In 2006, Dean Kamen told me he was working on a device that could take any form of contaminated water and turn it into safe, potable water. It was in his words: a “point-of-use,” “bottom-up,” “21st century solution to the 21st century problem” of access to clean water all over the planet. He called it SlingShot, which is reference to the biblical story of David and Goliath.
At the time I knew very little about the world’s water challenges. Fortunately, I had made over a dozen short documentaries with Kamen about his various passions — including, his best known invention, the Segway transporter (then called “Ginger”) and his inspiring competition for students, FIRST robotics. It struck me that this vapor compression distiller might be Kamen’s most important contribution and could potentially make life better for a billion people.
What if we could turn the camera on now and capture the story of an idea in his head turning into reality? Not the story of a technology after it has been completed and mass-distributed, but rather the much more difficult-to-capture parts of inventing, refining and getting the machine out into the world where it could potentially save lives and bring clean water to those in desperate need. Luckily, Kamen agreed and I started to learn a great deal about water.
Many people think Kamen is dead because in 2010, Jimi Heselden, then owner of the Segway Company, plunged 80-feet off a cliff riding the self-balancing scooter. The press reported that “the Segway guy is dead.”
Kamen is very much alive. A quirky genius with a sharp wit and a provocative worldview, Kamen is our era’s Thomas Edison. He has reconceived kidney dialysis, engineered an electric wheelchair that can travel up stairs (the iBot), improved the heart stent, built portable insulin pumps and developed a fully-functional prosthetic limb for amputees (Luke Arm), among other things. Holder of over 440 U.S. and Foreign patents, Kamen devotes himself to dreaming up and producing products that improve people’s lives.
The challenge became to make an engaging filmic story about the development of this innovative technology. No matter how dire and important the water crisis may be, it quickly became apparent that a dry, linear examination of the machine itself was not the way to go. “SlingShot” could not just be a movie about a box. We found that by viscerally intercutting between very human aspects of the man (dealing with dyslexia, not wanting to have children, why kids should know the names of scientists and engineers), stories about other important technological achievements — such as the airplane and the telephone and the work on the SlingShot — we could make the movie both broccoli and desert.
Another major storytelling challenge was how to explain the complex inner workings of the machine. After many failed attempts, we found that it was only with the animations conceived by Brian Oakes and his motion graphics team that we were we able to convey SlingShot’s real magic: the recycling of energy over and over again so that the device only needs the power equivalent of a handheld hairdryer.
During the many years that we edited the “SlingShot” documentary, we kept a file card posted on the wall that stated our three main goals: help get the SlingShot technology mass-produced and distributed, inspire everyone (particularly young people) to pursue careers in science and technology and adjust attitudes about water in general.
Kamen is always on the move, indefatigable, mercurial, articulate, funny, relentless. He jumps from one thing to the other and it’s almost impossible to keep up with him. He calls a “vacation” “the V word.” We wanted the movie to be like Kamen so we did our best to capture all of those aspects of this indomitable man and put them together in a way that would convey his spirit.
It’s been over eight years since I started this film and since then I have learned how important water is to all of us. As Anita Anador in Ghana says: “Water is life.” And in a line that didn’t make into the final cut, Kamen adds: “you can live without oil, you can’t live without water.” There’s so much we all have to do. SlingShot is just one potential solution to the challenges we are facing and will continue to face with water.
“SlingShot” will be released in NYC on July 10, 2015. You can find out more here.