Inside 'MythBusters'


"Mythbusters" co-hosts Jamie Hyneman and Adam Savage. See more TV show pictures.
The Discovery Channel

Did you know that if you dropped a penny from the Empire State Building, it would penetrate someone's skull? Or that a daddy long-legs spider is the most venomous arachnid, but its fangs aren't large enough to pierce human skin? Or that if you swallowed Pop Rocks candy with soda, your stomach would explode?

While it's impossible to find out the origins of these and other urban myths, you can't argue that they don't get around. We've all heard them, from lightning striking a tongue piercing to cockroaches surviving a nuclear holocaust. And you can always bet that the person telling you heard it from a friend or relative of the actual source.

But not all urban myths are actually myths. If only someone could put some of these stories to the test and get to the truth of the matter. Enter "MythBusters." Every Wednesday night on Discovery Channel, hosts Adam Savage and Jamie Hyneman test the limits of human ingenuity and sometimes even their own bodies to get to the bottom of some of the most well-known urban myths. The cast is rounded out by the "build team" -- Kari Byron, Tory Belleci and Grant Imahara.

Over the course of 100 episodes since 2002, "MythBusters" has declared more than 300 myths confirmed, busted or plausible. (For the record, the above myths were all busted.) They've blown up, shot up and drowned everything from a hot water heater to a young fan's parent's car in the process. But "MythBusters" isn't all about destruction -- it's just a perk of the job. Jamie and Adam, along with their partners on the build team, use the scientific method to conduct controlled, albeit sometimes messy, experiments. The original idea was to have fun and educate -- to have science meet entertainment.

The business of busting myths has proven to be popular. "MythBusters" quickly became one of Discovery Channel's highest-rated shows with more than 10 million viewers tuning in worldwide every week. Each episode typically tackles between two and four myths, usually within a related topic. There are also themed episodes -- the "mega-movie" busts, the pirate show, a set of experiments based on the movie "Jaws" and the popular viewer's choice shows. "MythBusters" popularity even got Adam and Jamie a cameo on the hit forensics drama "CSI: Crime Scene Investigation."

In this article, we'll bust "MythBusters" wide open -- the team, the equipment they use and how the show is produced.

"MythBusters" Cast: Jamie and Adam

Jamie and Adam get cozy with "Buster" the crash test dummy.
Jamie and Adam get cozy with "Buster" the crash test dummy.
The Discovery Channel

You can call Jamie Hyneman and Adam Savage a lot of things -- model makers, prop builders, machinists or TV personalities. What they are in real life is what you see on camera -- curious, inventive thinkers with a little kid mixed in for good measure.

Adam Savage was born and raised by a filmmaker/painter father and psychotherapist mother. He worked as a child actor in TV commercials and music videos until he was a teenager. Since then, Adam has been an animator, toy designer, carpenter, graphic designer, projectionist, scenic painter, stage designer and welder. Little did he know that all of these jobs would one day aid him in his career as a MythBuster.

 

 

To make sure that he stays true to his personality on the show, Adam pretends the camera is his wife and he's telling her the details of his work day. This may be the reason that his quirky, humorous and sometimes mischievous personality so easily invites itself into living rooms each week. In his trademark black horn-rimmed glasses, red hair and goatee, Adam smacks of the guy you got paired with in science lab -- you didn't realize how cool he was until you got to know him.

Hyneman has worn quite a few hats in his life besides his signature beret. He's a master diver, wilderness survival expert, animal wrangler, chef and linguist. He holds a degree in Russian language and ran a diving and sailing expedition business in the Caribbean. You could certainly call him a jack of all trades, and maybe a master, too. After he moved from the Caribbean, Jamie worked in the visual effects industry, where he managed crews building models and crafting special effects for TV commercials and movies. Once he made his mark, Jamie opened up his own shop -- M5 Industries Inc.

 

MythBuster Jamie Hyneman drives his yellow surfboard/hover craft with fans attached to the front and rear of the board at Ocean Beach.
The Discovery Channel

 

Hyneman is a little quieter, the "straight man" to Adam's court jester. Jamie's uniform consists of a shaved head, the black beret, a white oxford button-down and wire-rimmed glasses. And of course there's the mustache. You can't describe Jamie without mentioning his large, walrus-style mustache. Jamie's deadpan personality and deep voice contradict his subtle sense of humor.

Jamie met his future co-host in 1993 when Adam was working in theater, building unique props for stage productions in the San Francisco Bay area. Jamie got word that Adam was someone he should meet. So they hooked up. Adam showed off some of his "toys," and they hit it off immediately. Jamie hired Adam to work with him as a model maker, and they went on to collaborate on more than 100 commercials.

