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Tesla is an unconventional biopic of a most unconventional man



Ethan Hawke stars in Tesla, an inventive new biopic from Director Michael Almereyda.

The world is arguably overdue for a biographical film about the eccentric Serbian inventor Nikola Tesla, and Director Michael Almereyda (Experimenter: The Stanley Milgram Story) has obliged with his new film, Tesla, starring Ethan Hawke. But this is not your traditional biopic. We know we’re in for a very different, more dream-like, interior kind of movie in the very first scene. A woman’s voice informs us that Tesla became fascinated by electricity as a young boy upon learning that the sparks he created while stroking his pet cat were the same phenomenon as the lightning in the sky. “Is nature a gigantic cat?” he wondered. “And if so, who strokes its back?”

Almereyda became intrigued by Tesla as a teenager, when he became friends with comic book artist Alex Toth, who was a Tesla enthusiast. It became a lifelong obsession. The Serbian inventor was the subject of Almereyda’s very first screenplay, which the writer/director would ultimately rework, decades later, into the script for Tesla. The director has probably read just about everything about Tesla ever written.

Along with Margaret Cheney’s seminal 1981 biography,  Tesla: Man Out of Time, Almereyda was particularly influenced by Christopher Cooper’s 2015 book, The Truth About Tesla: The Myth of the Lone Genius, which dispels many of the most popular myths and Internet rumors surrounding the inventor, as well as Derek Jarman films and episodes of Drunk History. Although Almereyda’s film is serious in tone, the influence of the latter is felt in its deliberate nonlinearity and clever use of intentional anachronisms.

For those unfamiliar with the late 19th-century “war of the currents,” George Westinghouse espoused alternative current (AC) for power generation and distribution; Thomas Edison favored direct current (DC ). The latter had the famous Edison name and associated influence behind it, but AC current was cheaper. It could travel farther, supplying electricity to homes across a wider area than DC, so Westinghouse’s approach required less copper wire and fewer generating stations. Tesla initially worked for Edison when he arrived in America, but left in frustration when Edison refused to consider his novel designs for AC motors and transformer. Westinghouse brought the young man on board, and Tesla’s AC design eventually won out.

After that success, Tesla threw his energy into the wireless transmission of energy, setting up a laboratory in Colorado Springs, Colorado. His main rival in this area was Guglielmo Marconi, who was giving radio demonstrations and developing  wireless telegraphy. Marconi successfully sent the first wireless telegraphic signals across the Atlantic Ocean in 1901.

Tesla’s own vision of wireless communication centered on building a global wirelesses communication system located in Wardenclyffe, New York, consisting of a power plant and giant electrical tower. The project foundered after financier J.P. Morgan pulled the funding, skeptical that Tesla’s system was even plausible. But Tesla’s vision of a wireless future did eventually come to fruition. That makes him the forefather of many of today’s most revolutionary technologies, which is why Tesla fans often consider him the “forgotten father of technology.” Tesla himself once said of his contemporary detractors, “The present is theirs. The future, for which I really worked, is mine.”

Man out of time

Tesla is a well-known figure in my profession, so it’s sometimes easy to forget that the vast majority of the public doesn’t really know who he was—they assume one is talking about the electric car. (Elon Musk named his company as a tribute to the inventor.) That said, he has appeared as a fictionalized character in multiple novels, comics, films and TV shows.

Most notably, Christopher Nolan’s 2006 film, The Prestige (based on the 1995 novel by Christopher Priest), featured a fictionalized Tesla (played by David Bowie) inventing a electro-replicating machine for a late 19th century magician to recreate a rival’s illusion called “The Transported Man.” And last year, Director Alfonso Gomez-Rejon released the director’s cut of his film, The Current War, a fictionalized account of the historical rivalry between Edison (Benedict Cumberbatch) and Westinghouse (Michael Shannon) to bring electricity to the masses, in which Nicholas Hoult played Tesla. 

“Nolan was clever in getting an icon [Bowie] to play an icon, but he also fabricated a Tesla that has no relation to reality,” Almereyda told Ars. “The real Tesla didn’t retire comfortably in Europe, he didn’t dabble in teleportation. He wasn’t, as Bowie seems to be in that movie, a successful businessman. He was a desperate, struggling inventor who kept chasing money that didn’t show up. So I think of The Prestige more as a very good comic book movie.” As for The Current War, Almereyda correctly notes that Tesla is largely sidelined in that film to focus on the business rivalry between Edison and Westinghouse.

