MythBusters‘ Adam Savage Talks Tech, Obsessions, and Science

When he’s not blowing things up, making models, or otherwise holding the job you wish you had, Adam Savage is serious about personal projects. We chatted with him about MythBusters, managing time, and other geeky stuff. Photo by ensceptico.

Savage was raised by a father who worked as a painter, filmmaker, and animator, and a psychotherapist mother. In his own career, Savage has worked as a graphic designer, carpenter, stage designer, toy crafter, welder, and, since 1993, special-effects consultant for the film industriy, including stints with the Star Wars prequels, Terminator 3, and the Matrix sequels.

But you probably know him best from MythBusters, which takes those legends you’ve had Re:Fwd:Fwd’ed to you, stuck in your memory from school, or otherwise circulating around the realms of science and puts the screws to them—quite literally, sometimes. Savage and co-host Jamie Hyneman, along with a three-person “build team,” tear into and explain all sorts of scientific and maker-friendly topics on the show, but always with a mind for safety and education.

We spoke with Savage by phone last week, and the edited (mostly for length and clarity) transcript follows:

Lifehacker: We noticed that you occasionally like to drop into MetaFilter and a few other places around the web. Where do you like to spend time online, when you have it?

Adam Savage: There’s a lot of places, though Twitter has become one of my favourites. I know I shouldn’t say this, but, when it comes to a lot of sites, I do some self-filtering. On the show site, the Discovery forums, or anywhere that’s writing about (MythBusters), I don’t ever read any of the comments sections.

Lifehacker: I could guess why, but, why?

Adam Savage: While 90 percent of what is up there is positive, every now and then, someone posts something just nasty. And it can actually interrupt what works for me as the flow of the show … Someone in a comment once pointed out all my verbal tics in certain episodes. We were filming a week later, and I found myself editing myself ahead of time while I was talking to the camera. Why am I doing that, to prove one anonymous person wrong? A friend of mine has this tactic of, whenever someone says something intentionally difficult during a conversation, he’ll say, “You have something in your teeth.” That pretty much kills any aggressiveness that was going, and I guess I wish we had that ability online … Stuff like that is the reason I find myself gravitating toward Twitter.

Lifehacker: Why that platform, in particular?

Adam Savage: It’s just an idealised version of the comments section. It moves quickly, you’re engaged in this ongoing dialog, this general conversation between the show and the fans that I’m really enjoying.

Lifehacker: What’s your preferred computer platform? Well, to start, Mac or PC?

Adam Savage: Mac, 100 percent. I made a Tweet the other day, because someone had sent me an Excel document, I grabbed it and opened it, and watched my home machine just burn and grind trying to open it with Excel. So, I sent out, “Oh, Microsoft, is there anything you CAN do?” It’s ridiculous. I learned about OpenOffice through Twitter, and it just amazes me. On my Mac, a super-fast 17″ laptop, a video editor takes less time and power to run than an Office product.

… My main browser stays Camino. I like it, it suits me better than most things … and, yeah, it’s really fast. Every once in a while, like 1 out of 80 pages, it will have trouble with something, but it’s no big thing to jump over to Safari in those rare cases.

Lifehacker: Really? No Firefox extensions have tempted you away?

Adam Savage: I haven’t really gotten into any of that extension stuff. I haven’t even really spent the time to learn the Gmail shortcuts. As I’m cruising through 70 to 80 emails a day, I’m seeing a lot of information out there, but only occasionally learning a new piece that I really want to adapt to.

… There end up being places where I’m completely involved in adjusting my interface. My Mac desktop, for instance, I hardly ever see it. The programs I’ve always got open, Adobe Bridge, Camino, and Stickies, they’re constantly open. Adobe Bridge is the most vital management tool I have. I collect a whole lot of stuff, download it, combine it, create smaller temporary files. The desktop becomes the repository, and Bridge is how I get through all of it.

Lifehacker: What does a typical work day schedule look like for you?

Adam Savage: I have split custody with twin 10-year-old boys that I have every other week. Those weeks, I’m up at 6:30 or 7 to see them off, and then I’m usually at work about a half-hour early, to adjust to any show emails or other things. That’s also when I try to kick out any personal stuff or projects. Jamie and I also have a production manager who oversees our time for stuff that’s extracurricular to actual MythBusters shooting …

We shoot MythBusters nine hours a day, five days a week. You hear stories about Hollywood shows going for 14-hour days, but Jamie and I realised early on that we can’t work that way, and a regular schedule was really important.

Lifehacker: It’s probably a matter of safety, too. I wouldn’t want to be tired doing some of the stuff you do on the show.

Adam Savage: We take those kinds of factors very seriously. When we know we’re going to do something on the show that requires real attention, we don’t put too much before it. Your brain gets real spongy after that amount of work. Keeping regular hours ends up being totally critical to the quality and flow of the show … and the other thing for me is the twin boys. I made a personal commitment to myself, and for them. I have the odd business trip or two, and I travel a tremendous amount, but it really hasn’t cut into my family time.

Lifehacker: How do you plan out a season of MythBusters? How much can you plan ahead, and how much space do you leave yourself to explore stuff you hadn’t anticipated?

