Transcendental Problem-Solving

Transcendental Problem-Solving
Talking shop: Adam Savage in the MythBusters machine shop at M5 Industries in San Francisco: “This is my favorite room in the building; I love the precision here.”

MAKE projects editor Paul Spinrad caught up with Adam Savage in San Francisco during production of MythBusters’ ninth season. Earlier that day, Savage had found a local source for industrial quantities of citric acid, which he and co-host Jamie Hyneman needed to determine whether Alka-Seltzer and water could produce enough pressure to break out of a jail cell.

Paul Spinrad: How did you get started making things as a kid?

Adam Savage: As I said in my welcome to this issue, my father was a painter, which gave me a real advantage. We’d see him paint a background, and it would have all this life to it, and he’d look at it and exhale sharply in a kind of silent whistle. As kids, it was a great thing for us to see him get excited about. When I wanted a race car for my teddy bear, he actually made one for me out of fiberglass. He made a chicken-wire frame and laid fiberglass over it.

PS: Wow — in the 70s that was cutting edge!

AS: Polyester, man, no epoxy back then. It smelled really bad. He sanded it, painted it, it was gorgeous. I loved that car, also knowing that he made it. My dad also helped me make a suit of armor out of tin when I was 13 for Halloween. We cut the pieces up with tinsnips and then fastened them together with rivets. Pop rivets — what a great technology! I wore the suit to high school and passed out from heat exhaustion.

When I wanted to make something, my dad said OK, here’s the scissors and the mat board and the masking tape. So I made a lot of things out of cardboard.

One day, I must have been maybe 13 or 14, I made a life-sized man out of cardboard. And that was the first transcendent moment for me, where I felt a release from all the cares of the world into the mental process of thinking through this project. At one point I stopped and went to my mom in the kitchen, and I told her something like, “I just want you to know that at 5:04 p.m. on this day, I am truly happy.” I was being a bit dramatic, but I still remember that feeling so vividly. It was real joy. And the cardboard man sat out in front of my parent’s house for a couple of years.

Another time, I found a refrigerator box after school and was pushing it home. This tough kid Peter came up to me and said, “This is my box.” And I said, “No no no no no.” So we had a push fight. I pushed him and he backed up and he said, “Didn’t move me! Didn’t move me!” I pushed him again, and I don’t remember exactly how it played out, but he went away. I used that box to make a spaceship for an 8mm movie that my friends Paul Caro and Eric Pack were shooting. We even stop-motion animated an explosion. They tried to hold perfectly still in the shot while I pulled out like 2 feet of yarn to be the laser blast and then uncrumpled this explosion burst shape that I cut out of paper. I never saw the footage!

After that, I ended up moving the spaceship into our guest bedroom closet, which was like 4 feet wide by 12 feet deep. For the back wall of the closet I painted some cardboard black, punched some holes in it, and put a light underneath to make a star field. I put the cockpit about 4 feet back from there, so it was like you were looking out into space. It was so much fun making that environment and getting in there!

PS: So much learning comes from doing things that you enjoy, experiencing that feeling. And you’ve also talked about how failures stay with you, when you feel you’ve let people down. It’s interesting how first-hand experiences guide you in a way that explanations and lectures never can.

AS: Right. When I was 19 or 20, I was bouncing around apartments in New York, living alone for the first time. I got this free apartment in Brooklyn, where the landlord was a collector of my dad’s paintings. I set up a little studio space there for making sculptures. I was lonely, but creatively it was a fertile couple of years for me.

I remember another transcendent moment from that time. I was making a piece that was like a phone from Hell. I glued all this stuff to a normal phone, making it like something from the movie Brazil. I decided to paint it in black and yellow stripes, but with all the tubes all over it, I had to spend an hour just masking. I worked on it until like 2 or 3 in the morning, totally getting into the zen of doing this thing, while this terrible Roddy McDowall movie was on TV.

Around that same time, while taking the subway home from my friend David’s house, I started writing what I called “The Manifesto.”

