Mythbusters interview, part one

Fun & Games
Mythbusters interview, part one
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Adam Savage and Jamie Hyneman of Mythbusters were recently in Seattle for a live show – I got to hang out and ask them some questions before the show. I also passed on your suggestions – you guys were awesome, there were tons! They were great to interview; they’re not bored by each other or jaded, or full of themselves – they were both very gracious and excited about ideas and very curious about everything, which makes them fascinating people to talk to. Both have a great appreciation of what an incredible opportunity they have with this show, and they’re having an awesome time.

It’s a long interview and I’m posting it in two parts – part two will go up tomorrow morning. Make sure you click, there’s lots more behind the cut!

PS: How did you get started doing the show?

JH: Well, we’d both been working in effects for over a decade, for decades in my case, for almost as much for Adam, and some years ago an Australian documentary filmmaker had the idea to do a show about urban legends that did more than just talk about them, would actually have someone who could replicate them and he had the idea the people doing effect would be good at doing that because we build all sorts of crazy stuff for movies and television commercials.

AS: And one of the central ideas was that we’re not scientists, that it’s a couple of guys trying to figure out a problem in their garage type of approach.

JH: And that’s pretty much it. He had run into us years before on an unrelated story with us – it was to do with Robot Wars and BattleBots. There was a robot that we had built that was notorious; he’d interviewed us about that and later on remembered us. He approached me and I thought about it and was like, I can do this, but I didn’t think I could quite carry it myself, I needed someone who was more animated than I was to work with me, and it turned out to be a good call, because that’s how the show seems to work, this interplay between Adam and I is an important part of it. So I brought Adam in and we did a demo tape and it turns out that was basically what the show became; it was us playing around in the shop, setting things on fire and blowing things up.

AS: That was the demo reel, and if you watch it now, it’s shocking how much it looks almost exactly like the show – yeah, it was uncanny.

PS: So you guys had met through special effects?

AS: Yeah, Jamie had hired me to work in his shop around about 1993 or 1994, and I’d worked for him for a few years before moving up to ILM, to the toy business and other points.

JH: He eventually got sick of working for me, so he started working at other places. (Adam laughs) We’d kept in touch over the years, and occasionally we’d get involved in some crazy project or other, and when this came up, he was the first person who came to mind. He’s very fast and very animated about his work, and so the rest is history.

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PS: What did you guys do as kids that started you on this road?

AS: I took everything apart – I was a garage saling addict and garbage picking addict from when I was big enough to start carrying things home. If you start taking enough things apart, you start to learn how they go back together, you start understanding the structures involved. In my case, my father was an artist, a visual artist and painter, an animator, a filmmaker, and I was always encouraged to try whatever I wanted to try, in terms of creative outlet. My parents gave me a lot of latitude.

PS: Was there someone who helped you learn the technical side of things?

AS: I’ve strictly been on a learn-while-you-earn program. Every job has been an opportunity to figure something else out, and it took me a long time to realize that I wasn’t a dilettante at all these skills I had, that they could actually be put to use in their totality. I’m not an expert at anything that I’ve learned; I’m not a fantastic carpenter, or welder, or machinist, but I can do all of those things enough to build just about anything I want.

JH: In my case, I grew up on a farm, and had no particular inkling at the time at what was going to come later, but you pretty much can’t grow up on a farm without knowing what end of a screwdriver to use and being sort of “can-do”. That was me, other than being a little on the ornery side. I had no penchant for mechanical stuff or explosives or anything else, at least not any more than the average adolescent did at the time. Over the course of the rest of my life, I’ve ended up doing quite a variety of things, an unusual variety of things, in fact –

AS: As we were driving up here today in the car, Jamie was saying “I worked on a couple of the buildings here”.

JH: On quite a few of them, these skyscrapers downtown; I worked for a concrete testing lab, and so a lot of the concrete that was poured in Seattle, I was there on the job site, testing it and taking sample back to the lab and breaking them to make sure they were strong enough.