So Almereyda felt there really hadn’t been a film yet made about Tesla that truly did the inventor justice.  “He’s important partly because he did originate systems of transmitting and distributing power and light that are still with us, and that’s an astonishing achievement,” he said. “But I think he’s also important because he embodies a sort of idealism about technology that’s still very valuable and inspiring.”

Per the official premise:

Brilliant, visionary Nikola Tesla (Ethan Hawke) fights an uphill battle to bring his revolutionary electrical system to fruition, then faces thornier challenges with his new system for worldwide wireless energy. The film tracks Tesla’s uneasy interactions with his fellow inventor Thomas Edison (Kyle MacLachlan) and his patron George Westinghouse (Jim Gaffigan). Another thread traces Tesla’s sidewinding courtship of financial titan J.P. Morgan (Donnie Keshawarz), whose daughter Anne (Eve Hewson) takes a more than casual interest in the inventor. Anne analyzes and presents the story as it unfolds, offering a distinctly modern voice to this scientific period drama which, like its subject, defies convention.

A most unconventional man

Much of this is finds its way into Tesla. Apart from a few artistic liberties here and there, Almereyda is largely true to the known facts, given his encyclopedic knowledge of the man. Some of the dialogue is even drawn from actual historical documents like letters and diaries of the central characters.  Edison’s dialogue in the montage of William Kemmler’s execution by electric chair is taken from court transcripts. But as I said, this is no standard biopic; it’s more a creative moody remix of the facts.

Among other innovations, Tesla has a narrator—of sorts—in the character of Ann Morgan (Eve Hewson), in that she frequently breaks the fourth wall to address the audience, occasionally even looking up Tesla facts on the Internet on a laptop.  (It is she who supplies the opening voiceover.) For instance, there is a scene where Tesla—still working for Edison—tries to collect on a generous sum of money he believes his employer had promised him. “Tesla, you don’t understand our American humor,” Edison drawls. Tesla responds by slinging ice cream from the cone in his hand at him. Ann interrupts to inform the audience that this didn’t actually happen.

In another scene, Hawke’s Tesla also breaks the fourth wall by singing an off-key rendition of Tears for Fears’ “Everybody Wants to Rule the World.” There are many deliberate anachronisms, mostly tied in some way to modern technologies that Tesla either predicted and/or laid the foundation for with his inventions. It was Almereyda’s way of tying Tesla’s past to our present.

“To pretend to follow a conventional path about this very unconventional man just seemed flat-footed,” said Almereyda. “I wanted it to be more psychological, more personal. So Ann Morgan became a kind of surrogate for me, a way of getting closer to an impenetrable personality. By having her confide things she discovered or intuited became my way of confiding in the audience. I hope it just made the story a little more vivid and intimate.”

Something that is not an anachronism (although it is a fiction) is the opening scene with Tesla roller-skating. The scene was inspired by depictions of ice skating in the paintings of Winslow Homer, but Almereyda didn’t have the budget to create an ice skating rink in May, over the 20 days when the film was shooting. He decided roller skating would be a plausible substitute, since it was also a very popular activity during that time.

“Tesla was a cat and Edison was a dog. They just had different temperaments. They were not of the same species.

“It’s not likely that Tesla went roller-skating, but it’s not impossible,” said Almereyda. “It felt like a way to introduce the idea of Tesla being a little off-balance, never fully steady on his feet. I think that’s the nature of being a genius, trapped in your head. Your path in the world is not smooth and grounded. So it became both a metaphor and a way off having fun with the premise.”

Almereyda very deliberately diverged from the common recent framing of Edison as a ruthless villain (after decades of mythologizing Edison as an American hero), humanizing the character through the death of his first wife, and his use of Morse code to propose to his second wife. (Edison’s story to his employees of the drowning of a childhood friend is almost verbatim to how the real Edison later recalled it.) “I think he was a complicated man,” Almereyda said. “He was a ruthless capitalist, but he was also incredibly imaginative and creative, and an artist in his own right. I told the actors that Tesla was a cat and Edison was a dog. They just had different temperaments. They were not of the same species.”