Adam Savage: The flow of the season happens very much like the flow of an episode. We’ll plot out a straight line through an episode, or a season, then it changes radically, constantly. The story list for the next full season, for example, had 60 stories. That came from a master list of about 130, 140 items, from which we’ll choose 60. As we film that season, we’ll end up following maybe 40 of those, but then 20 new items come up during shooting. All it takes is one more news story for me to realise how I could dig into something.

… There’s also room for totally random stuff. Jamie came up with this idea of proving you could build a working ship out of wood pulp and water, during the Alaska episode. What we built was stupendous, and what we built wasn’t on anybody’s list. It normally takes about 9 or 10 days to finish a story, but we try to be flexible. We find a story sometimes we just don’t want to sink our teeth into or, more often, need to give more juice to. We had one thing, duct tape, slotted as a three-day story, but we realised that is not
a small story. We can turn on the idea that duct tape can do almost anything. So we turned out this episode that takes duct tape to the absolute edge of its performance capabilities.

Lifehacker: Like whether it can really cure warts?

Adam Savage: Ooh, no, we didn’t, but that’s a good one.

Lifehacker: One of the things that’s unique about the show is the failures, or at least the things that don’t turn out the way you guys seemed to plan it. You’ll be firing stuff into ballistics gel and, halfway through an episode, realise your first theory on something is just completely dead. It seems like everything else on TV is just so determined to deliver exactly what everyone expects.

Adam Savage: Right. One of my favourite parts of this show is that it’s an accurate depiction of how (experiments) are going. That said, we are aware that we’re telling a story, but … We were doing this myth out at Fort Mason. We’d made all these plans to perform an experiment in this specific way, we spent a full day of prep to get this experiment working in this specific fashion. Then we realised that the whole thing we’re trying to show would be visible in the high-speed camera anyways. So we ended up with an entirely different direction to take.

Does that mean a lot of the show is shaped in the editing room?

Adam Savage: Well, you should know that Jamie and I don’t have a direct hand in editing. For a typical episode, we’ll deliver 25-30 hours of footage from as many as 16 different cameras … You might notice that the show now, as opposed to earlier seasons, includes more talking to the camera directly. That’s partly because the editors would get all this footage, but we haven’t made it exactly clear what we were doing. What we get back after sending it off is a first version that’s extremely long, and then the production team has to make the hard decisions. We get a bit more involved with the rough cut before it goes to Discovery, where we can point out bits of science to include, say that things aren’t properly highlighted, advocate for a particular sequence. Then you get the responses, which explain what else has to be sacrificed to fit things in.

Lifehacker: What kinds of pet projects do you have going on at home, or on the side?

Adam Savage: I’m constantly doing little pod projects. I did a series of talks, culminating in a speech you can see on the TED web site (Note: Embedded below) about my obsession with the Maltese Falcon … about how I wanted to make a perfect one, and how I find diving into the extreme details of something like that very rewarding.

Note: Savage’s EG Conference talk also reveals a bit about his work flow and thought collection processes, and how he stocks his “CREATIVE PROJECTS” folder for the future.

Lifehacker: How so?

Adam Savage: It’s the same thing I love about model making, when I worked in the film industry. There’s a narrative going on with any object, and the object only really works if the narrative has some veracity to it. There isn’t a model maker in the world who’s created a space ship that couldn’t tell you, at least on a rough level, why all those parts and details are there, what they do, and the stories of how they got there.

… Things like owning my own Time Bandits map. Or a leather bullwhip, which I built myself because I couldn’t afford one. I always have a couple of projects going, some I’ve been working on for a couple of weeks, maybe a year, or sometimes 10 years going after I started them. My time on the internet, my time to myself, I always spend some of it doing research on everything I need to know about whatever it is I’m working on. If I’m making something, it almost always includes making two of them, start to finish, because you always learn during the first try that now you really know what you need for the full thing. It’s a self-imposed sissyphean task, I know, trying to get everything in, but it’s a hugely satisfying thing.

… One of the ways (Jamie and I) work so well together is that we’re the same way about projects—we have to get what we need to know to get going. Once I’ve got a piece of furniture really in my head, cutting up the pieces of wood to make it is trivial. But until it’s in my head, it’s just grueling. We’ve often said this, but if you measure our adrenaline levels throughout filming an episode, we’re often far more excited while researching and planning a big thing then when we’re on set and actually doing it.

Lifehacker: What can we look for in the new season?

Adam Savage: The new season’s going to be phenomenal. We did a two-hour disaster special, where we actually took on the bus turn from the movie Speed, which involved me and Jamie getting to do some terrible things to a full-size bus. The one we were doing out at Fort Mason … One of my favourite (experiment) categories over the past couple of years has been thought experiments. Things like, if a plane is on a conveyor belt, will it take off? One of those we hadn’t tackled yet was, if you drop a bullet, and fire a bullet, from the exact same height, at the exact same time, they will both hit the ground at the exact same time.

Lifehacker: That’s a classic of 11th-grade physics.

Adam Savage: Yeah, except the fired bullet is however many thousands of feet away. This is something I’ve been wanting to do for years. Last year, during a story discussion, Jamie and I hammered out a way to do it in full scale, and, last week, we tried it out. I’m not going to tell you how it turns out, but I can guarantee you, nobody else has ever wasted their time trying to get the shot that we’ve got.

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