It’s 15 pages of furiously scrawled notes, and I remember looking up from my notebook once and seeing some guy on the subway looking at me like, what the heck is he writing? The Manifesto is basically my realization that being creative is like seeing your way above the clouds, to borrow terminology from Ram Dass. It’s like seeking spiritual enlightenment. The real transcendent feelings you get are few and far between, but they keep you going to the next one. The cruel joke is, they get harder to get to, because you always have to go deeper. You know more about yourself, and you want more out of what you’re doing, so you get better at it. The result is that everything you do well is the result of personal risk-taking and exploration.

PS: Doing something you already know how to do isn’t going to get you there.

AS: Yes, and I don’t think there’s any separation between someone who’s an excellent banker and someone who’s a terrific painter. It all comes from the same emotions. I see creative endeavors as problem solving: you give yourself a problem, and while you’re solving it you realize that you’re miles from where you thought you were going to be. There are no concrete guidelines that can help you. You just learn how to dance with the thing that you’re doing.

I think a lot of people get frustrated when what they start to make doesn’t look like what they were thinking. The trick is, it’s never, ever gonna look like what you pictured in your head. As

Diane Arbus said, “I have never taken a picture I’ve intended; they’re always better or worse.”

PS: I think there are two frames. One is where there’s a right answer, or you want to meet specifications, and you’re successful if the result is how you imagined it ahead of time. And the other is, this is a process, I don’t know where it’s going, but I’m going to enjoy it and let it unfold.

AS: You can build things to meet expectation, like for a job, but the most creative work is when the material shows you something unexpected, or you get new ideas as you’re working. There’s a book that I love called Interviews with Francis Bacon: The Brutality of Fact by David Sylvester. It’s a phenomenal book, and I don’t know anyone else I’ve read in modern criticism that talks about things like Truth and Reality as terms of art that makes sense. Bacon describes painting as a process where you attempt to represent something, and this is true whether you’re a representational painter or abstract or whatever.

And you always fail, but what you end up with is just as real as the original. A great portrait has a personality of its own, a vitality, and any artist will tell you that their best work changes every year. I look at favorite sculptures I’ve done years later and think, “How did I know how to do that?”

PS: One thing I’ll notice while making things is long periods of time when no words go through my head. I just think on the level of what’s in front of me, bypassing all symbols, which is grounding. It anchors you to reality. “Be here now.”

AS: I see it as a form of meditation. Making things is a great form of escape, particularly in one’s own shop. The radio’s playing, you’re making something that’s good, and it works.

It’s incredibly relaxing and satisfying.

My favorite part is first getting my head around something, so that I understand it. I start out going, how the heck are we going to make a lead balloon? Then I think, we’ve got to spread the load, spread the force, do this, do this, all those things. Or when I’m making props that I like, the meditation I get into is, how do I make it really tight? How do I make this into something that

I really want to have in my home?

I got into prop making after I moved to San Francisco in 1990. For my first three or four years here I focused on serious sculpture. I got some good press, had some shows, sold some pieces, and then I found my way into special effects, which I had tried to break into before. But this time I was actually in the right place. I found I was good at it, and I wanted to put all of my creative faculties into it. So I gradually stopped making sculpture, at least in the fine art sense. I can only do one thing at a time.

I was working at Industrial Light and Magic when I started participating in the Replica Prop Forum [], which I still visit almost every day. It’s the central hub for a vast community of replica prop builders. There’s an R2-D2 builders club, a C-3PO builders club, B-9 from Lost in Space, Robbie the Robot, the Dalek, plus costumes, scale models, paper props, and so on. I’ve posted lots of information to the RPF and I do lots of research there.

For example, there’s been a great recent discussion thread about the Farnsworth Communicator, an alternative-history handheld videophone from the TV series Warehouse 13. Someone posted screenshots of it from their HD recording of the show. Someone else then takes measurements off the screen and says, OK, this looks like this part from Digi-Key. Then someone else says here’s one that’s slightly better, and everyone starts comparing them. Then people started creating and sharing graphics files. This thread is 55 pages long, with 115 comments to date, and pictures on almost every one. I’m not interested in making this prop myself, but I went through the discussion and was like, oh my god!