PS: You guys film in your (Jamie’s) special effects shop – is it all done in there?

AS: About 95% of what we do is out of Jamie’s shop. The other team, Kari, Grant and Tory, operate out of a shop called M7, which is about 5 minutes from M5. There was an M6, but it’s a terrible, terrible story. They run pretty much like a separate shop. Yeah, we’re able to do most of what we need within a couple of hours of the shop; in San Francisco, you’ve got pretty much every climate within half a day’s drive – snowy mountains, clear water, desert, high desert, low desert, whatever you want.

JH: And the thing that’s worthy of note about this shop, is that M7 has sort of a replica of it in a way, but the thing about M5, we’ve done in excess of 800 commercials and a couple dozen feature films there, and in shops like these, at least the way that I run things, we accumulate a lot of leftovers, so the character of what we do on the show in our builds is determined by previous projects that we’ve done. A lot of times, we’re just grabbing something off the shelf and making do with it. That kind of thing adds a certain flavor to the work that we do, it characterizes it a great deal more than you might realize watching the show.

AS: It’s almost like the materials that are in the shop, we both know them in such detail – and it’s a ridiculous, crazy, gargantuan amount of stuff – but we know it in such detail, that it’s not like you have to think of something and then design it in CAD and then go out and machine the parts and go to the hardware store and get what you need. Oftentimes, the pieces that we have inform the solution that we’re going to get to, and get us three quarters of the way there before we’ve even started, and that has a lovely elegance to it. I’ve always like to think of my shops – I’ve called them “possibility engines” because everything’s there, it’s more than just the tools, it’s the scraps that you save, and the pieces that you rescue and the things that you repurpose. We love taking things from old myths and rejiggering them and using them in new myths – there’s one piece of pipe I think we used on six separate episodes – we used it as a shark rammer, we used it as a cockpit, we used it as a rocket test bed platform, we used it as a –

JH: A bomb.

AS: A bomb. (they laugh)

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JH: That’s kind of where the train of change and uses stops, for obvious reasons. Now it’s recycled into raw steel somewhere, probably. There’s a lot more to these things than – we don’t have things built for us; it’s all about the process. A lot of people that go after building things, especially if they’re new at doing so, are just after the results. For us, it’s not about – the result is kind of a by-product, it’s something that’s the cherry on top of the ice cream or whatever, but it’s more about the process, it’s more about the experience itself, and we really enjoy that process. A lot of times the answers to these questions, the myths – who needs to know how to make a lead balloon? When are you going to use that? It’s never going to be practical, it’s almost impossible that it ever will be, but the process that we went through to figure out how to make that balloon fly, is just absolutely incredible. It teaches, it’s an adventure just like climbing a mountain or something – when you get to the top, it’s like, ok, well, that’s what it was all about, is getting to the top, supposedly, but once you get there, what are you going to do?

PS: Right, start walking back down.

JH: Yeah, you look around for a little bit and start walking back down. So the process is something to be savored and as we’ve said, a lot of the results, the whole experience is tailored by what you run across on the way, how the tools and materials you use, the things that you come up with because something just seemed to happen, and you take advantage of that.

PS: It’s neat, it’s such a good example of doing things, getting dirty – I worry about kids just watching video games.

JH: Exactly – that’s kind of where I was leading with this. CAD, for example, is a really valuable, wonderful tool, but if you don’t actually have any experience in the field with getting your hands dirty and actually building things, what you’re going to build in CAD is going to be severely limited, it’s going to be in many cases an empty shell or something that is inelegant in the way that it’s put together. When you combine the two, though, and think of CAD or computer-aided technologies in general as just another tool, then you have something that’s really powerful. And young people, I think it’s really important – and from my perspective, as I said, I had no particular aptitude or interest in doing what I’m doing when I was young, but I spent all my time outside, playing with things that were on hand. There were no such things as video games, and so I have a very strong sense of – I’m very grounded as a result of that. Both of us are; you know what you can do and what you can’t; reality is a great teacher.