In fact, the director cites an anecdote from Edmund Morris’s 2019 biography, Edison, of Tesla coming back to New York from Colorado Springs to give a lecture. Edison showed up, a little bit late, and Tesla stopped speaking, walked over to his former rival, and escorted him to his seat, before resuming his lecture. “If they were really archenemies and rivals, that wouldn’t have happened,” said Almereyda. “It’s just evidence that history isn’t simple. There’s always room to keep building our understanding of these people and how they relate to the present.”

Tesla only follows the inventor through 1901, before his fortunes declined. He died virtually penniless of coronary thrombosis on January 7, 1943, in the Hotel New Yorker, where he lived for the last ten years of his life, growing increasingly eccentric and making wild claims about death rays that could make entire armies vanish in seconds. “I think the next 40 years were pretty miserable for him, and that’s a long, long period of misery,” said Almereyda, who would love to see more movies about Tesla in the future. “I think there’s room for more. He’s that multidimensional, that complicated.”

Tesla is now playing in select theaters and is also available on demand.


Listing image by YouTube/IFC Films

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The Last of Us’ first PC port is riddled with apparent performance issues



PC Shaders go brrrrr
by u/chrysillium in thelastofus

Naughty Dog says it is “actively investigating multiple issues” as complaints about graphical and performance issues continue to flood in following the PC release of The Last of Us: Part 1 on Tuesday.

The thousands of reviews on Steam—67 percent of which are negative, as of this writing—tell the tale of players facing massive problems simply playing the game they purchased. There is an overwhelming number of complaints about everything from frequent crashes and extreme loading times to “severe stuttering” during basic gameplay. Even with some positive reviews on the site supportive of the game’s underlying console versions, others complain that the PC edition is currently “stuttering, crashing, and unplayable.”

Even Joel can’t believe the amount of loading time..
by u/RuneLFox in thelastofus

Many user complaints seem to focus on the extreme amount of time needed for the game to build its graphical shader cache the first time it’s loaded. One Reddit user shared a timelapse of a 70-minute wait for those shaders to compile. Others point out that this extended loading time is particularly significant given Steam’s two-hour playtime window for requesting a no-questions-asked refund.

A “known issues” update on the Naughty Dog support site acknowledges issues with shader loading taking “longer than expected” and stresses that “performance and stability is degraded” while those shaders are loading. The support page also warns players of a “potential memory leak” (which some forum-goers are attributing to a bugged decompression library) and that “older graphics drivers” can also contribute to “instability or graphical problems.”

The Last of Us Part I PC players: we’ve heard your concerns, and our team is actively investigating multiple issues you’ve reported,” Naughty Dog wrote in a tweet Tuesday evening. “We will continue to update you, but our team is prioritizing updates and will address issues in upcoming patches.”

Joel has seen better days…
by u/can_i_see_your_cat in thelastofus

In a blog post accompanying the game’s PC launch Tuesday, Naughty Dog’s Christian Gyrling noted that moving the PS5-optimized Last of Us engine to PC involved “a large amount of tuning, tweaking, and even re-thinking, especially when it came to how we utilized the GPU.” The team was focused on “maintaining the equally high-quality bar across both PC and PlayStation consoles,” Gyrling wrote.

Nixxing Nixxes?

Some eagle-eyed fans started expressing worries about this latest PlayStation-to-PC port earlier this month when an Iron Galaxy logo appeared at the bottom of a PC spec sheet posted on the Naughty Dog blog. Iron Galaxy, you may remember, was responsible for the “seriously broken” port of Batman: Arkham Knight in 2015, which was eventually pulled from Steam amid widespread demands for refunds. Four months later, after multiple patches, players were still reporting massive resource allocation issues with that version of the game.
Iron Galaxy’s apparent involvement is especially notable given Sony’s 2021 purchase of Nixxes, which has been responsible for better-received PC ports of PlayStation titles like Spider-Man and Horizon: Zero Dawn. Then again, Iron Galaxy did work on the PC release of Uncharted: Legacy of Thieves Collection, which Digital Foundry called an “accomplished but unambitious port” upon its release last year.

