Kari Byron is choosy about her gunpowders. The ex-MythBuster has spent more than a decade professionally exploding everything from pants to coffee creamer on television. So it probably shouldn’t come as a surprise that Byron, who trained as an artist, has started creating art with explosives, too.
Byron’s new show, a 10-episode Netflix original series called White Rabbit Project, launched on December 9th. It harnesses Byron’s particular set of skills, and brings three of the original MythBusters crew back together to explore questions about science, engineering, and history. “MythBusters brought me up on rockets and explosions, and now I get to apply it to White Rabbit Project,” Byron says. “It's a natural evolution.”
“What I like about this is that it’s chaos — but it’s controlled chaos.”
Byron recently spent a couple of hours talking to me about her trajectory from artist to MythBuster to fixture of unscripted science television. She also lit some things on fire. That’s what we’re doing in a front yard in California on a cold December morning, with Byron’s least-favorite gunpowder. “I like a big grain, and this is a little finer,” she explains. The fine grains don’t make enough of a mess. But the good stuff, she says, is tough to find in California. Either way, it still blows up.
Kneeling on the driveway in a leather jacket and jeans tucked into motorcycle boots, Byron looks every inch the badass. But she’s a sensible badass. She didn’t roar up on a motorcycle — she drove over in an SUV / minivan crossover with plenty of trunk space. Her art supplies were stored in a vintage ammo canister. But they also were tucked away in a paint bucket, a laundry hamper, and some tupperware. And when she lights the gunpowder to create her explosive paintings, she doesn’t drop a lit match on it and duck; she uses an electrical match with long wire leads that let her stand back from the blast.
She clicks a remote lighter, and the powder bursts into a plume of white smoke that stinks like rotten eggs. (“It smells like a fart, really,” Byron says.)
As she scrapes the burnt clay off the page, the singed outline of a face screaming into the void emerges. It’s a dark, furious image with a lingering odor of brimstone. There’s an edge to Byron underneath her enthusiasm that’s easy to miss when she’s on camera. “What I like about this is that it’s chaos — but it’s controlled chaos,” she says. “It’s a little bit of controlling the wildness of the explosion. And I’ve grown to like explosions over the years.”
This is exactly how I imagined hanging out with Kari Byron would go, back when I was a teenager. Byron’s television career started with MythBusters, a science series on the Discovery Channel. She and two other hosts — Tory Belleci and Grant Imahara — made up the trio called the Build Team. They, along with co-hosts Adam Savage and Jamie Hyneman, used science and engineering to test farfetched myths and urban legends — and sometimes bust them.
“I’ve grown to like explosions over the years.”
Byron started appearing in MythBusters right around when I started high school, when I was casting around for a role model. But I couldn’t find anybody even remotely like me, especially on TV. I hated school, but loved learning. I’d seen every episode of Star Trek’s original series and most of Star Trek: The Next Generation. And I lived in my cargo pants. But then MythBusters started, and Byron joined the crew. Here was this dorky, enthusiastic woman, happily making things — sometimes so she could blow them up. People respected her. She even wore cargo pants. And she was so cool. She was who I wanted to be when I grew up.
Byron and I are both a little older now, but I kind of still want to be her when I grow up. For instance: she told me that to teach her young daughter to stop picking her nose, she made little sculptures she called “booger monsters,” and claimed that boogers are their food: “If you steal their food, they're going to crawl out your nose and look for the next most likely place to go, which is going to be your ear,” she says. “And then they're going to crawl in your brain, and you're never going to learn to read.”
What I hadn’t fully realized until I met her, though, was that Byron never set out to be in front of the camera. She grew up in the California Bay Area, and studied film and sculpture at San Francisco State University. When she graduated, she looked for a local job in the special effects industry, without success. "I have this image just that all of my resumes fell into some bin that said ‘Reject,’” she says.
At a friend’s recommendation, she visited Jamie Hyneman’s special effects workshop in San Francisco with her portfolio. “Which he promptly looked through, very unimpressed,” she says. But there was one photo of a sculpture of an old man — “He was like, ‘Okay, yeah, that’s something I can work with,’” Byron says.
So Hyneman took her on as an unpaid intern, and she paid the bills with a night job. “I just kept showing up until one day, they asked if I wanted to help out with MythBusters,” she says.
“I just kept showing up until one day, they asked if I wanted to help out with ‘MythBusters.’”
She joined Belleci behind the scenes. Belleci had already been in the special effects industry for nearly a decade, working at Industrial Light and Magic. Neither of them had a background in science, but it wasn’t a handicap on MythBusters. “I just found that science and art are very similar,” she says. “It's all curiosity, it's all experimentation, it's all trying to answer questions.”
A few weeks after Byron was officially hired, she, Belleci, and former cast member Scottie Chapman were all thrust in front of the camera. Byron says the producers realized they weren't turning out episodes as quickly as they wanted to. “And they’re like, ‘Okay, you're hosts now! Go!’” Grant Imahara, an engineer turned model-maker who had worked for many years alongside Belleci at Industrial Light and Magic, replaced Chapman during the show’s third season, rounding out the Build Team trio.
The personalities and interests of the three hosts turned out to complement each other, something they couldn’t have predicted that first day together: “Grant [gravitates] towards electronics,” Byron says. “Me, being from the Silicon Valley, I love weird tech. And Tory is always about the big bang, or the special effect of it.”