AS: And we don’t mind having our intuition be wrong.

JH: Oh yeah, we’re wrong all the time. And that’s another point to be made, that also is something that you only get to by having practical, hands-on experience. We joke about it and say that failure is always an option, but actually, having failures in the process of actually building things is crucial. If you fail at something, unless you just ignore it, it’s implied that you’ve learned something in the process. If you don’t fail, then maybe you pat yourself on the back and say how great I am, but you didn’t learn a thing. You already knew how to do it.

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AS: (he’s been looking through the 50+ myth suggestions submitted by our most excellent Make blog readers) These are some great ideas. Taking a shotgun shell, removing the pellets, and replacing – this is something apparently two kids did – replace them with a piano string where they’d crimped a lead weight on each end. (they laugh) They apparently cut a telephone pole – they went halfway through a telephone pole before slinking away nervously. (laughter) That’s nice!

JH: Yeah.

AS: There’s some really good stuff in here. A motorcyclist slicing through a deer.

PS: My son and I were watching the pirate episode the other day, with the cannon and the pig.

JH: Yeah, chain, when it’s moving at supersonic speeds –

AS: That chain was diabolical.

JH: – is, like, horrifying.

PS: You guys are always like, don’t try this at home. Do you worry about people trying it at home? And you [Adam] having kids now, does it make you look at what you do differently?

AS: I think, give the fact that we’ve produced almost 150 hours of programming over 5 years now, the fact that we haven’t had anybody have a jackass moment by trying something we did on the show, I think that demonstrates that we have correctly illustrated that much of what we’re doing is impossibly dangerous. And that goes into the design of our experiments. If it’s remotely dangerous, we treat it as if it’s a bomb. We have bullet resistant glass, we put buildings between us and what’s about to happen, and sometimes – we often err on the side of caution, knowing that you don’t necessarily need the fire suit to light this candle, but, by demonstrating that we’re taking this seriously, I think it’s pretty clear that viewers have taken that to heart. And it’s funny, because we have a reputation equal parts of being totally reckless and keyed in on safety – you never know which someone is going to take away from it. There’s a lot of people who think we’re totally reckless, and I would point out that we enjoy pushing the envelope, but we do that safely. Neither of us is a daredevil in any way, neither of us is a big risk-taker. We’ll do what seem to be dangerous things, but only after we’ve thought all the way through them and understand all of the risks. One of the very first myths we did was Lawn Chair Larry and the balloons. When we first thinking about it, we thought it was really tough, we’ve got to hang it from a crane to be really safe, if we go to 100 feet, or do you do it over the water, and then we started to think through the problem and we realized it’s 55 balloons and one lawn chair – well, that’s distributed points of failure. So we put the 55 balloons in 10 clusters of 5, and we tied them all around the lawn chair, not to a single point of failure, but to 10 points of failure, which means that you’d have to have a catastrophic failure of more than half of the balloons just to sustain any injury. Because even if half of them failed, you’d only fall to earth weighing, like, 40 pounds. Once we’d understood and wrapped out heads around it, what we were doing was not very dangerous.

JH: And the other side of that coin is that it would be really sad if you couldn’t show something really interesting and valuable, fun stuff, out of fear that somebody’s going to hurt themselves. And we also go back to things like the movies, that are full of people that are shooting guns and so on; if someone happens to see that and starts shooting guns, you’re going to have no action movies? You’re not going to have any guns shown on TV? You’re not going to have anyone building anything that is at all risky, even if it’s safely done, for fear that somebody is going to take it and handle it wrong?

