Q&A: 'MythBusters' Jamie Hyneman and Adam Savage get personal
"MythBusters" hosts Jamie Hyneman and Adam Savage are traveling the continent with a live spinoff of their long-running television show, which subjects to their junkyard brand of scientific testing urban legends, tales from history, old saws, stuff you see in the movies, and anything else people think they know when they don't think too hard about it. (The show, "MythBusters: Behind the Myths," passed through L.A.'s Nokia Theatre on Sunday -- Margaret Gray's Times review is here -- and is at the Fox Performing Arts Center in Riverside Wednesday night).
Heroes of 21st century DIY culture, they count among their famous fans late-night TV host Craig Ferguson, whose sidekick Geoff Peterson is a robot built by "Build Team" Mythbuster Grant Imahara, and President Obama, who appeared on the show in 2010 to offer a "viewer's challenge." Just before they hit the road, I spoke to them by phone for a Culture Monster Q&A focusing on "Behind the Myths." Here is some more of that conversation.
What originally brought you to the West Coast and San Francisco?
Jamie Hyneman: I came out here well over 20 years ago. I had gotten my start in special effects in New York and wanted to do larger things in movies. "Star Wars" had acquired quite a bit of momentum in the Bay Area; there were a number of companies doing high-end special effects, and so I sought that out.
Adam Savage: I had a brother that lived in San Francisco. I visited him in the late '80s and decided I wanted to live here someday. And then in 1990 a friend asked me to come be his roommate and I've never looked back.
One of the reasons I moved out was I was doing a lot of sculpture at the time, and I wasn't sure what I wanted to do. And when you're not sure what you want to do, New York is a very terrible place to be. And San Francisco is a fantastic place to be. Because New York is all about ambition -- which is wonderful and yields a fantastic culture -- and San Francisco is all about exploration, where you can try anything. And if you're where I was in the early '90s, talented but without a lot of ambition, it was a great place to try my hand at everything. And I think the fact that both Jamie and I have spent our lives trying our hand at everything that interested us, and found forums and careers that engendered that, lined us up uniquely to be hosts of this show.
I started out as an actor -- I did all the high school plays and studied acting privately and then at NYU for a brief period of time -- and when I first moved to San Francisco I paid my rent for several years in theater. "MythBusters" brought these two halves of myself together, the maker of things and the performer.
JH: That's an interesting question. Surprisingly, while Adam and I have a great many differences in our personalities, which is evident from watching the show, we tend to come at things from a very similar mindset. I got into this line of work in the '80s but the kinds of hands-on inventiveness required by these kinds of special effects, it's something universal to us. There are a number of us who, because of the changing times, wound up in computer-generated effects and moved away from traditional ones. But Adam and I, among others, hung on to actually building things instead of sitting in front of a computer monitor all our lives. We're very fortunate that "MythBusters" came along: It's allowed us to take that outlook and ability and bring it into areas other than just doing special effects for film.
AS: We both really got into the business, Jamie a few years before me, at the end of an era, the era of the big shops, the big hands-on special effects shops. And what makes those shops really flow are polymaths, people who are interested in a little bit of everything and getting their hands dirty in every process they can think of. Film is full of specialists, but it's the generalists that make special effects companies run smoothly. Jamie and I are serial skill collectors; we're masters of almost none of the skills we possess, but each of them, I like to say, becomes an arrow in our quiver.
And the skills you have are less important than your mindset. I did learn early on that my desire to always think about the big picture made me more valuable than the guy sitting next to me, because I understood where my piece would fit in. And if the art director gave me an instruction that didn't work for the overall story, I would point that out and solve a problem that hadn't been recognized as a problem. And that increased my value and got me more work.
JH: I grew up on a farm, I ran a diving charter business, a sailing charter business in the Caribbean, I've done a number of different things and always looked at special effects work as another means of earning a living that involved the lifestyle I considered important: being able to deal with anything that came up, physically, to have the skill and the ability to make just anything happen -- if you have the idea you have the thing. If you have a problem you can fix it. These are things I would think anybody should aspire to in these days of specialization. If you are too specialized and don't branch out, you're helpless when things aren't lined up exactly the way that they need to be for your specialty. It's what underlies a good liberal arts education, where a wide range of knowledge makes you better able to deal even with an area of specialty, because you're able to think outside the box.
Are you self-taught in science? Is it knowledge gained through experience?
JH: It is. I think for both of us, the science thing we put out there is a direct result of experiences gained on "MythBusters." We're just very intent on finding answers to problems or getting the job done, whatever it is that we're facing. And if we are going to do a good job, we have to be methodical about it -- and that's all that science is. It's being careful and detail-oriented and methodical about solving a problem. And it's a profound thing to put out there, because it says that science is not just for people in lab coats -- it's something that affects every one of us every day, and is a common sense practical tool that you can use, and should use, to understand your life, and adapt.