 In 2002, producer Peter Rees came up with the idea for "MythBusters" and spent six months looking for a host. Rees had interviewed Jamie five years earlier about a robot he and Adam built for the original "Robot Wars" TV show. Jamie seemed like a good choice, so Rees called him up and asked if he'd be interested in hosting a new show that debunked myths with science experiments. Jamie's instinct was that he wasn't right for the part as a solo host, but suggested that he and Adam work as a team. The pair shot and edited a 14-minute audition tape for Rees, who uttered the words, "You're just the geeks we're looking for." The rest is myth busting history.

Grab your fire extinguisher and goggles and click forward to the next page where we'll learn about Kari, Tory and Grant.

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"MythBusters" Cast: Kari, Tory and Grant

The "MythBusters" build team -- Tory Belleci, Kari Byron and Grant Imahara
The "MythBusters" build team -- Tory Belleci, Kari Byron and Grant Imahara
The Discovery Channel

The lead busters may be Jamie and Adam, but they wouldn't be where they are without their build team.

A Bay-area native, Kari Byron graduated from San Francisco State University and traveled the world before beginning a career as a sculptor and painter. She also worked as a model maker and toy builder, which led her to M5. Her debut in one of the early episodes of "MythBusters" was slightly odd to say the least. It was for the myth that a sudden drop in an airplane's pressure could cause a vacuum effect and suction someone to the lavatory toilet. Jamie and Adam needed a model to make a realistic mold of the human backside for testing purposes and Kari stepped up. After that, she made sporadic appearances until her more visible role as a member of the on-camera camera team in the second season.

Tory Belleci is another San Francisco State graduate. He worked as a stage manager with Jamie after graduation, then got a job at director George Lucas' special effects company, Industrial Light and Magic ( ILM). At ILM, Tory built models for the first two "Star Wars" prequels, "The Phantom Menace" and "Attack of the Clones." After eight years at ILM, Tory met up with Jamie again at M5 and was hired to work behind the scenes on "MythBusters." Along with Kari, he became a part of the on-camera team during season two.

The final build team member is Grant Imahara. Grant is a Los Angeles native and USC graduate. He's billed as an electronics and radio-control specialist and his resume does nothing to disprove it -- he was one of the controllers for the R2-D2 model for "The Phantom Menace." While working at ILM as a model maker and animatronics engineer, he also worked on movies like "The Lost World: Jurassic Park," "Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines" and the last two "Matrix" films. Grant joined the "MythBusters" team in 2005 after an invitation from Jamie.

The build team has done everything from testing whether a snow plow could blow a passing car from the road (busted) to sending a school bus behind the path of a passenger jet engine to see if it could be blown off the ground (confirmed). Having such a cool job comes at a cost though -- just ask them about the water torture test. Tory and Kari both confirmed that having cold water dropped on your forehead would eventually make anyone talk (confirmed).

In the next section, we'll take a peek inside the "MythBusters" playground -- the M5 shop.

"MythBusters" Shop: M5 Industries

MythBuster Adam Savage performs the helium balloon stunt on Late Night with David Letterman.
MythBuster Adam Savage performs the helium balloon stunt on Late Night with David Letterman.
The Discovery Channel

MythBuster Jamie Hyneman started M5 Industries on his own before his career took a left turn at Discovery Channel, and he somehow manages to maintain it despite the breakneck shooting schedule he faces. The shop serves as the build zone and testing ground when the myth can be contained inside the warehouse walls. Many times, the gang has to go off-site in order to blow up or crash something large or dangerous, but the M5 parking lot has also seen its share of pyrotechnics.

At one point there were three buildings -- M5, M6 and M7. After disturbing some quieter neighbors in their industrial park, M6 closed shop, and now the more private M5 and M7 serve as the show's home. M5 is where Adam and Jamie get most of their work done, and it also houses the studio set where they begin and end each show. If some messy testing needs to go down, it happens at M7.

The M5 shop is packed to the gills with props from the 300-plus myths the gang has put to the test. Just don't try and find the original rocket car from the pilot episode -- Jamie sold that one after thinking "MythBusters" may not be in for a long run. Aside from being an unofficial "MythBusters" museum, M5 is a working shop, so there's virtually every kind of tool on the planet to help the team accomplish whatever they can dream up. There are metal lathes, a welding station and every kind of tool, nut, bolt, screw and material you could think of. There's an old card catalog full of small motors and a computer-controlled milling machine that does all the cutting automatically. There's also a cache of safety and rigging gear to make sure everyone walks away from each test unscathed. Throw in some crash test dummies, models and heavy machinery, and you have the means for some serious myth busting.

