It all started with a date night. Mick Ebeling, a Venice, CA-based executive producer and animation studio owner, had hired a babysitter and was taking his director-wife Caskey to an art show. What could have simply been a lovely evening spent sipping wine and looking at pretty pictures with artsy types turned into a five-year journey that lead to a locked-in artist being able to express himself, the creation of groundbreaking technology, and Getting Up: The TEMPT ONE Story, a documentary about the process.
The art show, back in 2007, was a benefit for Tony “TEMPT ONE” Quan, a legendary graffiti artist and founder of culture mag Big Time. In 2003, at age 34, he was struck by ALS (Lou Gehrig’s disease), a degenerative neuromuscular disorder that renders the body completely immobile but leaves the mind–and creative spirit–intact. That night, a who’s who of the graff scene–including Shepard Fairey and Barry McGee–had rallied to raise funds for their friend to enable him to live out his days comfortably at home. The Ebelings bought some art and then went home, thinking that was the end of a nice night out. Still, something about TEMPT’s story stuck with them and come the holidays they decided to donate to the TEMPT ONE Foundation on behalf of their company, The Ebeling Group, in lieu of corporate holiday gifts. In the process, they connected with TEMPT’s father Ron and asked him what they were raising money for. His answer: “We just want to communicate with him again.”
That conversation was the catalyst for action. “I was like, what do you mean you can’t talk to him? That’s not right,” says Ebeling, who had falsely assumed that adequate communication systems were available to those with ALS. Instead, TEMPT and his family communicated through a rudimentary system in which he would spell out words by pointing to letters on paper with his eyes–think Diving Bell and the Butterfly. “It was one of those moments where you realize something that just shouldn’t be; that’s not something that should be limited by someone’s socioeconomic status. There are certain inalienable rights that people are entitled to, and I think being able to express yourself is one of them. It would be the equivalent of a kid saying they only eat one meal per day. You’d say, ‘that’s ridiculous, let’s change that.'”
Getting Up, directed by Caskey in her feature-length debut that just premiered at Slamdance, is the documentation of how Mick Ebeling, through his Not Impossible Foundation, along with a motley crew of international collaborators, changed TEMPT’s reality by inventing the EyeWriter, a low-cost, open-source DIY device that allows ALS sufferers to control a computer with the only thing they can move: their eyes.
In its straight-up chronicling of how the EyeWriter came together, Getting Up highlights the power of open collaboration. When Mick met TEMPT’s dad, he committed to two things: that they would be able to communicate with more than a piece of paper, and that TEMPT would be able to do his art again. As Ebeling says in his TED talk on the topic, he felt like he’d written a check his ass couldn’t cash. But in doing so, he found his way to Graffiti Research Labs–a group of technologists, artists, and hackers “dedicated to outfitting graffiti artists with open source technologies for urban communications”–who he flew out to Venice for a two-week coding jam in his living room. The result, after over a year of planning, was the first generation of the EyeWriter, built from cheap sunglasses from Venice Beach, some copper wire, and a PC web camera, and coding that is available for anyone to build upon. It was named one of Time Magazine’s top 50 inventions of 2010.
While the initial contraption came through on enabling TEMPT to express himself, if only basically, at that point the final shape of the film was merely a creative inkling. “We knew we were doing something important so we started documenting everything, pulling favors from friends and putting some money into it and capturing it just for the intention of capturing it,” says Caskey. The idea was that she’d collect a pile of footage and eventually hand it over to a documentary director. But with hours and hours in the can, they realized there was to be no handoff. “We were in too deep,” Caskey says. “Basically Mick just turned to me and said, ‘welcome to this film, you’re the director.'”
Produced by Jon Barlow (Beautiful Losers) and scored by Money Mark, Getting Up also serves as a portrait of the L.A. graffiti scene and the lasting impact of the loss of one of its most significant figures. For the uninitiated, it’s like a historical tour of the West Coast graffiti underground as told by its most prominent artists, showcasing the beauty, craft, and community surrounding this contentious art form. It’s also a touching portrait of friends unsure of how to deal with a fallen comrade who’s not exactly gone, and the renewed bond that comes with TEMPT’s ability to express himself again, which is most manifest when he once again contributes a piece to an art show.
But in reality, Getting Up, as the title suggests, is about way more than graffiti or technology. It’s about how TEMPT inspired hope and perseverance. When the film shows the GRL crew strapping their rudimentary EyeWriter onto TEMPT and he draws his trademark tag after seven years of absolute disability, you feel like you’re witnessing something special. Similarly, watching Ebeling read an email that after many attempts to better the technology created by GRL, technicians at computer company Dell were unable to create a more sophisticated mouse system due to TEMPT’s inability to fast blink, your heart sinks with theirs.
And since it’s told in a linear fashion, revealing successes and failures as they happen–with some artful historical context interspersed for color–it’s easy to leave the film feeling as though the story is not over. Indeed, the film’s epilogue that runs along the credits shows Mick meeting with Ron Quan to share an email from some Samsung programmers in Korea who have taken it upon themselves to better the system. And with that hope lives on for even easier creative freedom for TEMPT and everyone like him.
“That’s our hope with this film, that people see it and go out and say, I’m going to do something to make a difference,” says Ebeling. “That’s really what we want to inspire in people.”
In every rational way, the EyeWriter should never have happened. An L.A.-based commercials exec producer with zero experience with optical recognition technology promises a locked-in, East L.A. graffiti artist and his family that he’ll find an affordable, accessible way for him to create his art again. Right. But with the help of a crew of artists, programmers, and open-source devotees, a large helping of tenacity, and an inspiring individual that made it impossible to give up, the impossible happened. Now, the open source coding and DIY prototype of the EyeWriter is fueling countless innovators and inventors the world over to do one thing: help those in need. Here are three life lessons from the making of the EyeWriter and Getting Up.
Don’t say no to yourself: Following the Slamdance premiere of Getting Up in Park City, Mick and Caskey Ebeling met a group of flabbergasted engineers. “They said if we had any idea, any concept of the difficulty of ocular recognition and tracking, and of what it would actually take to create, we never would have created the EyeWriter,” says Mick Ebeling. “Our blind ambition and naivete was the only reason this was made. They said they wish they could channel this into their professional lives because they kill all these things they want to make because it’s too hard, or too expensive or not realistic.”
Invention begets invention: “After two-and-a-half weeks of GRL living in our home, breaking glasses, taking things apart and rebuilding, our kids are inventors now,” says Caskey of her three kids. “We have this bin of broken objects that they’re constantly raiding and invent things all the time. They’re very much inspired by the project.”
Do what you can in whatever way that you can: For many years, TEMPT’s graffiti crew didn’t really visit. They didn’t know what to say or found the paper method of communicating too difficult. Instead, they did the only thing they knew: They created art and put on fundraising shows. “That’s exactly what they needed to do because that’s how we found out about TEMPT,” says Caskey. “We did the same; we used the skills we had to apply to a cause that we weren’t really sure how to help. Everyone along the way learns the exact same lesson, which is: If I have a skill and I see someone that needs help, let me utilize it, even if it’s in some small way that seems completely unrelated. Something good will come from it.”
Those interested in contributing to the open source software or developing the EyeWriter hardware are invited to visit the Not Impossible Foundation.