ITVS Presents Michel Negroponte’s W.I.S.O.R. To air on Public Television in October 2001

August 29, 2001

W.I.S.O.R. is an eerie, end-of-the century story set in and under the streets of New York. For heat and energy, a city of millions depends uneasily on a vast, hundred-year-old steam system that seethes under its streets. In a lab on the Lower East Side, a team of scientists and engineers is creating a robot named W.I.S.O.R., which they hope will save their city by traveling through the buried pipe system and repairing it. Now add to this story a robotic voice, archival footage, the ghost of a 19th century engineer and an evocative musical score. Is this fact or science fiction? Or a prototype for a newfangled form of storytelling in the new millennium?

Actually, W.I.S.O.R. is a New York story spanning three centuries that uses both dramatic and documentary filmmaking techniques to tell the remarkable story of the creation of a million-dollar, blue-collar “robo-welder.” It is the third of as many “only-in New-York” documentaries by Manhattan filmmaker Michel Negroponte. The first film, Jupiter’s Wife, focused on a woman living in Central Park who communicates with the gods through her walkman; the second, No Accident, focused on spoken word poet John Giorno and was filmed entirely on subway trains, platforms and stations.

Most New Yorkers are completely unaware of the hundred-mile steam grid under their feet, which produces steam for heat, hot water, Chinese laundries and Turkish baths. Even the World Trade Center, the Empire State building, Rockefeller Center and two thousand other major buildings in the city get steam energy from an underground system which was first dreamt up at the end of the previous century. But the local utility that operates the steam mains under Manhattan knows the pipe maze needs inspection and repair, and that’s why they are hedging the system’s future on a robot named W.I.S.O.R.

At Honeybee Robotics, W.I.S.O.R.’s creators assemble their eight-foot long, seven hundred-pound, insect-like creature with twelve legs, eyes and a full set of robotic tools. Along the way, they encounter design and assembly obstacles. They worry, argue and discuss God, fate, baseball, détente and technology. Slowly and painfully, W.I.S.O.R. comes into being, gradually acquiring language from the robotics team. He mutters commentary about himself, his job, the future and of course his own makers. Does W.I.S.O.R, the crawling, talking, welding, heat resistant robo-savior enter the inferno of his destined workplace and save the city? Whatever the outcome, the film W.I.S.O.R. is ultimately a testament to the creative spirit – a riveting story of invention unfolding on the contemporary New York stage. W.I.S.O.R. will air nationally on public television in October 2001 (check local listings).

An Interview with Producer/Director Michel Negroponte

Q: How did you get involved in this project?

MN: One day in the fall of 1995, Steve Gorevan, the Chairman of Honeybee Robotics, and I were sitting on a park bench at the local playground watching our kids play. We were discussing the topic of underground New York: I was telling Steve about a film project I had just finished called No Accident with the spoken word poet John Giorno. The project had been filmed on subway trains, platforms and stations. Steve told me about a new robot his company was designing that would some day attempt to repair the massive steam pipe system under the streets of Manhattan. The robot would be christened W.I.S.O.R., an acronym for welding and inspection steam operations robot. It sounded like science fiction and I was intrigued. I visited Honeybee Robotics a few days later.

Q: Tell me a little about Honeybee Robotics and what the place is like.

MN: Everything about Honeybee Robotics is unusual, including their location. The lab and offices are in Little Italy next to a muffin bakery, in a four-story building that was one of the city’s first electric power stations. The building is rumored to have been designed by Thomas Edison himself.

There are about fifteen engineers, sometimes referred to as “honey bees,” employed by Steve Gorevan and his partner Chris Chapman. The place is a contemporary melting pot: a few Russians, one Romanian, some Asians, several Americans and an unusually large quota of expatriates from Guyana. The company has designed industrial robots for NASA, 3M, Coca-Cola and IBM. If there is a major theme to the work it’s probably outer space. Honeybee has built a number of robotic instruments for the aerospace industry and they have the reputation of being very good at what they do. But neither Honeybee nor anyone else has ever built a robot that could work in such an inhospitable environment as the underground steam pipe system. It was clearly going to be an immense undertaking. For the next few months, I visited Honeybee regularly to attend design meetings and I brought with me a small portable digital camcorder.

Q: What were the early stages of the “W.I.S.O.R.” project like? What was the atmosphere like at Honeybee?

MN: Well, at first the design issues they were confronting with the W.I.S.O.R. appeared to be insurmountable. The steam grid is 103 miles of pipes with varying diameters. The steam is about 300 degrees F, pressurized and travels in excess of 100 MPH. To make things worse, the underground maps of the steam grid aren’t very reliable. The robot they were designing, though semiautonomous, would need to travel through sections of the steam grid from separate excavation sites. It would have to first find and inspect a joint or seam in the pipe, then clean the seam to prepare for a weld – it’s called milling. Then the robot would have to inflate a robust balloon to block the steam because water interferes with welding. Lastly, the robot would perform what’s called a structural weld, which is quite complicated. In essence, the robot would be doing preventive maintenance, strengthening joints in order to reduce the possibility of steam leaks in the future.

