.Super Maker

Adam Savage, star of 'MythBusters,' has built a career out of building his fantasies

MAN & MACHINE: On ‘Savage Builds,’ Adam Savage’s new TV show, he uses a massive 3D printer to fabricate a real-life Iron Man suit. Photo by Mark Dubeau

Far more than an emcee presiding over a series of fiery explosions, the man of all berserk trades, Adam Savage, is a frequent guest at Silicon Valley Comic Con.

A San Franciscan with a self-described “cave” of a workplace in The Mission, Savage is known to many as the co-host of MythBusters—the long-running Discovery Channel program dedicated to flamboyant, and often flammable, science and tech experiments.

MythBusters aired its final episode in March 2016, and Savage now has a new show on the Discovery Inc. network’s Science Channel. Savage Builds gives the host a chance to take deeper dives with some of his favorite builders. Unlike MythBusters, which split various experiments into multiple segments across a single episode, Savage will focus on one ambitious project per episode. Generally speaking, Savage re-creates a fictitious or failed weapon.

In the debut, Savage showed how an Iron Man suit could be built with 3D printed titanium. To make it fly, he took lessons from Gravity Industries’ Richard Browning, who has created a jet pack that uses 5,000 HP of thrust, and which takes a certain amount of acrobatic discipline to keep upright. In other episodes, Savage teams with Lord of the Rings trilogy director Peter Jackson to refit WWI fighter planes, and seeks out the aid of Gary Oldman in developing a working version of the flame-throwing, rocket-launching gat his evil character Zorg wielded in The Fifth Element.

A particularly intimidating build involves re-creating an experimental World War II-era weapon known as the Panjandrum, or “Wheel of Death.” Wing Commander C.R. Finch-Noyes’ bunker-buster was intended to be deployed on D-Day but never survived the testing stage. This mechanical suicide bomber was made of a large explosive mounted on a pair of 10-foot-tall Catherine Wheels. The idea was to set the thing rolling in the right direction and detonate it once it rolled over a Nazi position. Unfortunately, the Panjandrum careened and spun in unpredictable directions. It was less suited for war than for the annual fireworks fiesta in Tultepec, Mexico—or Burning Man.

At this year’s SVCC, Savage will engage in a solo panel as well as moderate the appearance of a friend, astronaut Chris Hadfield. “We’ll be talking about space travel,” Savage says, “one of my favorite subjects.”

METRO: Are you a Burner?
ADAM SAVAGE: I am in my soul, but I’ve never been to Burning Man. I have hundreds of friends who go, and I love making art, but events conspire against me. I always seem to be filming right around that time of year.

Did your work in fabrication begin with model work in the movies?
The broad facts are linear, but the actual path wasn’t. Star Wars (1977) changed my life. I read in magazines that there were people who built models, and I really wanted to do that. But meanwhile I was an actor, an assistant animator, a theater technician, a welder and a set builder. I got a rep as someone who could handle challenging special effects, and worked in dozens of commercials. I also directed research and development for a small toy company. When I heard they were starting up Episode 1, I called Industrial Light and Magic twice a week for three weeks until I got the job.

Are there certain films where you can look at the screen and say, “This was all mine?”
On Space Cowboys (2000) I worked with a team of seven people. My particular focus was the payload bay for a shuttle—every nut and bolt. It was such fun when Clint Eastwood steps out of the airlock into my set—going from a 12-inch model to something 75 feet wide. I have some work in the Matrix sequels, and I made Nute Neimoidian’s shuttle in the 1990s Star Wars episodes. I got to paint it, ‘wright it and light it. Even if a movie’s a dog, all the memories of building this stuff brings me joy.

