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Mythbustin’

 

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Talking with Mythbusters hosts Adam Savage and Jamie Hyneman is like trying to have a conversation with a packet of Pop Rocks.

Both of these witty men, despite the ridiculously early hour of the interview, bounce and sass with all the obvious appeal of two guys who are more than enamoured with their job. A job that (the day prior to talking to them for this story) had them working with scaffolding, cranes, explosives, and giant bins of water, among other things.

But since they’re currently on the road with one of their big and uber-cool tours, we figured what better time to chat them up about all things Mythbusters?
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For those of you unfamiliar with the Mythbusters programme, it’s a one-hour show on which Savage and Hyneman take a closer look at many pop culture urban legends and misconceptions both ancient and modern by staging authentic, often scientific, experiments that put those tales to the test. Former co-conspirators Grant Imahara, Kari Byron, and Tori Belleci are no longer part of the Mythbusters team now – they were somewhat unceremoniously dropped this past August after ten years with the show – but Savage and Hyneman, always the core, are moving forward, and are just as wildly popular as ever with geeks, science nerds, and fans of speculative experimentation.

Have you always wondered if dropping a penny from a tall building is as dangerous as you’ve heard? If the unaided human voice really can shatter glass? If duct tape can save  you on a deserted island? How you could survive a zombie attack? Or – in another universe – how much of Star Wars is actually plausible? Well, Jamie and Adam are definitely your go-to guys to get those answers.

And they’re not your average puppet-on-a-string hosts, either – far from it. Although Savage jokingly claims that he and Hyneman are nothing more than “… hired monkeys,” both men actually bring a broad wealth of experience to the show.

Savage began building his own toys at the age of five, later holding jobs in animation, carpentry, welding, and stage design. He quickly moved onward and upward to the film special effects industry, where he worked at LucasFilm and on such projects as Star Wars: Episodes I and II, Galaxy Quest, Terminator 3, and A.I.

Hyneman’s no slouch, either. A native of Indiana, he earned a degree in Russian languages and literature, and then ran a sailing/diving charter business in the Caribbean before moving over to movie visual effects, which saw him working for the likes of Colossal Pictures, Eon Productions, and the famed ILM (Industrial Light and Magic.)

It wasn’t long before Hyneman took over Colossal Pictures, turning it into his own M5 Industries, which contributed props and other effects for the aforementioned Star Wars movies as well as the Matrix sequels.

So when producer Peter Rees – who at the time was working on another Discovery Channel show called Beyond 2000 – came up with the idea for the show, he knew just who he was gonna call to become the Ghostbus… erhm, Mythbusters.

“Peter had worked for the Discovery Channel for about ten years, and he had thought about how to do a science show that was actually entertaining,” Savage explains. “He’d interviewed Jamie and I as part of Robot Wars way back in 1994, and he remembered Jamie and asked him if he’d be interested in hosting the show. Jamie said, ‘eh, maybe,’ and he called me up and I said, ‘yeah, sure.’ Everyone else showed up about three weeks later.”  And the show’s now been on the air for almost 12 years.

In addition to Savage and Hyneman – all monkey jokes aside – there’s actually a whole troop of people that help put the Mythbusters shows together, even as they’re downscaling a bit after the departure of their “Build Team” trio.

“Adam and I are, I suppose, a large part of the show,” Hyneman says with his typical understated approach. “But there is quite a production that’s behind us. We do have our input on story selection, but most of it goes through our researchers and through the production team.”

Savage agrees. “Yeah, most ‘myths’ are completed for the show within about four to seven days – but that doesn’t include the weeks of reference work that our team does.

They also take fan suggestions to consideration when looking for myths to bust.

“Actually, about 30 to 50 percent of our stories arrive through the fan site or emails,” Hyneman points out. “If we see one that stands out in particular, we’ll definitely send it through.”

And what kind of myths manage to snag the guys’ attention? Well – just about anything, really, although they’re both fans of the now-catchphrase “big boom,” in which they can explode things.  While they are partial to the thought processes behind the myths (“the most fun for me is the problem-solving,” Savage says, while Hyneman comments that “every day on this show is like mental acrobatics”), they also realise that the entertainment factor is a big part of what draws people to watch.

