Six questions for Jamie Hyneman of "Mythbusters"
Science superstars Jamie Hyneman and Adam Savage are taking their hit show "Mythbusters" on the road. Tomorrow night, their "Behind the Myths" tour arrives at the Milwaukee Theater with all of the sweet, slick science you'd expect from the show (sans the explosions, though, for obvious reasons).
Before they bust into Milwaukee, OnMilwaukee got a chance to talk to Hyneman and ask him about the show's most memorable myths.
OnMilwaukee.com: What is personally your favorite myth that you've done on the show?
Jamie Hyneman: Oddly enough, it's the same with Adam and I, and that would be the lead balloon. We're over 250 myths that we've done over 11 years. They're all different in their own right, and many of them have a special place in our hearts. But the thing about the lead balloon was that it specifically does not have any explosions or high-powered weapons or anything like that. What it required for us to do was such an exercise in completely internalizing a problem that was very difficult and overcoming it.
What it required us to do was visualize every second of the day that we were going to do the build before we actually did it. So when we actually did it, it was like we'd seen the future because we'd done such a good job of visualizing it, we'd been there before. It kind of highlights a lot of the things that we do on "Mythbusters."
Going through the process often requires you to exercise yourself so much in often unforeseen ways that it truly is an adventure. Just like the guy who climbs Mount Everest, it's not that the view is so good at the top; it's the process and what you see along the way and what you experience.
OMC: Was that also your most difficult myth you've done for the show?
JH: I would say no. We worked really hard at it, but it came together. As far as difficulty, I'd say the most difficult things are when something isn't coming together, and you have to struggle with them. It just comes down to a fight with the elements and what you're dealing with.
A story that comes to mind for that was the 22,000-foot fall, which required us to go up into the Yosemite area in California because we were going to use a lot of explosives, and we had to go way away from any civilization. We had planned on taking some large helium balloons and filling them to hoist Buster up into the air so we could drop him on a canister of 500 pounds of explosives. The story said that the blast actually saved the guy from his fall and cushioned his fall as he was coming down.
In that particular case, at that time, it was record heat in that area. A number of people had died from it, it was something 120 degrees. Buster was melting into the ground while we were trying to rig him. He just kind of turned into a gingerbread man as he kind of flattened out and melted, so we had to figure out how to deal with that. The latex balloons were becoming so affected by the heat that they became extremely fragile.
We ended up having to do the whole experiment starting at about two in the morning so we had it all rigged and ready to go before the heat would pick up. That's what I call a hard build. Sometimes things just don't come together the way that you want them to, and it just comes down to just hard work.
OMC: What is your favorite myth that you'll never be able to test on the show?
JH: There's one that comes to mind. I don't think we'll ever do it – I think we could – but whether we actually get around to doing it because of the difficulty is another thing. This is a story about an oxygen tanker truck that has an accident and dumps liquid oxygen all over an asphalt freeway, which then blows up because liquid oxygen, when you saturate something like a hydrocarbon or a petrochemical with it, it can become a high explosive.
We started to get into the story and tried it in small scale, and we had some very close calls as far as things going off and exploding unpredictably while we were around them. And what we were seeing was sometimes it would just burn or do something like that, and then other times, it would actually detonate like a high explosive.
Predicting when and where it would do one or the other was so difficult. If you dump 50 tons of liquid oxygen out onto a section of asphalt and it doesn't go off, who's going to go over there? How are you going to make it go off, or are you just going to waste thousands and thousands of dollars of it and allow it to evaporate? And then when it does evaporate, what does that mean? Is it going to stay together in a cloud and drift over the highway, which would be like putting all the cars on nitrous-injected boosters, and all of a sudden everybody on the freeway is traveling at 300 miles per hour out of control. You have to think about those things when you're playing around with those scales.
OMC: What was the most dangerous thing you've done so far?
JH: In the early days of "Mythbusters," we hadn't really wrapped our brains around some of the kinds of things we were going to be doing and what the procedures required were, in particular when it comes to dealing with explosives.
Typically, film productions – which we are – would employ a pyrotechnician to handle all of their explosives, so that's what we did in the early days. But the pyrotechnicians are generally doing things like taking a ball or bag of gunpowder and putting it between two jugs of gasoline, and you set off the gunpowder with a fuse, and you get a big fireball from the gasoline. That's what happens in almost 90 percent of the movies you see. It's a different thing when you're using high explosives. It's more like the thing was there, and then it wasn't.
So we had some close calls from working with them, and then we figured out we should be working with the bomb squad. That's the area that we live in, and that's the one they live in as well: unpredictable, highly dangerous situations with extremely powerful substances.
I would say the first situation that happened that pointed us in that direction was a thing with an ancient Hungarian cannon made out of a tree. It exploded, so we set that up. We had a pyro with us, and we asked him where we should be. He said, "Oh, I'm going to be 250 feet over there," so we said, "Well, we'll be 350 feet over there." That thing went off, and every piece of that tree cannon – which was chunks of wood maybe 80 pounds a piece, give or take – flew over our heads. That was kind of a wake up call, and that kind of thing has never happened again.
OMC: Do you think you'll ever go back to your film work?
JH: You know, anything is possible, but I've changed a lot since I've started doing "Mythbusters." My engineering and science skills have radically developed as a result of all of the exercise that I get in those areas on the show. So I would be more inclined to pursue employment in science or engineering types of activities. In fact, I'm constantly developing new products. I've worked with places like the Office of Naval Research on developing new types of armor to deflect blast pressures and that sort of thing.
I find that kind of work a lot more interesting and appealing than the kinds of things that we do for special effects, which are pretty much just for appearance's sake. Like I said, if we're working with explosives, it's probably more of a big fireball that doesn't actually do anything or if I'm working on designing a prop, it's more about how it looks. I will be futzing more with the color of the paint that's being used to satisfy the director or the client than things that are actually a lot more interesting and challenging to me.
OMC: Do you think you'll ever run out of myths?
JH: We take on a lot of things that aren't urban legends or myths per say. Basically, all we need is something that we find interesting or something that presents a question as to whether it's possible or not. If we're having a good time and really involved with what we're doing, then it tends to make for good television. We have a pretty free rein, and I hope that we'll never get to a point where, "Well, there's nothing left to do because there's nothing we find interesting anymore." But I don't see that happening.
More likely is that, we've already been on TV for 11 years; how long can you make any show last? It's more of a question of whether people will continue to watch it, even if it's really good material, if they already know our particular shtick. Plus, we're finding in general that long-running shows tend to get DVRed more, which makes it more difficult to garner ratings, which are based on premieres. Who knows how long we'll be on, but it may well have nothing to do with whether we run out of good material or not.
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