Has CG completely destroyed the market for miniature making?
More like late-stage capitalism than CG! The fact is that they’re still doing models for big water effects and big explosions. But the cost of preparing models drives the bean counters nuts. A model person takes 500 square feet to work in, a CG artist 60 square feet or 30. CG allows us to do things a model couldn’t do, but there’s veracity to the frame that’s only seen in the best CG. I’ve watched CG get better and better, but I lament that there’s not a burgeoning industry for models. I’m happy that there’s still some studios left, among them Legacy Effects and WETA in New Zealand, part of a hallowed tradition—all run by friends of mine, and I love going to see what they get to work.

I was coming out of a science fiction film with a friend and he said, “Look at Blade Runner, 35 years ago. We haven’t made anything that looks that good.” Every shot in Blade Runner is all in camera—no composites, no overlays. There are still directors who prefer model work: Jon Favreau, Peter Jackson, Neil Blomkamp and Guillermo Del Toro among them. Directors seem to prefer CG because it allows them to change things at the last minute, whereas it’d cost millions to change model work after it was done. I lament this culture of late changes in films…but all this is way above my pay grade.

Wikipedia claims that you always wanted MythBusters to prove natural selection over creationism, but “MythBusters has a policy against trying to disprove supernatural phenomena.”
It’s not that; it’s just that it’s just not very visual. You need an organism iteration that could change quickly, and that kind of organism is too small—fruit flies, mites, bacteria. It would have been bad television. It’s quite easy to do this in an experimental format, but the time scales were too long. We also tried not to prove a negative—if you don’t find Bigfoot, it doesn’t mean that he, or she, isn’t there. It just means you might not have found the right way to look.

Imagine an unlimited budget—was there some other particular myth you yearned to disprove?
We could have gone to the moon in one unbroken, several weeks-long take, going right to the landing spots to prove it happened.

There was a terrific Vox article by Brian Resnick about how it’d be worth retrieving the diaper bags that the astronauts left behind on the moon.
We left a lot of shit on the moon! Yes, we should reconstitute astronaut poop. Supposedly, the crashed Israeli probe may have left tardigrades—water bears—on the lunar surface. It’s not unreasonable to argue that life came to Earth in the form of something that tough yet tiny.

A common question, I’m sure. The MythBusters‘ team was working with highly explosive and corrosive materials. Were you or the team ever injured?
Never. We never got hurt by the explosives or the shrapnel. The other question is, “Is it really fun blowing up stuff all day?” No. Live explosives are fucking terrifying. We worked with bomb squads, some of the most competent people I’ve met. Jaime Hyneman and my crew trusted them to keep us safe. But what we really liked were watching the high-speed film of the detonations; we’d go back seven or eight times in a row to watch them.

On the episode where you and the team were comparing the emissions of motorcycles and cars, it was good to see you not dignifying the controversy about climate change with a mention.
One of my favorite moments of being on TV happened during the second year we were filming MythBusters. Fox called us up to be on the show to talk about the unusually strong hurricane and tornado season. We put the little earbuds in our ears, and we could hear a Fox News executive telling us, “Now, this is just going to be a fun little segment. We don’t have to talk about global warming, and in fact, we’d like you not to mention it.”

We went on the air.

“Adam and Jamie, can you explain the phenomena we’re seeing?”

Jamie was, like, ‘”Yes, it’s caused by global warming.”

METRO: Do you find it disheartening that so much make-believe has taken hold of the government in regard to science?
It’s not make-believe. That comes in second. Outright venal cruelty is what’s leading here.

Does that make you pessimistic?
I get very disheartened and discouraged, but I like that Angela Davis quote: “Optimism is never warranted, but it’s completely required.” I meet lots of young people, and although it’s a self-selected group of young people, who are fans, they have some of the most awake, aware and beautifully inquisitive minds I’ve ever seen. That makes me hopeful. They’re how we’re going to get through this, if we get through it.

Non-Linear Path to Success
Chris Hadfield, Adam Savage
Aug 17, 11:30am
Room 220BC

Adam Savage Fan Q&A
Adam Savage
Aug 17, 3pm
Room 220BC

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