Q: The historic material regarding the steam system, how did you learn about that?
MN: I knew some of the pipes in the steam grid were very old, but it wasn’t until I discovered a book at the Con Edison library called Fifty Years of New York Steam Service, published in 1932, that I learned about it’s remarkable history. (I had already been filming the design and fabrication of the robot for many months).

The principal engineer of the steam system was Charles Emery, and he was a contemporary of Edison’s. They were inventing the city’s infrastructure before the Brooklyn Bridge was built. In a sense, their ideas were similar, and both visionary. They wanted to provide centralized utilities and power plants for a fast growing population. Of course Edison was digging up the streets to lay down what he called electric “tubes” and Emery was digging up the streets to build steam mains. Apparently they often worked side by side at night and even wrote about each other’s work in their diaries. They each felt the other’s project was more difficult.

As a utility, the New York Steam Corporation gained popularity slowly and was used primarily for commercial buildings – it still is. But you have to remember it was one of the first large-scale utility companies in the world and was very admired. Amazingly enough, the steam system also contributed to the feasibility of building skyscrapers because the space saved by avoiding the need for boilers and the simplified construction made skyscrapers affordable.

Q. How did you get the idea for making the W.I.S.O.R. a character in the film? Was it planned from the beginning?

MN: Not exactly. Like my other films, the project began in one place and ended up somewhere very different from what I anticipated. I allow the process of making the film to inspire many of the choices. I think about two years into the project, a very simple idea popped into my head – I’m telling a New York story that begins in the 19th century with the inventor Charles Emery, and it spans all the way into the 21st century with a robot named W.I.S.O.R. The breadth of the story was critical and the form and style of film needed to reflect that.

I decided to start the documentary with a formal tone, in the 19th century. Then gradually, as the W.I.S.O.R. was being built, I would allow the robot to take charge of the film and replace the conventional tone with a futuristic one. The storytelling, the editing, the photography and the music would follow the same transition. For instance, the structure of the latter third of the film is more like surfing the web than it is traditional film editing, as if traveling quickly and sometimes abruptly from one website to the next. One moment, the robo-welder is boasting about his super intelligence and the next moment the engineers are arguing about whether a baseball travels over the plate or the diamond. I don’t think the audience suspects that the film will make such dramatic shifts, but I like that.

Also, by the end of the film, the W.I.S.O.R. has appropriated the language and spirit of all the characters in the film. He borrows phrases from Charles Emery, Steve Gorevan and Roop. More importantly, he’s taking into the future the idea that if technology is used wisely, it can be benevolent. Earlier in the film, the 19th century engineer, Emery, says the same thing. So the idea of faith in science and mankind is being passed from one generation to the next. The film really is about having faith.

Q: Did the people from Honeybee see the film and how did they react to it?

MN: I think they liked the film a lot, and their reaction says a great deal about them. They certainly don’t fit the typical image of stuffy, uptight scientists. They’re brassy, opinionated, inventive and original. I spent a great deal of time at Honeybee – I shot and edited over a period of four years. I like the honey bees a great deal and it was fun making the film. It was stressful too because there were huge delays and problems with the robot. I’m sure they feared they might never finish the project, and I feared I might never finish my project about their project.

But I think we all discovered that building a robot and making a film share common ground. There’s a careful design phase, and then all hell breaks loose when you actually have to make the thing. As Charles Emery says, “Nothing ever works as planned. You need persistence and faith.”

Q: What’s happened to the robot? Is he at work?

MN: No, not yet. W.I.S.O.R., the 700-pound, eight-foot robo-welder is unemployed. There have been additional problems. The robot was delivered to Con Edison and the actual street tests have been delayed for a very long time. I think it’s due in part to the fact that Con Edison is going through the ordeal of deregulation. In the last several years, everything has changed for utility companies nationwide. In the case of Con Ed, I don’t think research and development projects like W.I.S.O.R. have top priority because they are restructuring their entire operation.

I think W.I.S.O.R. will go to work fairly soon, though at the moment he’s back at Honeybee going through some modifications. One thing about making documentaries is that it’s impossible to harness reality. I always envisioned W.I.S.O.R. being lowered into a real steam excavation and going off to work for the first time as being the last scene of the film. But finally one of the television companies involved in financing the project insisted I finish the film.

Interesting enough, Honeybee is working on a number of new, space-related projects. One very long-term project is designing a robotic geologist that will land on Mars a decade from now. The robot’s mission will be to dig a half-mile or so under the Martian surface and analyze rocks and minerals. The robot looks very much like a smaller version of W.I.S.O.R. but instead of inching its way through pipes, it will be digging and inching its way through Mars. So W.I.S.O.R.’s predictions about the future are accurate. Pretty cool.

Q: Is there anything else you would like to add about the making of the film?

