ASUCI followed up last year’s lecture by education icon Bill Nye with a visit last Wednesday from Adam Savage and Jamie Hyneman, the two primary hosts of the Discovery Channel’s “MythBusters.”
The New University was able to score an interview with Savage and Hyneman before they took the stage in front of a crowd of 927 UC Irvine students, staff and faculty.
New University: So why did you decide to come to UCI?
Adam Savage: We had pared back a lot of college appearances over the last few years, [especially during] the last year or so, simply because schedules had gotten very tight. But UCI is local, so for us we’re able to work after lunch and we’ll be back tomorrow before the day begins; it’s nice and quick. We miss the college things and a lot of them tend to be on the East Coast and yeah, that’s some of our favorite stuff from the science and tech-oriented schools.
New U: Where did you guys go to college? Was it anything like the science environment here?
Jamie Hyneman: I went to Indiana University and I have a degree in Russian Language and Literature. I’d say, I mean, in that it’s a college and all, there are some similarities, but beyond that, probably not.
Savage: I spent six months at [New York University] studying drama and that’s it (laughs).
New U: Do you have any advice to people who want to get into special effects? You guys didn’t really take the university route.
Hyneman: While we got our start into what we were doing through special effects, we don’t consider what we do now special effects and are much happier with it. The special effects world has been increasingly dominated with special effect, and it’s night and day between that and what we normally do.
Just in that we’re all about hands-on, working with different materials and processes. The process of creating computer-generated effects pretty much involves a person sitting at a computer. That, for us, is a different world and has its pluses as far as the fact that it’s not what we were into and it’s not that much in the way of career opportunities for people doing what we’ve cut our teeth [on] in this industry.
Savage: That being said, I’ve got a lot of friends who started out as physical model makers who are working with [computer graphics (CG)] and all the same capacities, from construction to design to actually painting. I have a whole bunch of friends who paint the real models who now paint them digitally, literally with a lot of the same kind of tools, except you know, they’re airbrushing and applying textures.
And in general, for the reasons we were sought out at the beginning of the “MythBusters” [talent search] that made us good candidates for doing the show are the same things that make a good special effects artist. People that we’ve had the most fun working with are the ones who try and know the most about everything that they can; I mean they’re just really a field of polymaths and people who know about what they’re working on but they know about a lot of stuff that’s on all sides of what they’re working on. It makes the work much more contextual.
New U: Is the trend to CG a loss in your art?
Hyneman: In many ways, it is. Adam’s right, and to the credit of people who do CG work, they realize that skills acquired by traditional special effects people make for good fodder for computer-generated effects; but it’s a loss of a lot of knowledge that’s decades of development of animatronics and special make-up and all kinds of effects that now have gone away. Interestingly, this area or the [Los Angeles] part of the world is pretty much the only place left, just because there’s so much to do with filmmaking done here; so if you do want a job [in special effects], this is the place to do it. We got our start in San Francisco and had some spin-offs from the Lucas film, “Star Wars,” a long time ago and there were a lot of businesses that sprang out of that and we used the same talent pool. [Los Angeles] is the last holdout.
New U: Is this show affected by this reduction?
Hyneman: We take a certain amount of joy and pride in applying our skills to what we do on “MythBusters,” but what occupies our thoughts and time more is science-based, and even though we’re not trained or educated as scientists it just turns out that if you want to get the job done, as in being methodical and diligent while trying to figure something out, that’s science. So that’s what we do.
New U: How did your image of the show go from concept to what it is today?
Savage: Well, we were brought on as talent; the show was not our idea. The original concept for the show was [for] a three-host show, where there would be a hot chick doing the interviews traveling around the country and talking at the camera about the myths in question and she’d have a couple of guys back in the shop who’d be building and testing the various experiments to confirm or deny the myths she was coming up with. When we slipped in our demo reel, they decided to change the format of the show because they’d realized we could do both: we could be on-camera and be the builders at the same time. The big difference that’s happened over the seven years we’ve been doing the show is a much greater stake in the ownership of the show, and I don’t mean financially, but intellectually.
When we started out, we were finding our way and working with the producer. As we’ve always done, we learned while we were on the job. At this point, seven years and 165-some odd hours later, we’re producing the majority of the content of the show ourselves coming out of ideas that we’re having: we’re driving the narratives, we’re driving the angles that we’re choosing in terms of which directions the stories are going. Honestly, at this point we’re having more fun than we’ve ever been having before. These episodes that we’re currently airing are among the strongest we’ve ever done.