Is there a "MythBusters" segment that's especially important to you?
AS: There are different categories. There are things that we get to do that are really, really fun, that we can't believe that we get to do -- could be stunt driving, could be feeding octopuses, could be jumping out of planes or being in zero gravity -- and then there are episodes that illustrate the mindset of the show, and we what love about doing it. In that case, I think that "Lead Balloon" stands out for both of us as a real pinnacle: We built a 14-foot diameter floating helium balloon out of 28 pounds of lead, and no one's ever done that before -- or since. It's a pointless thing to do, but the problems that needed to be solved were difficult, myriad and required a lot of thinking and a lot of discussion and arguing back and forth, and the episode really shows all of that. And then, finally, there are the episodes where I think we really did do some genuinely excellent science, like "Bullets Fired Up" -- we did a story about whether bullets fired up will kill you when they come down, and we significantly, in the two weeks we had to film our episode, expanded the field of knowledge on the aerodynamics and the physics of bullets falling through the air. I'm really proud of that.
Do you see a growing respect for the sciences -- and not just science, but practical engineering -- since you began? In other parts of the culture, nerds are no longer marginal; they've moved to the center of the story.
JH: Definitely. You can see things going in a number of different ways. When we were kids we were outside all the time, with tree forts and everything else, where now it's more iPhones and video games and things like like that, which goes against the hands-on, can-do kind of stuff we put out there. On the other hand, there's this whole thing with geek culture now, and the maker attitude, where hacking can mean hacking your bicycle or something physical. We definitely are seeing an increase in the DIY. culture. It's no longer just the football quarterback that is the hero of the society, but people who are known for using their brains, for being creative or inventing things, and making things happen.
Has "MythBusters" played a part in this? The show's been on for nine years now, long enough for people who watched you as kids to have gone through college.
JH: Oh definitely. I can't count the number of times I've had somebody come up to me who was in grade school when they first started watching the show and they've gone through some level of higher education, chosen careers and become successful in those careers, and done so as a direct result of interests they acquired watching us on television. We've also been told that engineering schools have been inclined to put a lot more emphasis on practical ability -- in other words, you can't get an engineering degree just by doing stuff on paper.
AS: "MythBusters" came of age at this perfect moment, and it really does have to do with the DIY movement. I don't think we've created it by any stretch, but we've augmented it and it's happened right alongside of us. I do think we're at this very interesting time -- I sort of think about it in terms of '50s car culture. Cars for the longest time were these expensive commodities that specialists worked on, but come the '50s there came this culture of hacking your own car, goosing it up, improving it in various small ways. And cars ceased to become these esoteric things that no one understood and became things people could really get their hands dirty playing with. And the DIY culture is doing that, except this time on a deeper level, with electronics and computers -- so it's not just building big machines, it's also programming them, and giving them brains. It's absolutely a wonderful movement to watch.
JH: You can even look at things like "Iron Man": The hero of the story had the ability to work not only physically with materials but with the software and everything else. This guy was a tinkerer and was able to do it himself.
Do you think all the digital effects in movies and video games nowadays can create a false sense of how physics work in the real world?
AS: I don't think people need that to have a false sense of physics and what's possible. If you read any of the gaming forums on new games like "Call of Duty," the physics rendering engines are one of the key things people talk about; at the high levels of video gaming there's a tremendously sophisticated discussion going on about matching reality. I do think that with the advent of CG in films there's a lot of bad physics that can often be attributed to poor animation or limited time and money. But I don't think that it's exclusively digital technology that foments that: I think people like simple stories that make the world clearer to them -- the engine of all urban legends is that it sounds like a good story and sounds kind of feasible. Which is exactly what makes them a good thing for us to test, and makes it entertaining to find out the actual truth.
What was it like working with the president?
AS: Kind of amazing. First of all, our total amount of time with him was, I think, 13 minutes from start to finish and that also included taking pictures with us and our crew. He was the very picture of professional, he knew all of his lines and he really understood the show. We were totally honored to be tapped by him as progenitors of scientific thinking, of getting kids inspired by science. We totally believe in that mission, even though it was not something we set out to do when we started doing this show. So yeah, in every way working in the White House was surreal and fantastic.
JH: Obama could not have been nicer. We could not be more appreciative of his interest in encouraging science and math education. As he said, given all of the stuff, the wars, and the internal politics and the economy, there's probably nothing that he will have had his hand in that's more important than encouraging science, engineering and math education in young people in the United States. And we're 100% behind that.
Photo: Jamie Hyneman and Adam Savage. Credit: Discovery Channel