AS: And there are cases – there’s a story out there that I’ve been wanting to do called “knife versus gun”. It’s actually really quite fascinating – police are taught in training that, within a 22-foot radius, if they have a gun on their belt, and they’re confronted by an assailant who has a knife, they will lose. They’ve been taught that the knife will win, and there are people who can demonstrate this, that the amount of time it takes you to unclip, pull your gun out, take off the safety and fire, a guy with a knife can get to you if he’s within 22 feet. There’s a lot of people in law enforcement who would love us to demonstrate this, because it demonstrates “why did you shoot him if he had a knife” – it demonstrates clearly that you’re in mortal danger even when it looks like a very safe distance. But on the other side, we don’t necessarily want to air an episode that teaches people how to get to cops when they’re 22 feet away – this is a specialized skill, we don’t want to teach people how to do that. There are times with stories where we have to strike that balance.

PS: So “don’t bring a knife to a gun fight” isn’t so accurate.

AS: (laughs) Exactly.

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PS: We had a suggestion about this, and pt had asked this, too – can you do an episode that’s “try this at home”; can you share more? Make is all about “you don’t own it if you can’t open it” and do-it-yourself; can you put plans up for the projects you do, open it up more?

AS: We’re both very open-source oriented; we’ve had some wonderful interactions with both fans and advisors on the show in terms of getting better ideas for things we’ve tried, ideas for another way to tackle a myth that we’d already tackled. The problem for us is that making the show is such a breakneck pace, non-stop train hurtling down the track, that creating that ancillary material – there just isn’t time to do it. There are episodes that we’ve done that are full of stuff you can try: how to safely drop an egg from a building, Mentos and soda of course.

JH: Goldfish memory.

AS: Right, goldfish memory.

JH: We’re doing, soon to come, double-dipping. There’s a good example of something that, the reality is that the hunger that people have to try this at home is stuff that’s more exciting, and a lot of times there’s more potential hazard there. Stuff like double-dipping, someone is going to get some chips and bacterial medium and microscopes and things like that – yeah, you can do that, but they want to blow stuff up.

AS: There’s this other thing, people ask if there’s going to be a Mythbusters kid’s show. The most astonishing part of doing the show is the amount that we hear that it inspires kids.

PS: It is a kid’s show.

AS: We’re asked to speak at the California National Science Teachers Association, because science teachers are saying we’re revolutionizing the way they’re able to talk about science to kids because kids are actually interested. I have to say, if we’d set out to do that, we would have failed completely. The fact that we don’t have our eyes on that, honestly, I think it works because that’s not what we’re trying to do, and it reads as genuine to kids. It’s not like we’re talking down to them or telling them exactly how science works. And the part that I hope kids take away from it is the idea that everything we do involves proceeding methodically, basing each step on the previous data that you’ve gathered. That turns out to be the best way to figure out any problem and it also turns out to be the scientific method, and it’s built into the narrative of everything we do. That type of critical thinking is sorely lacking in the world. For us, I think that’s our core mission.

JH: You said, “it is a kid’s show”, we absolutely don’t look at it like that. We don’t make the distinction. There’s a certain adolescent fun attitude that we have about the way that we approach things – is that aimed at kids? Well, maybe it attracts kids, but it’s also something that a lot of adults could stand to have a lot more of. As far as the general approach that we have, we’re just doing what we find interesting, and we’re having fun. It happens to make good TV, based on the fact that we’ve been here doing this for six years now, and Discovery is happy with it. But we’re just having fun; if it teaches somebody something, or kids are learning, or adults are entertained or learning, well, gee, that’s great. (laughs) But that’s sort of a by-product, again, of us just following our curiosity.


AS: And don’t get me wrong, we often know that – we’re about to do “slipping on a banana peel”. And as we’re looking into slipping on a banana peel, we learn, as we’re looking through the research, that there’s two types of friction that you can test for: static and dynamic. You can do really simple tests to demonstrate these things. We realized, this is great, we’ve never tried doing static and dynamic friction tests, but we can do them, and it’s a great way to demonstrate that you can figure out dynamic and static friction coefficients of stuff in your house with something that takes half an hour to build.