So myths involving rockets, fast-moving vehicles, things flying, anything that makes a huge mess, pyrotechnics, and yes – big boom! – are most popular.

“A good example is an email we got from Australia years ago,” Hyneman remembers, “where a farmer got a certain type of chemical, probably a fertiliser or pesticide, on his pants. In this case, he supposedly slapped his pants to clean his hands, and his pants exploded.”

The unusual nature of the tale coupled with the potential humorous setup – and, of course, the explosives – makes a story like that, as Hyneman says, “classic Mythbusters” – albeit to the dismay of the official Mythbusters test dummy, who soon developed his own personality and fan following.

“Yeah, poor Buster was missing huge chunks of rubber from his legs after that one,” Hyneman laughs.

But it’s not all about just blowing things up, especially in this more sensitive day and age.

“We don’t do the show for educational purposes, per se,” Hyneman continues, “but – for instance – one of the factors of the pants episode was that many explosives are actually made from a nitrogen-based fertiliser product. So there’s a distinct connection there, a base in reality. It’s interesting, and I think it’s one of the things that adds a little depth to the programme.”

Whether the myths are busted or not (the three options are ‘confirmed,’ ‘busted,’ or ‘plausible’), the process on the show is almost always as compelling to watch as finding out the result.

“Like we say, ‘failure is always an option,'” Savage laughs. “This is science, after all – so we’re not trying to get to any specific conclusion, just a conclusion.”

Many of those conclusions are drawing attention from more than just Discovery Channel viewers, as Hyneman explains.

“This isn’t something that we thought was going to happen, really, but now we’re being consulted by people at places like Sandia Labs, Lawrence Livermore, Oakridge National Labs, and even NASA. These types of organisations contact us because they’ve seen us get some results on the show that could be useful to them. Our data has been used for things like air marshal training and breathalyzer testing – we’re pretty proud of that.”

And most of those results are worked out right on the Mythbusters’ home turf, typically at Hyneman’s M5 Industries special effects workshop. But when the myth gets too big for M5’s hypothetical britches – or when they need a larger safety zone – the Mythbusters usually head out to the decommissioned Naval Air Station Alameda, or even the Mojave Desert.

“The show is usually shot completely in California, which is pretty amazing,” Savage muses. “Pretty much everything we need is within a 3-hour drive of San Francisco. We get to use a lot of the terrific industrial supply places that are nearby, plus the military bases, and of course we have the ability to have everything from clear water to desert to snow-covered terrain, all within a half-day away.”

Contrary to what Savage and Hyneman’s previous training might indicate, though, they don’t often get assistance from film pyrotechnicians. “They’re more oriented towards making something look like a big explosion, as opposed to actually creating one,” Hyneman explains. Instead, they rely on more serious resources to help blow things up.

“I put my money on the bomb squad,” Hyneman confirms, while Savage has his own favourite:  “It’s definitely fun when we get the FBI to help us out,” he grins.

Fun is a big part of the Mythbusters’ draw, which is probably why they’ve seen their popularly soar. Both hosts have appeared everywhere from the David Letterman show to NPR’s All Things Considered, Maker Faire to their own special lecture and exhibition Mythbusters tours. Even U.S. President Barack Obama made a special appearance on a  Mythbusters episode.  But both Savage and Hyneman have their own favourite episodes of the show, which may – or may not – be ones you’d expect.

“Adam absolutely loved the Alcatraz escape,” Hyneman says, “and I liked the JATO (Jet-Assisted Take-Off) rocket, where we put a rocket on a car and radio-controlled it from a helicopter – we got to attempt that one twice!”

These days, there are few things other than safety concerns that will prevent the Mythbusters from airing an episode – the sky is quite literally the limit. From Indy racecars to crab boats (a very cool tie in with fellow Discovery show Deadliest Catch), MacGyver to Pirates of the Caribbean, Coke and Mentos  to Hollywood car crashes – plus a healthy dose of duct tape – the mythbustin’ possibilities are – well, mostly – endless.

“If time and money and resources were no obstacle, we’d fly to the Moon and return with a piece of Apollo hardware to prove that we’ve been there before,” Savage laughs.     – Kristi Kates
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Keep up with the Mythbusters – if you can! – at their official Discovery Channel site. Their new season starts January 10, 2015.