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SXSW.com

Q&A: Emily Hagins and AJ Bowen, director and star of Grow Up, Tony Phillips

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SXSW.com

Emily Hagins is just 20 years old, but she’s already written and directed four feature films (the first, Pathogen, she made when she was 12), all shot in Austin. Her latest feature, Grow Up, Tony Phillips, had its world premiere tonight at the SXSW film festival. We sat down with Hagins and Tony Phillips star AJ Bowen (who plays Pete) to talk about collaborating with the Austin film community to make the movie, how the music itself is a character, and why this movie is different from everything else Hagins has done so far.

mental_floss: In your other films, you’ve tackled everything from zombies to vampires to ghosts. But Grow Up, Tony Phillips is a totally different kind of movie. What made you want to put aside genre?
Emily Hagins: My last two features, they were both…[The Retelling] is very dark and depressing and it made me kind of depressed to be working on it. And then my last movie [My Sucky Teen Romance] has some comedic elements to it, but teenagers are still dying, and it’s kind of sad. So I really wanted to make a movie that had no genre at all—but I really loved this Halloween aesthetic. I thought it to would be interesting to use something that may [make it] inherently feel like a genre film but to use it for a sweet, coming-of-age movie.

m_f: The Austin film community is extremely close-knit. You got notes from your star’s brother, Eric Vespe, who is a film writer for Ain’t It Cool News, and a few Austin-based writers and filmmakers appear in this movie and in your other movies. Can you talk a little bit about the collaborative process that went into making the film?
EH: I’m a really big fan of getting a lot of feedback on things. I’m very self-conscious when I’m writing and directing and editing. I’m afraid of this Emperor’s New Clothes thing when everyone just tells you it’s fine when it’s not. So when I know people are going to be very blunt and honest, I feel like I’m just going to make an even better movie. And I really trust Eric’s sensibilities, so he’s one of the people I like to [get notes from]. I usually go to the same few people for notes on the script along the way as we’re making the movie, and with people like AJ and Tony [Vespe], who knew their characters very well. And when, if there was a problem with the script when we were on set and we had to kind of adjust it, they had really, really good feedback on what their characters would do or say. Now I don’t even remember how those scenes were originally written, because they really made them better.

m_f: AJ, what was it like working with Emily as a director?
AJ Bowen: It was a terrible work experience for me, having to work for Emily Hagins. [Laughs] It was great, because I already knew Emily. And when one of the producers called me before the script was even written, and started trying to sell me, I stopped him mid-sentence and said, “Emily is writing a script, and she’s going to direct and she would like me to be involved? That’s a firm yes from this end.” Because I already knew that Tony was also going to work on it, and Tony is kind of like a little brother to me. In an independent film, there’s not a lot of money and not a lot of time, and people—there can kind of be a cynical outlook, and people can become jaded to the magic of the process. You’re getting to collaborate on a story with a group of people, and it’s only going to exist at that time—but then at the end of it you have a journal that will live forever, and people will hopefully be able to get some entertainment out of it. Because that’s ostensibly what the final product is. It’s our journal of us going away to camp together, and putting on a production.

m_f: How did Tony Phillips compare to some of the other movies you’ve made?
AJB: I’ve made 15 or 16 movies at this point, and of any of the movies that I’ve worked on, this is the most fully realized product. All of the elements that are in the movie that weren’t about the movie—like the heart—it was all there. I’ve worked on films where we’ve dramatically changed the story structure and did complete 180s on characters. And I didn’t want to do that on this movie. I wanted to advocate for Emily and be there to support Tony, who I knew was going to have a pretty large responsibility—the film, in terms of performers, is squarely on his shoulders. So I wanted to help out in whatever way I could. I felt bad for them that I was what they had to go to, in terms of work experience. [Laughs] But it was great—we had a lot of conversations before we would start shooting, and we’d have conversations after the day about what we were going to do next.

m_f: In the instances where you realized that a scene wasn’t working as it was written, how did you guys collaborate to make the changes happen?
AJB: My main mission was to try to not get in there and change things—it was to stay out of the way of what Emily had already written. So the few times that there were tweaks, it would be after we were shooting a scene—the energy’s always going to change, once we’re actually in the process of doing something. I was very reluctant to engage in that element of it. So when we did that it was conversations between Emily and I, or Emily and Tony and the people that were there in the scene, trying to get at the best answer to the creative storytelling problem. And it was great, because it was so collaborative. There was no sense of ego. It was just: We’re all trying to make the same movie.

m_f: What scene was the most difficult to shoot?
EH: There was one scene of just Tony picking up a box under his bed—I had nightmares about it the whole shoot. All we had to do was just get this box out from under his bed, and we had to do 14 takes of it. The bed wouldn’t be right, and then the box wouldn’t be right, and it was like everything was going wrong. We moved the shot somewhere else in the finished movie, so now he’s wearing the wrong clothes for that one shot. It’s the only continuity error. When I asked them to go back and re-shoot it, they were like “You’re kidding, right?” [Laughs] That stupid shot. But that’s the most takes we did, really. Everyone was very on top of what they were doing and on the same page.

m_f: When it came time to shoot, how did you pick your locations?
EH: Our whole team looked for locations. We had this color palette that our production designer, Griffon Ramsey, was working from. We were really trying to find things that fit within that scheme, and make sure the locations weren’t too old-fashioned or too modern. We wanted everything to feel very timeless. There are no cell phones or computers in the movie, really. We shot in a high school, and there was a whole section of that had been remodeled—it looked like the Jetsons. And they were like, “Do you want our new classrooms with our cool computers?” And we were like, “no, we want the old side.” So that’s kind of the way we approached technology in this movie, just to keep it about the relationships in a way that applied to the production design and finding locations that fit that same theme.

m_f: How did the production of this one differ from your other movies?
EH: We had a bigger crew and more time to shoot, which was nice. We shot My Sucky Teen Romance in like about two weeks, 15 hours a day, and we were running on enthusiasm and it was very difficult—we didn’t even know if we were getting good takes sometimes. On this movie, all of the problems were mostly “Oh I wish we could’ve gotten another angle, but everything we have is what we planned for.” So it was like a very easy process in a way.

m_f: Why did you make the decision not to edit this movie?
EH: I guess I really wanted some distance from it, because I wrote and directed it. I’m a big fan of editing, and I think more like an editor sometimes. I cut the trailer, and I guess I had very specific editing notes for the movie, but because of the timeline, we had to split up the work between several people, so that we could get it all done. We met every couple of days to go over all the cuts, so I was very, very involved in the editing process. But we were working with editors who were good and understood what we were trying to do.

m_f: My Sucky Teen Romance had an incredibly catchy song that was written by one of the stars of the film. Tony Phillips has great music, too. Did you do something similar and go to a friend?
EH: Yes! It’s the same guy—Santiago Dietche! [It’s a totally different sound], because he’s a prodigy. He has 12 songs in the movie, and they’re all him. Even the rock songs—that’s his rock band—and then all the sweet guitar songs, that’s just him. He’s younger than me; he can do anything. He wrote the opening credits song in like 12 hours, and had a solid recording of it, and he was like “Does this work? Is this what you guys want?” And we were like, “yes!”

AJB: It’s great because it’s an iconic character of the movie. And in independent and small-budget films, people miss how important specific departments are. When it comes to this movie, [the music is] an integral character of the film. It’s the gateway into the vibe of the film. And without that there, it would strip the film of a substantial part of its identity. So, it’s awesome.

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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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