Jamie and Buster test whether or not punching a shark in the nose will send it swimming off (plausible.)
The Discovery Channel

In the next section, we'll pull back the safety screen and see what goes into making a "MythBusters" episode.

"MythBusters": Behind the Safety Screen

"MythBusters" host Jamie Hyneman and students from MIT try to sink a boat using Archimedes death ray (busted.)
"MythBusters" host Jamie Hyneman and students from MIT try to sink a boat using Archimedes death ray (busted.)
The Discovery Channel

Each "MythBusters" show is an hour long, and a lot of work by a lot of people goes into completing a 30-episode season. The show is distributed and broadcast all over the world by Discovery Channel, but the show itself is produced by an Australian company called Beyond Productions. Executive producer Dan Tapster oversees a crew that totals 45 people -- 25 that work on location in San Francisco with the remaining 20 in Sydney.

 

 

The shooting schedule is arranged a little bit like a year-round school system. They shoot for 10 to 11 weeks in a row then get a couple of weeks off, with additional break time in the summer. For each episode, the camera crew shoots about 25 hours of first unit tape with Sony XD high-definition cameras. This is the primary footage of the principal cast busting myths. The second unit camera team shoots another 30 hours of B-roll. This is the additional footage that fills out the episode -- time-lapse photography, shots that establish the locations and the numerous mini-cams that are mounted inside and around each test site. High-speed cameras are used to capture every test in super slow-motion.

How does it all come together? By fostering a highly collaborative atmosphere. Dan Tapster gets the ball rolling with a rough outline on how to approach an episode, and then the rest of the team joins in with ideas and suggestions in brainstorming sessions. Depending on the schedule and the level of difficulty, a myth can take from a couple of days to a month to plan. The most difficult myths are earmarked well in advanced to make sure the crew can pull it off. Jamie and Adam often play devil's advocate with each other to try and cover their bases. Finding holes in their ideas is a great way to identify and solve problems. While the tests themselves are a lot of fun to perform, the MythBusters admit that it's the brainstorming process that really gets their juices flowing. Most of the ideas for the myths come from the "MythBusters" team, but unlike any other show, roughly 25 percent of the story ideas actually come from curious viewers.

 

A camera rig on the original rocket car from season one of "MythBusters"
The Discovery Channel

 

If it feels like Jamie and Adam are natural and off-the-cuff, it's no accident. They improvise their own dialogue and pride themselves in really getting into each story. There's a research team that puts in a lot of hard work, but Jamie and Adam do a great deal of the research themselves -- after all, they're the ones responsible for busting and confirming every myth. Each show generally takes six to 10 days to film, but it varies depending on the complexity and schedule.

When you see the MythBusters crash trucks into each other or blow up cars in the pursuit of a bust, it may seem like their resources are unlimited. But the show does, in fact, need to stay on budget, and Jamie and Adam enjoy the challenge of doing something as simply and inexpensively as possible. In order to pull this off, the MythBusters require a lot of help from a wide variety of professionals and organizations. It was more difficult early on, but the show's popularity has gained them fans from all walks of life, and it seems like everyone wants to help the MythBusters. Everyone from weapons experts to the F.B.I. and U.S. Coast Guard has chipped in to help bust or confirm myths in the name of science.

For more information on urban myths and science, please stop mixing the ballistics gel and visit the links on the following page.

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More Great Links

Sources

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  • "Hyneman and the Bikini Babes from Beyond." joe-mammy.com, 2008. http://joe-mammy.com/pages/features/hyneman/hyneman-interview.htm
  • "MythBusters' Jamie Hyneman and Adam Savage." Interviewed by Koski, Genevieve. avclub.com, April 9, 2008. http://www.avclub.com/content/interview/mythbusters_jamie_hyneman_and
  • "MythBusters." discovery.com, 2008. http://dsc.discovery.com/fansites/mythbusters/mythbusters.html
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  • "San Francisco Treat." joe-mammy.com, 2008. http://joe-mammy.com/pages/features/kari-byron/kari-byron.htm
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  • Dubner, Stephen J. "The MythBusters Answer Your Questions." newyorktimes.com, October 25, 2007. http://freakonomics.blogs.nytimes.com/2007/10/25/the-mythbusters-answer-your-questions/