MN: One of the reasons I make films is to pay homage to the past. While making W.I.S.O.R., I consulted one of my favorite directors, Robert Bresson; in particular a movie of his called A Man Condemned. The Bresson film is about a resistance fighter imprisoned during the German occupation of France in World War II. Bresson shows us with utter care and exactness how the prisoner escapes from his tiny cell. The film is methodical, understated and mesmerizing. The pace is studied and concentrated. Step by step, the audience watches the prisoner plan and execute his escape. The film is stark and very beautifully photographed. What’s most striking is how you gradually enter into the character’s state of mind simply through observation.

I wanted to blend the formal techniques I learned from watching Bresson’s films with contemporary experimentation. So I combined fact and fiction as well as playing with narrative expectations. Clearly, my film isn’t as focused and single-minded as A Man Escaped. It’s busy, there is a large ensemble cast, and new ideas get picked up and developed along the way. How the same film can contain a Victorian inventor and an artificially intelligent robot remains something of a mystery to me.

I think some people will celebrate the unorthodox spirit of the film and others will get distracted and lost. But maybe that’s just the inherent risk in giving form and content equal weight. It’s not that I don’t appreciate good old-fashioned story telling. It’s just that I felt this story begged for something more playful.

About the Filmmakers

Michel Negroponte (producer/director) is an Emmy award-winning filmmaker with such directing credits as Space Coast, Silver Valley, Jupiter’s Wife and No Accident. In 1995, Jupiter’s Wife was awarded a Special Jury Prize at the Sundance Film Festival and the Grand Prize for Best Feature Documentary at the Vancouver Film Festival and the Santa Barbara Film Festival. Originally shot on small format video, it premiered on HBO/Cinemax before going into a nationwide 35mm cinema release. Jupiter’s Wife was awarded an Emmy for Outstanding Individual Achievement in Documentary. In addition to his own work, he recently co-produced three other feature documentaries: Bookwars by Jason Rosette, Fastpitch by Jeremy Spear, and the Sundance award winner Children Underground by Edet Belzberg.

Tom Cross (editor) has worked as an editor and assistant editor in commercials, shorts, and features since graduating from SUNY Purchase. His assistant credits include Ang Lee’s Ride with the Devil and Paul Auster’s Lulu on the Bridge. More recently, he edited Clutch, a short film by director Robert Cosentino, Acne, a short film that screened at the 1997 Sundance Film Festival, and The Stream by Megan Warner. He is also editing Laura and Destiny, a documentary work-in-progress that is being filmed in LA.

Beo Morales and Carrie Giunta – a.k.a. Elephant Ears – (music and sound design) scored the award winning film Wax by David Blair, 24 Girls by Eva Brzeski and Home Page by Doug Block. They also collaborated with Michel Negroponte on Jupiter’s Wife and No Accident.

Gabriel Morgan (writer and researcher) is a freelance writer who collaborated with Michel Negroponte on both Jupiter’s Wife and No Accident. He co-wrote the novel African Bigmen and is currently at work on a screenplay set in contemporary Haiti.

Jane Weiner (producer) has produced and directed films both in the US and in Europe. She was the Executive Producer of No Accident by Michel Negroponte and Paris Dessous by Françoise Marie for the Arte theme evening Underground, which she created. She was also the co-producer of Jupiter’s Wife by Michel Negroponte and Silverlake Life: The View from Here by Tom Joslin and Peter Friedman and produced Home Page by Doug Block. Other Arte theme evenings she’s produced include Pain Is… by Stephen Dwoskin as well as Lost & Found, for which she produced two films and directed Caution! Pickpockets are Working in this Station. She is currently producing Ravi Shankar: A Bridge Between East and West directed by Mark Kidel.

About ITVS

In 2001, the Independent Television Service (ITVS) celebrates a decade of television for a change. ITVS will mark its 10th anniversary this summer with special screenings at film festivals and retrospectives at major museums, including the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art and a month-long retrospective at The Museum of Modern Art in New York (for a complete list of anniversary events, please log on to Public television stations around the country, including WNET and KQED, will also be saluting ITVS with special anniversary programming. In addition, a record number of ITVS productions – six – will premiere this summer on the PBS series P.O.V., including the recent Sundance Film Festival award winner, SCOUT’S HONOR.

Since its inception in 1991, programs produced by ITVS have transformed, reinvented and revitalized the relationship between the public and public television. From ground-breaking series like THE FARMER’S WIFE and AN AMERICAN LOVE STORY to specials including Emmy Award winners SING FASTER: THE STAGEHANDS’ RING CYCLE; SCHOOL PRAYER: A COMMUNITY AT WAR; GIRLS LIKE US and NOBODY’S BUSINESS, and Peabody Award-winners TRAVIS, A HEALTHY BABY GIRL, COMING OUT UNDER FIRE and THE GATE OF HEAVENLY PEACE, ITVS productions have dared to bring TV audiences face-to-face with the lives and concerns of their fellow Americans. In the process, ITVS has changed minds, opened hearts, inspired dialogue and brought viewers out of the box and into their communities and communities they might never have known about.


Nancy Fishman (415/356-8383 ext.231/
Wilson Ling (415/356-8383 ext. 231/