JH: Or not. Like our first test –

AS: Our first test is Jamie standing on a pair of banana peels while I drag him through the shop like waterskiing.

JH: The simplest and most elegant thing you could do was – we start out with a rope, Adam tries to pull me, and he’s really yanking and I’m not going anywhere. I step on a couple of banana peels carefully, and you practically could have sent me all the way across the shop with a good shove, much less towing.

AS: We’re going to finish that one off with a really excellent and messy challenge, and I’ll stop there. (they laugh)

PS: When I say it’s a kid’s show, I don’t mean it’s only a kid’s show. I mean it appeals to smart, curious people, including kids.

JH: Yeah, and that might happen to be kids and that might happen to be adults; we’d like to make a really strong point about that, but we’re not focused on that – the best entertainment and humor, and everything else, is going to be universal. If you look at the cartoons that are tailored for kids versus the cartoons like old Looney Tunes stuff –

AS: Like the Simpsons, plays on every level.

PS: Bullwinkle.

JH: Yeah. All that stuff is incredibly more rich than “somebody’s” idea of what’s appropriate for children. The only thing that we do to tailor that is, on occasion, some of the material is constricted if it’s themed adult material or something. We can’t swear, we can’t – we did one thing that was supposed to be called “Polishing a turd” –

AS: Polishing a turd – we use the phrase in special effects to mean a model that’s ugly that you’ve still got to complete – it’s used in a lot of different industries. Unfortunately, Standards and Practices wouldn’t let us say “turd”. So yeah, we had a lot of fun with it. (laughs) There’s a lot of bleeps in the episode.

JH: But the end result, it’s amazing what we were –

AS: Don’t give it away –

JH: Yeah, I can’t give it away, but the results of that are really not what we thought.

AS: We ended up miles from where we started.

PS: When will that air?

AS: We just saw the rough cut recently, so that might air before the end of the year.

PS: I do a lot of the poo and fart stuff on the blog.

AS: (laughs) Our parent company, Beyond Productions, when they first had a web presence, they said “put your science questions here”, and apparently, the most popular they got was “why is poo brown?” Our most requested myth for years was “can you light your own farts?”

JH: Both of those things are classic, it points out that science and clear thinking can go anywhere. Sometimes we’re blowing stuff up or dealing with weapons or dangerous things, but in both of our minds, when we think of the more standout things that we’ve done on the show –

AS: They’re often the less spectacular.

JH: Yeah.

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PS: How old are your kids?

AS: Twin nine-year-old boys. They’ve actually just turned a corner; the best part is they get more like people every day. They’ve just turned a corner where they’ve become more their own people. I just took them to the bookstore the other day and I wandered around for 45 minutes and didn’t have to worry about them yanking crap off the shelves, it’s really cool.

PS: My younger son is 14 and he’s just hit this point where he’s giving me a hard time, teasing me about stuff, and it’s really fun. You start getting more into a person relationship instead of just a parent relationship. He does fund-raisers at school for charity; he does a duck sale every year – I’ve brought you two pirate ducks from him; we watched the pirate episode the other day.

AS: That goes with your collection, Jamie.

PS: You have a duck collection?

JH: No! (they laugh)

AS: It’s a particular passion of mine, to spread as much misinformation about Jamie as is humanly possible. It’s an endless fount of incongruous facts about Jamie.

JH: It also has a double impact because the real truth about Jamie’s background is actually about as odd and unusual as anything that Adam could invent.

AS: I’m just adding to it.

JH: Yeah, the lines are blurred.

PS: How weird is it to be famous?

AS: It’s pretty weird. One of the things that I think you benefit from, on a show like ours, it’s not like a soap opera, where people project onto us, we’re not characters. I don’t know what it’s like for someone who plays a villain in the movies to go out into the world, but we don’t have to deal with that kind of stuff. What you see on the show really is pretty much what you get – it’s cleaned up, and the funny parts edited in. So when people like the show, and they tell us out in the world, they’re responding to who we are. And 99% of the time, that interaction is a really nice one; you can’t complain about people wanting to tell you that they like your work.

