Think you can beat the house in Blackjack? That’s what a group of MIT students did. By counting cards, which is perfectly legal, they won very big in Las Vegas. Their story was told in a book called Bringing Down the House: The Inside Story of Six M.I.T. Students Who Took Vegas for Millions, now retitled “21″ to tie in with this week’s release of the movie it inspired.
For those of us who are not MIT math geniuses, there is a playing card-size cheat sheet to guide your betting. Want one? I’ll send one to the first three people to send me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org. Stay tuned — later this week I will post my interviews with star Jim Sturgess and the MIT math whiz who inspired both the book and the movie, Jeff Ma.
Peter and the Wolf,” this year’s Oscar-winner for best short animated film will be shown on PBS this Wednesday from 8-9 Eastern Time. It is a brilliantly imaginative film and well worth setting aside some family time to watch it together.
“Peter and the Wolf” was originally written by Sergei Prokofiev in 1936 as a way to introduce children to the instruments of the orchestra. A brief narration tells the story of the little boy who goes into the forest with his pet duck and cat. They meet up with a little bird and have an encounter with a scary wolf. Each character in the story is represented by a different instrument.
Wolf: French horns
There have been many film versions of the story. Perhaps the most famous is a Disney animated cartoon made in 1946. This latest version, produced by Hugh Welchman of Breakthru Films, dispenses with the narration, which only takes up three minutes of the half-hour-long musical composition, but creates a complex and involving story with a contemporary setting that remains very true to the themes of the original. I spoke to Welchman about the challenges of creating Peter’s world for the painstaking stop-motion animation to create the film.
How big was the set?
“We were working at a one in five ratio. That’s the normal scale for stop-motion animation. The set was truly enormous. The forest had 1700 trees, each 6 feet high. The set was 80 feet long; it was like going into Wonderland. We also did all the close-ups at 1 in 3 [ratio]. The grandfather puppet was 3 1/2 feet high. With that size, you get so much more detail. The grandfather’s hands were incredibly detailed which gave it a real different quality and makes it much more real.
The set was built in Poland and they worked amazingly quickly to build it. That was one of the fastest part of the process; making the models took much, much longer. We wanted it set in modern Russia and so we went there to take photographs. On a playground somewhere they found [the model for] Peter. And they were arrested by the KGB for taking photographs of a power station! The Russian police didn’t really know what to do with these two women. They thought they were eco-terrorists. So, they wiped their photos.
But the Russians are very knowledgeable about film, especially animation.
Yes, they’ve got a heritage with stop-motion.
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Trevor Romain knows how to talk to kids about the problems they think no one understands. His DVDs are a great way to begin conversations at home, in school, in Scout troops, religious groups, or in other community gatherings. They are just right for that stage in life when children first begin to want to look beyond their parents for answers to questions that trouble them and they speak to kids in a frank but matter-of-fact tone that is very reassuring. Most important, they provide very concrete, practical suggestions for coping with some of the most complex troubles of childhood and early adolescence, from homework to bullies to divorce and loss.
Ilana Trachtman found the subject of her documentary, “Praying with Lior,” at Rosh Hashanah services. Lior has Down syndrome. His devotion to prayer has inspired the members of his close and loving Jewish community in Philadelphia. But the movie is not just about him. It is the story of a family.
Trachtman was a successful director of television programs . Her work was meaningful and satisfying and she was not looking for an independent film project.
I prayed with Lior, that’s what happened to me. I was feeling estranged from prayer and went to a Rosh Hashanah retreat. The morning service was very long. I was counting the pages, thinking of what we would eat when services were over. It was literally like hearing a call. Behind me there was this off-key but consistently engaged and enthusiastic voice. I was really compelled because I had never seen anyone like Lior in services before. I grew up in a huge synagogue that never had anyone like Lior. The struggle I had with prayer, this person with half my IQ seemed so natural. I was filled with curiousity and envy. This was in the fall. His bar mitzvah was in May. I needed to get started quickly.
How did you get the permission of the family?
I expected I would have to do a lot of explaining, but when I started talking, Lior’s father said, “We’ve always wanted to do a documentary about the bar mitzvah.” That same spirit of generosity pervaded the entire experience. It was one miraculous moment after another on every level, a very b’shert (destined) experience all the way along.
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