And then there are the prop collectors who pay lots of money for original props and they want the only one, or at least they want to control who makes accurate replicas. So some replica makers get information that they can’t reveal.

I myself have secretly distributed specifications to a couple of prop builders’ groups based on information I had access to at the time. I won’t say which forums, but I was supplying measurements, and the people who ran the forum just explained that the source was rock-solid, but they could not reveal who it was.

PS: There should be a declassify date for this kind of information!

AS: With some of the Star Wars props, people know so much that it gets to the point of absurdity, like, “The scope rings on that Han Solo blaster are incorrect; they should actually be r “narrower!” And there are different philosophies. For example, the R2-D2 builders club now has sufficient detail to make a perfect R2-D2 — literally better than anything that ILM has: all aluminum, all remote control, everything. And there’s a conflict in the club over how dirty and beat-up to make your R2-D2. The real thing is pretty crunchy. It’s a piece of junk that’s been reglued together many times on set. But some guys build these pristine R2-D2s, even though it’s never been seen in the movies like that.

After ILM, I stopped working in special effects and started working for a toy company. The owner turned out to be Michael Joaquin Grey, who’s an amazing sculptor; he recently had a show at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. One time I told Michael that although I wasn’t doing sculpture, I never wanted to say, “I used to do sculpture.” And Michael said, “Come on, you’re making your own R2-D2. What do you call that?”

PS: I was just going to ask that. I mean, art is called art because people agree to call it that. They agree that it has special value, and it’s relevant to the culture. And that’s exactly what happens in the replica prop community.

AS: Yes, but that’s more blue-collar. It would have to be classified as outsider art. One of Michael’s earliest pieces, which he got a lot of attention for, was a perfect 1-to-1 scale model of Sputnik. He called it My Sputnik, and I loved that so much that the first time I made a Maltese Falcon, from the classic movie, I called it My Maltese Falcon.

What separates Michael’s Sputnik from my Maltese Falcon or R2-D2 is that he brings a different context to it. As an established sculptor, he opens it up to a broader cultural discussion with the world. It might be said that I’m creating the same kinds of objects, but I’m thinking how cool it would be to have my own droid.

I’m finding that the places where these communities come together and define themselves are the cons: Worldcon, Comic-Con, Dragon*Con. That’s where many people who collaborate remotely finally meet in person.

I’ve got friends from the RPF I’ve worked with for years but have never seen a picture of, and they’ll fly out to one of the cons and spend a weekend with me. I’m so enthusiastic about the whole experience. I’m going to Dragon*Con over Labor Day, and I’ve got my costume all set up. I’m looking forward to it!

Wearing costumes is another transcendent experience for me: putting together something that’s lovely, a character that I like. I’m also a little embarrassed about it, but therein lies the thing, you know?

PS: Where does the embarrassment come from?

AS: Well, adults dressing up is weird. There are times on MythBusters where I surprise people by walking out in a costume that I’ve been planning for a while, and then I’m embarrassed at how much I’m enjoying it and how juvenile it is.

We did a show recently where I jump off a building. I don’t want to tell you the myth, but during my training for the jump I wore a sweatsuit that said “Trainee.” At graduation, I thought that if I’m going to be jumping off a building on high-speed camera, I should be dressed like Neo from The Matrix. So I got some knee-high, buckle-up boots from a fetish store on Haight Street, bought a long coat on eBay, got some jeans with a climbing harness on like he had.

And when I walked out, I could tell from the crew there was a little bit of, “Oh, here’s Adam wearing one of his costumes again.” And I felt a little embarrassed, but I also knew that jumping off a building in this thing was gonna be awesome. As soon as we saw the high-speed shots, with my coat flowing back behind me, my director turned to me and said, “You were so right about that outfit. This is a monster of a high-speed shot.” Here, I have a shot, I’ll show you.