JH: Both of us are happy that we’re both – we have identities, we’re fairly grounded outside of the show, we competent at what we were doing before the show, so our perspective on celebrity, as it were, is for the most part realistic.

AS: It’s ephemeral, it’s going to go away, it’s not necessarily a reflection that we’re like, totally awesome all the time; we’re just people like anybody else. For two people who like to watch how things work, on the other side, it is a fascinating window on to why some people can’t handle it; the perceived lack of privacy, or even just the mental calisthenics you go through – it’s a window on to why some people go crazy. I can totally see – I would not have been able to deal with this in any kind of balanced fashion when I was 20.

JH: We know that 99% of what that celebrity is, is due to Discovery having marketed us. There are tons of people all over the place that have skills that are on par with ours or more, and they’re not world celebrities – this is all a marketing thing. It’s enhanced by the fact that we actually do have some skills, but there is nothing that is really that extraordinary there. Add a little weird facial hair and a funny hat on it, and people remember you a little bit more maybe, but the rest of it is all about that advertising.

PS: I told a friend of mine that I was going to do this interview, and she emailed me all these questions about your hat – it was really funny, she asked, does he have a whole bunch of different hats that all look the same, would he ever consider wearing another kind of hat, what would happen if he lost his hat?

AS: He used to wear a different kind of hat.

PS: Would he let viewers vote on what kind of hat to change to?

JH: (Laughs) Yeah, it’s always amazed me that we’ll go to someplace like MIT and do a talk like we’re about to do tonight, and there are these world-class engineering students there, and what do they ask? Questions about the stupid hat. I’m like “Don’t you have anything better to ask about?”

AS: Says the man who wears it all the time.

JH: I was wearing it before the show and I’ll be wearing it after.

AS: Yeah, I know, and people thought you were a little weird before the show.

JH: Maybe I am. (they laugh)


PS: Do you ever get really mad at each other?

AS: Yes, absolutely. It can be a contentious – there’s a lot riding on what we do, and we both feel very strongly about it. It makes for often – it makes for confrontations. We aren’t worried about hurting each other’s feelings, which actually is great for a business partnership. I think we communicate quite well, despite the fact that we often disagree about things. Honestly, we do often disagree about how things ought to move forward, how we ought to go, but on major critical issues that involve the pair of us moving forward, doing various things with Mythbusters and whatever we do, we’re almost always in complete alignment, which is unceasingly surprising to both of us.

JH: It’s also a point of pride, I think, both when we come down to engineering questions or problem-solving questions, that when we start to butt heads about some particular thing that we’re working on, when there’s something that comes up that is the right answer to that, it’s a point of pride that if one of us has taken one side, the other one’s going to do a backflip and not think twice about it, with no ego. And it pretty much holds true to personal conflicts as well.

AS: And if it’s six of one and half a dozen of the other, often the one that feels more strongly about how to proceed, that’s the way we’ll do it. People ask how we decide who does what – there’s never contention about who builds this, or tries this, or is the subject of this, because one of us almost always has a greater interest than the other in trying this. And we do often think, which will be funnier. Which one of us having it happen to them, will it be funnier to watch. (to Jamie) There is coffee in there, and it’s actually pretty good coffee.

JH: I would think so!

AS: It’s frickin’ Seattle!

(The rest of the interview will be posted tomorrow morning.)

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6 thoughts on “Mythbusters interview, part one

  1. Simon says:

    Nice interview! Very interesting stuff. I especially like when they are talking about making things for the process of making, not just for the end result. As someone who makes odd things that’s the hardest thing I find to explain to people. That and how I come up with the ideas.

    Looking forward to part 2!


  2. Gareth Branwyn says:

    I finally a chance to read these interviews. Nice job, Patti!

  3. Patti Schiendelman says:

    Thanks, it was fun!

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