TLOUP1, Anyone else having glitches like these on PC?
by u/official_tommy_boi in thelastofus

Ironically enough, this week’s PC release came after a 25-day delay that Naughty Dog said at the time was to ensure the “PC debut is in the best shape possible.” Who knows how many more days players will have to wait until the game has truly reached that “best shape possible” status.

Listing image by Reddit / official_tommy_boi

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Elemental music: Interactive periodic table turns He, Fe, Ca into Do, Re, Mi



Enlarge / Graduate student W. Walker Smith converted the visible light given off by the elements into audio, creating unique, complex sounds for each one. His personal favorites are helium and zinc.

W. Walker Smith and Alain Barker

We’re all familiar with the elements of the periodic table, but have you ever wondered what hydrogen or zinc, for example, might sound like? W. Walker Smith, now a graduate student at Indiana University, combined his twin passions of chemistry and music to create what he calls a new audio-visual instrument to communicate the concepts of chemical spectroscopy.

Smith presented his data sonification project—which essentially transforms the visible spectra of the elements of the periodic table into sound—at a meeting of the American Chemical Society being held this week in Indianapolis, Indiana. Smith even featured audio clips of some of the elements, along with “compositions” featuring larger molecules, during a performance of his “The Sound of Molecules” show.

As an undergraduate, “I [earned] a dual degree in music composition and chemistry, so I was always looking for a way to turn my chemistry research into music,” Smith said during a media briefing. “Eventually, I stumbled across the visible spectra of the elements and I was overwhelmed by how beautiful and different they all look. I thought it would be really cool to turn those visible spectra, those beautiful images, into sound.”

What do the elements sound like?

Data sonification is not a new concept. For instance, in 2018, scientists transformed NASA’s image of Mars rover Opportunity on its 5,000th sunrise on Mars into music. The particle physics data used to discover the Higgs boson, the echoes of a black hole as it devoured a star, and magnetometer readings from the Voyager mission have also been transposed into music. And several years ago, a project called LHCSound built a library of the “sounds” of a top quark jet and the Higgs boson, among others. The project hoped to develop sonification as a technique for analyzing the data from particle collisions so that physicists could “detect” subatomic particles by ear.

Markus Buehler’s MIT lab famously mapped the molecular structure of proteins in spider silk threads onto musical theory to produce the “sound” of silk in hopes of establishing a radical new way to create designer proteins. The hierarchical elements of music composition (pitch, range, dynamics, tempo) are analogous to the hierarchical elements of protein structure. The lab even devised a way for humans to “enter” a 3D spider web and explore its structure both visually and aurally via a virtual reality setup. The ultimate aim is to learn to create similar synthetic spiderwebs and other structures that mimic the spider’s process.

Several years later, Buehler’s lab came up with an even more advanced system of making music out of a protein structure by computing the unique fingerprints of all the different secondary structures of proteins to make them audible via transposition—and then converting it back to create novel proteins never before seen in nature. The team also developed a free Android app called the Amino Acid Synthesizer so users could create their own protein “compositions” from the sounds of amino acids.

So Smith is in good company with his interactive periodic table project. All the elements release distinct wavelengths of light, depending on their electron energy levels, when stimulated by electricity or heat, and those chemical “fingerprints” make up the visible spectra at the heart of chemical spectroscopy. Smith translated those different frequencies of light into different pitches or musical notes using an instrument called the Light Soundinator 3000, scaling down those frequencies to be within the range of human hearing. He professed amazement at the sheer variety of sounds.

“Red light has the lowest frequency in the visible range, so it sounds like a lower musical pitch than violet,” said Smith, demonstrating on a toy color-coded xylophone. “If we move from red all the way up to violet, the frequency of the light keeps getting higher, and so does the frequency of the sound. Violet is almost double the frequency of red light, so it actually sounds close to a musical octave.” And while simpler spectra like hydrogen and helium, which only have a few lines in their spectra, sound like “vaguely musical” chords, elements with more complex spectra consisting of thousands of lines are dense and noisy, often sounding like “a cheesy horror movie effect,” according to Smith.

His favorites: helium and zinc. “If you listen to the frequencies [of helium] one by one instead of all at once, you get an interesting scale pattern that I have used to make a couple of compositions, including a ‘helium dance party,'” said Smith. As for zinc, “The first row of transition metals have very complex, dense grating sounds. But zinc, for whatever reason, despite having a large number of frequencies, sounds like an angelic vocalist singing with vibrato.”