PS: Oh yeah, that’s perfect, totally Neo.

AS: But I’m wearing my own hat. In these situations I remind myself what I’m doing is universal. I’m enjoying myself. I’m pretty honest with the camera, and the person I am comes across, which is a skill in itself. With that skill, I want to inspire kids to be confident that they can do what they want and not worry about embarrassment.

I think that’s a lovely message.

That’s one of the reasons that I tweet so much about going to the cons and putting on costumes, about making stuff and being proud and excited about the stuff that I make. I think it reflects a universal truth that people will identify with. It’s one of the things that I’ve got to give.

PS: I think of enthusiasm as the opposite of coolness, and adolescence is a turning point for this. Children are all enthusiastic, they love what they’re into and that’s it. But then something happens, and suddenly some of the kids start looking down on that enthusiasm and seeing it as immature or dorky. So they invent coolness as an alternative. I always gravitated away from that because I was interested in too many things.

AS: Yes, and enthusiasm also makes you vulnerable. When you like something, someone can take it away from you. I once gave a sculpture to some friends as a wedding present, and they turned it down. That was really upsetting to me. And that vulnerability itself is also embarrassing. The two emotions are deeply linked, which is why people try not to cry in public.

PS: Growing up, what were some of your main cultural influences?

AS: A lot of Mad magazine, movies like Star Wars and Raiders of the Lost Ark, Fangoria and other movie magazines. Fangoria always had something about homemade projects, homemade horror films. I remember I took a lot of magic books out of the library.

PS: Yes, me too. Why do you think magic becomes so important at that age? What’s going on, in terms of learning the shape of the world?

AS: In The Liars’ Club, Mary Karr writes that the first time you tell a lie and get away with it is the first time your adulthood steps through you. That is when you realize that your parents are not invincible. And there’s nothing more powerful or lonelier.

Magic is also a way of learning how to capture someone else’s attention. I’ve been playing with it more lately. Performing magic starts with the trick itself, but it’s more about maintaining a tension in the audience between the possible and the impossible. A good magician would never tell you that something they do is truly impossible.

PS: That’s it. I remember the same time I got into magic, I loved Ripley’s Believe It or Not! and The Guinness Book of World Records. Looking back, I don’t think I was necessarily amazed by all the records, but I did want to learn where the edge was between possible and impossible. It was very educational to learn that, OK, people can’t be more than about 1,200 pounds. That helps you build your model of the world.

AS: But the Guinness Book we had when we were kids is very different from the one my kids have access to. Now it’s a big, glossy volume, not the little paperback with impossibly small type and dark photos of things like Largest Goiter.

PS: As a dad, what’s your take on education these days? I think our system pressures kids toward learning things that are abstract and symbolic, and of course more standardizable.

AS: You mean as opposed to the things like drama club and the shop classes? Yes, and when education budgets are cut, those are the things that fall by the wayside — all the things that are the most fun. For me, the shop classes, art classes, and especially the drama club were absolutely critical.

This past summer I sent the kids to different camps, including acting camp and rock ’n’ roll school. They got exposed to such interesting people doing interesting things, and I wish they could get that in school at least once a week.

The main thing is, you want teachers who are interested in their subjects. Those were my best teachers. I recently took my kids to a skate shop because they needed some new parts for their skateboards, and they got into this deep conversation with the guy behind the counter, in this whole language about skate parks and people who skate, and all this stuff that I don’t know. It was lovely watching them absorb it all.

There are always arguments about what school should be for, if it isn’t just state-sponsored babysitting, and we always wind up thinking of the most utilitarian thing, what’s the bare minimum we can do. But in utilitarian terms, the only really viable thing I got out of 12 years of education was typing. Kids are told that they have to sing on key, but what we should really be showing them is how to enjoy singing, and the on-key stuff will happen later.

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Paul Spinrad is a broad-spectrum enthusiast, writer, maker, and dad who lives in San Francisco. He hatches schemes at

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