Hyneman: Or at least they have our strongest stamp on them. This show’s about a lot more than urban legends, obviously. We kind of use that as a format or an excuse for us to mess around with things, and it’s a fertile field to mind. The fact is, what excites us most and a lot of what I think makes the show work is the passion for exploration and experimentation and that’s what we do. I take a certain amount of joy in the tangents where [we] run across something that’s interesting. And that’s not the normal TV formula. It’s nothing necessarily where we do urban legends: We do movie myths, some historical things, what’s the word for it … aphorisms …
Hyneman: Idiomatic phrases. And they’re not urban legends, but who else has tried to find a needle in a haystack?
Savage: We did slipping on a banana peel … we’ve mostly done thought experiments lately. We’ve got one, kind of: There’s a physics lab experiment that you can swim as fast in syrup as you can in water, the theory being that the decrease in forward momentum by the heavier liquid is actually offset by the increase in push you get off the heavier liquid. In order to test this we got a pair of excavators and dug a pair of 75-foot long troughs and one was filled with water and the other filled with heavy, goopy syrup and we went swimming.
Hyneman: Shooting fish in a barrel, I mean, where’s the urban legend? It involved large quantities of ammo and all sorts of crazy stuff, which was just a lot of fun. That also is a good example of what is an unexpected bonus of taking these tangents … what we found in our experimentation is that it wasn’t necessarily the bullet that you had to worry about, but the shockwave created in the water alone from the bullet … was enough to kill the fish in a barrel. That’s interesting science. You wouldn’t necessarily get there just by wondering if that would happen. You get there by actually experimenting with it and then noticing [the] surprising result. It has nothing to do with necessarily the gist of a story of whether the bullet would actually be able to reach its target.
New U: Have you guys been able to find more leeway to do this as the show has progressed? You don’t just solve the myth, but go on tangents often.
Savage: Absolutely, we have lots more new ideas. We understood after a couple years that the driving thing that people really connect with in the show is our enthusiasm, and we take that really seriously. We don’t set out to teach a lesson in science, we’re on to explore something we’re curious about. We understand and take seriously the narrative that there’s a scientific method to be followed and that method grids nicely on top of a proper narrative arc, and that makes for an interesting episode
Hyneman: We have to follow some sort of a storyline; otherwise it’d be “Jackass.” One of the original concepts, actually, was “Jackass” meets Mr. Science. Where we’ve ended up on that continuum, I don’t know, but there’s method to the madness.
New U: If students wanted to get in on this, would you suggest they continue this education of the theoretical or jump in headfirst and do hands-on like you guys?
Hyneman: I think both.
Savage: Hands-on beats the theoretical.
Hyneman: Yeah, there’s a different kind of experience or understanding of the world that you have when you have actual experience with it. That’s, in my way of putting it, when you have your own blood smeared over your tools.
It’s different than just reading a book. You understand and are able to internalize the dynamics of what is going on in a given situation much more thoroughly than if you were just doing theoretical stuff on paper.
You’re also going to be very limited with what you can manifest in the real world if you don’t have the theory work on the other end and on paper as well. I think the tendency, especially in an academic environment, is [that] it’s a lot easier to sit in front of your computer or to read a book than to stick your neck out and actually try to do something.
Another thing that seems to make this show really well is we show how [with] a little creativity and ingenuity you actually can build things really just [by] using common sense. We use everyday materials [to] do what we do and it doesn’t require some specialized machinery or specialized skills even, just determination, and just to get into it and make it happen.
New U: Where do you envision the show going now that you have more creative control over what happens?
Hyneman: Well, it’s kind of gone wherever. We’ve got stuff that’s out of this world that we’re in the middle of…
Savage: We’re about 120 myths ahead of ourselves currently; I’d say 70 of those are really, really strong. We’ve got ones we can’t believe we didn’t think of, like those evasion methods in secret agent cars like oil slicks, smoke screens, tacks … Imagine Jamie and I in an abandoned neighborhood trying to evade the other one by letting these things go. Everything from that to, you know, trying to make the world’s first human-powered helicopter.
Hyneman: We’re in the middle of putting square wheels on a vehicle to see how fast you have to go before it smoothes out.
Savage: It’s right up there with the concrete airplane and lead balloon. (laughs)
Hyneman: The other one is, you’ll have to see to understand it, is called, “It’s All Relative,” where we play with relative velocities.
Savage: And canceling energies.
New U: Thanks so much for taking the time with us, we really appreciate it and for coming to UCI.
Savage: No problem, we’re really excited.