Smith is currently collaborating with the Wonder Lab Museum in Bloomington, Indiana, to develop a museum exhibit that would enable visitors to interact with the periodic table, listen to the laments, and make their own musical compositions from the various sounds. “The main thing I want to [convey] is that science and the arts aren’t so different after all,” he said. “Combining them can lead to new research questions, but also new ways to communicate and reach larger audiences.”

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Why Transformers now look like a big bunch of gears and car parts



Enlarge / How did one of the rarest 911s end up becoming a Transformer?

Stef Schrader

“I didn’t know what car Mirage was going to be at first,” said Steven Caple Jr., director of Transformers: Rise of the Beasts. “Where I’m from, in Cleveland, Ohio, I’d never even been in a Porsche before,” he continued. “My actual first introduction to Porsche was Bad Boys I, so shout out to Michael Bay—that’s all I really had.”

Caple admitted in a panel during Austin’s South by Southwest festival that the star car of the beloved action film Bad Boys inspired him to make Mirage a classic Porsche in the upcoming film. Mirage is a bit of a rebel himself, and the callback to the classic buddy-cop movie just felt right.

Fortunately, extraterrestrial Autobots won’t be tempted to pull over in any sketchy places to debate the merits of in-car snacking, but this does mean they have bigger nemeses that necessitate transforming into giant robots to handle. It can be more complicated than you’d expect to make a cool Porsche into an Autobot film star, though—in fact, Porsche has a whole team that helps Hollywood studios get just the right car on the silver screen. Here’s how it all comes together.

Character development

It starts with a character. Filmmakers have a certain look and vibe in mind when a new Transformer is “cast,” so to speak. Mirage is a bad boy with an attitude, and the film, set in 1994, is meant to be a sequel to Bumblebee. That made Caple think of the 1994 911 Turbo from Bad Boys.

“I was born in the ’80s, and I was a kid in the ’90s… this is the era when I grew up,” Caple explained. “This movie is like a time capsule to me.”

“You get to ’94, and everything started to change—from the wardrobe to the culture to the music to the cars,” he continued. “You start to step away from square-bodied cars and say, ‘hello curves.'”

You probably have to be pretty into your Porsches to spot that this is a 3.8 RS and not a 911 Turbo.
Enlarge / You probably have to be pretty into your Porsches to spot that this is a 3.8 RS and not a 911 Turbo.

Stef Schrader

The “casting” choice of the 964-era 911—a car that was dramatically smoother and more streamlined than any 911 before it—is a callback for the current Transformers series, given that Bad Boys was Michael Bay’s feature-length directorial debut. Yet Mirage has always been portrayed as an upper-crust member of Autobot society, so it makes sense that the Transformers team picked an even rarer 964-generation Porsche to portray him: a 1993 911 Carrera RS 3.8.

“When I was designing the character, it started there,” Caple said. “I talked to Owen [Shively] and the team at Porsche and said… he’s going to be an outlaw. He’s going to be a rebel. Going to be flashy. Very confident, but smooth.”

That’s when Porsche suggested looking into the 911 Carrera RS 3.8.

The Carrera RS 3.8 uses the same wider body shape as Bad Boys‘ 911 Turbo, but it was a homologation specially produced to legalize the Carrera RSR race car with a host of lightweight parts and a hardcore aerodynamic package designed for track domination. Porsche only ever made 55 RS 3.8s, according to Total 911, making it an exceptionally rare ride. In other media and toys in the past, Mirage has been a Ferrari and a Formula 1 car, so an ultra-rare Porsche feels like a solid fit.

While many of us associate the Transformers series with the heavy use of CGI, the filmmakers still need to source real cars to use for many of the shots—and Porsche has a whole team dedicated to helping filmmakers place just the right car into film and television projects.

Owen Shively, from that early ideation conversation Caple mentioned, is the CEO of RTTM Agency, Porsche Cars North America’s exclusive representative when it comes to entertainment partnership requests like this. When Porsche needs someone to arrange a specific car for a new film or TV project, Shively’s agency is where they turn.

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