Each host has their own specific appeal, too, Imahara adds. “Guys’ guys — people who like daredevil action movies, things like that — they respond to Tory. Women in particular who are looking for STEM role models respond to Kari, because [she’s] someone just like them. And I think for me, I tend to get the most response from geeks and nerds,” he says (with affection).
Byron says she’s felt both the benefits and the hurdles of being a woman in a field typically dominated by men. “Nobody is like 'Hey Tory, you pregnant? Because I noticed your stomach is a little bigger,’” she says. “I mean, that's never going to happen. But me, I eat one too many tacos at lunch and wear a tight shirt, forget it.”
Her run on MythBusters lasted a decade, and the show itself ran for 12 years — which nobody on the Build Team expected. “We always thought every year, we’ll probably get canceled next year,” Imahara says. “Like the Dread Pirate Roberts [says in The Princess Bride] — ‘Good work, Wesley. I’ll most likely kill you tomorrow.’”
Science and art are very similar — it's all trying to answer questions
But the end finally came in August 2014 — not for the show, but for the Build Team. Savage and Hyneman announced that Byron, Belleci, and Imahara would be leaving. (Savage and Hyneman hosted the last two seasons solo.) The reasons still haven’t been publicly disclosed — Byron would only say that the network wanted to go a different direction, and budget cuts ensured that the show couldn’t continue in its established format. For her, it was the end of an era. “I feel like I grew up on that show, like I found myself on that show,” she says. “I feel like I found such a beautiful niche.”
It wasn’t over for long. In October 2014, Netflix approached MythBusters producers Beyond Productions about creating a new show. Even though MythBusters was no longer on Netflix, viewers were still searching for it — so Netflix wanted to give viewers something similar, Byron says.
The production company and the Build Team reunited to create the new unscripted Netflix series White Rabbit Project. In each episode, Byron, Belleci, and Imahara use experiments, engineering, and historical re-creations to dive down themed rabbit holes. In one installment, they explore the best jailbreaks in history. In another, they test the science of superpowers. “It was nice to get the group back together and do more weird stuff with technology and science,” Belleci says.
Why White Rabbit Project? Byron says the name came to her one evening when she was lying in the backyard, looking at the stars and drinking wine. She was listening to music when the Jefferson Airplane song “White Rabbit” came on: “Go ask Alice when she's ten feet tall.” She texted Imahara, Belleci, and the producers. “And they're like yes, we like it!”
The new show is not technically a MythBusters spinoff or sequel. But for a nostalgic millennial, White Rabbit Project and MythBusters share a lot of similarities, like the hosts’ contagious curiosity, and the investigations and experiments that wrangle chaotic facts and data into coherence. “Science is just a tool we used, like a hammer. And in White Rabbit Project, the investigation is just the tool we use to tell the story,” Byron says. “When it comes down to it, what we do is entertainment… So I don't really put it through the rigors that a real scientist would.”
“Science is just a tool we used, like a hammer.”
The new show isn’t as linear as MythBusters, which tended to follow a set path from question to experiment to conclusion across the span of an episode. In White Rabbit Project, each episode sees the hosts chasing down several mini-investigations on their own, inside a given theme. That doesn’t let Byron, Belleci, and Imahara spend as much time together — which is too bad, because the best part of seeing them reunite is getting to reexperience their lovingly antagonistic relationship again.
Byron and Belleci fall back into this pattern in the “Superpower Tech” episode, where the team investigates which superpowers are closest to becoming reality. Byron’s is “mind control.” She discovers a device that records the electrical activity in her muscles when she squeezes them, and sends little mirroring electrical zaps to Belleci’s muscles through electrodes pasted to his skin. “So I invited him out to dinner, and he did not have any idea what he was in for,” she says.
In the scene, the two sit across from each other at a table covered by a checkered tablecloth. Byron takes off her sweatshirt and reveals that when she dressed for dinner, her outfit included a few electrodes attached to her arms. The crew attaches a few more to her jaw, and to an increasingly puzzled Belleci — but it looks like the fear really sets in when Byron gives him a pair of safety glasses. The server hands Belleci a bottle of wine, and he tries to pour it. But Byron twitches her arm, sending a jolt to Belleci’s, which jerks and spills the wine.
“So I’m getting tipsier as I drink my wine, but as he tries to drink his, I make him spill it, I make his arms flail,” she says, laughing. “It was really fun.” It’s not full mind control, she adds, but hey, it’s a step.
“It's a natural evolution.”
That was a particularly “Kari” storyline, Imahara says. “[It] has the weird and wacky factor, which Kari loves. But it also has a certain element of torturing your family — your brothers and sisters — which I think is something that really speaks to Kari.”
It’s another glimpse of Byron’s edge — and her deep love of pranks. As we wrapped up the gunpowder art, she told me that if her friends in special effects were to honor her last wishes one day, they’d reanimate her after she dies. “So I can jump up from behind the headstone. GOTCHA! That would be my wish — to prank people for the rest of eternity.”
But then, she adds, she wouldn’t get to see people react — which for her, seems like the point of what she does, from her pranks to her explosive art to the team-effort experiments and exploration on her shows. “Maybe it's just the artist in me,” she says. “I make the painting, and then you take away what you want from it.”