerprints on the lenses, a hairbrush, a prescription bottle of eczema cream, several wigs, and glasses with clear lenses. Again, all labels and other identifying marks had been removed, even from the prescription cream. A notepad found inside was filled with handwritten letters that looked like a code. A shopping bag led police to a shoe store, where, finally, an employee remembered selling rubber boots just like the ones found on the woman’s body.

Eventually, the police discovered that she had stayed in different hotels all over the country under different names, which would have required passports under several different aliases. This strongly suggests that she was a spy. Though she was both burned alive and had a stomach full of undigested sleeping pills, the police eventually ruled the death a suicide, unable to track down any evidence that they could tie to her murder.

But some of the forensic data that can help solve her case still exists. The Isdal Woman’s jaw was preserved in a forensic archive, allowing researchers from the University of Canberra in Australia to use isotopic analysis to figure out where she came from, based on the chemical traces left on her teeth while she was growing up. It’s the first time this technique has been used in a Norwegian criminal investigation.

The isotopic analysis was so effective that the researchers can tell that she probably grew up in eastern or central Europe, then moved west toward France during her adolescence, possibly just before or during World War II. Previous studies of her handwriting have indicated that she learned to write in France or in another French-speaking country.

Narrowing down the woman’s origins to such a specific region could help find someone who knew her, or reports of missing women who matched her description. The case is still a long way from solved, but the search is now much narrower than it had been in the mystery's long history.

[h/t BBC]

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