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Adam Savage on his live science show, cosplay, and ‘promoting the joy in making things’

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‘The reaching out with my hands and making something I desired is the engine of everything I have achieved’

Matt Christine

“You guys have to check this out,” MythBusters veteran Adam Savage says to a small group of assembled crew members for his traveling show, Brain Candy Live! Along with Michael Stevens (host of the YouTube channel Vsauce), Savage has been touring the country with a show that is part hands-on science lesson, part TED Talk, and part Blue Man Group-style performance. I’ve followed him onto the stage before a performance, and he’s just pulled a large leaf blower out of a box. It’s an upgrade to the one used in earlier shows on the tour, he explains, and he demonstrates its power by turning it on and tossing an inflated beach ball over it. The ball, caught in the updraft, hovers over the stage, 20 feet above our heads.

If you’ve seen MythBusters, you probably have an idea of what Adam Savage is like in person: energetic and exuberant. He’s perfect for this show, which is an exhilarating mash-up of physics, fluid mechanics, and explosions. The show is aimed at all ages: Savage and Stevens demonstrate basic physics concepts, from the Bernoulli principle to gravity, via dry ice, ping-pong ball machine guns, and vacuum-tube cannons.

The purpose of the show is to make science and learning enjoyable, and judging from the faces of the people around me, they’re certainly having fun. We cover our ears as Savage and Stevens shoot a ping-pong ball through a ping-pong paddle, and watch as they bring people onstage to demonstrate how atoms move when energized, and as they build a hovercraft with a bunch of hair dryers. Later in the show, they answer tweeted questions from the audience. It’s a showcase of the things Savage is known for: not just explosions and crazy building projects, but also instilling a passion for creatively exploring the world.

For 14 seasons, Savage, along with Jamie Hyneman, hosted MythBusters, a television show dedicated to debunking popular myths in colorful, elaborate, hands-on ways. Like his co-star Kari Byron, Savage has been busy since the show’s cancellation. He’s become a regular fixture online, constructing costumes and props on the YouTube channel Tested, and encouraging prop builders and costumers on Twitter. When Brain Candy Live! stopped near my home earlier this year, I met Savage to discuss what he’s been up to since MythBusters went off the air.

Photo by Matt Christine

This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.

How have you been with MythBusters off the air?

I spent at least the first two months totally freaking out. I mean, just for the change of pace. To give you a clear idea, we shot MythBusters for 40-plus weeks a year, for 14 straight years, so it wasn’t like we had an off season. We had a couple weeks off every three months, and that was the most we could accommodate. My whole life was structured around how we shot the show, so to have it not structured around that was destabilizing.

So basically a job change.

Yeah, I came home from the first week of November, and then two days later, Jamie and I started our final touring show together. We did 30 cities in 35 days. I got home just before Christmas, and I had family coming out for Christmas, so I did not stop running until the third or fourth of January. That week, I went and spent in my shop, taking care of business. When I came home at the end of that week, my wife was like, “You are still totally manic.” I realized, “Oh, that’s because that’s the only way I know how to work.” I’ve been shoving my work into the corners of the MythBusters shooting schedule for so long, I have no idea how to expand out into an open schedule.

How have you expanded out?

Well, I’ve radically increased the kind of stuff I’m doing on Tested.com. Tested’s offices have moved closer to me, which has allowed a much tighter integration between all the moving parts of the website. Over the past year, it’s been really getting back into the shop, back doing luxurious builds and shop infrastructure that feel really good, and also taking stock of the kind of projects I want to do in the future. I haven’t done another television show yet, and I expect it’s likely that I will, but I’m not sure specifically what I’m going to pitch, and I’ve been slowly learning what I want to do. It’s a different conclusion than I would have come to a year ago, so it’s been nice to have this time.

Did the end of MythBusters come as a surprise to you guys?

No. We understood it was coming. We saw our ratings declining tick by tick over the last three or four years of the show. They were still okay, but we were also coming to the end of our contractual obligation with Discovery, and I didn’t expect that they would want to pay us more to continue doing the show with lowering ratings. We weren’t going to continue the show to get paid less, so it seemed all around like a very natural conclusion.

The most wonderful part of that was that I was able to convince Discovery to call our last season “our last season.” That was my favorite, because reality shows often don’t get that. They just stop making them. So for us, we got to really roll up our sleeves and make a 13-episode love letter to the fans and to each other. That’s the one thing I miss most about making the show: my crew. I miss showing up on set every day and making that show up as we went along.

One of the things that caught me by surprise as MythBusters was ending was the flurry of articles on how you and Jamie weren’t like close buddies.

No, it was a business partnership. And a very fruitful one. And a building partnership. And a very fruitful one. On a personal level, we both drive each other nuts. We have crossovers. We have almost identical politics. We also have an identical disdain for doing things just for money. Thank goodness for that, because we got a lot of offers over the years to do stuff that I didn’t want to do, and I was really grateful he didn’t want to do either. It would be awful to have to fight with a partner over that. But on a personal level, there’s no reason for us to hang out. There’s nothing really to talk about except making stuff.

That’s a good crossover to have.

Yeah. Business partnerships are very different than friendships. They’re almost more like marriages, but they have very different requirements. One of the requirements is really, really honest communication. That’s another thing Jamie and I both have. We’re both very willing to say exactly what we’re thinking to the other and — I will pay him this compliment — Jamie is one of very few people I’ve ever met who can take a criticism and actually change his behavior. You know, we’ve had many interactions where, on either side of the fence, one of us said, “This thing you're doing totally doesn’t work,” and the other one went, “You're right, I’ll stop that.” And we did.

How did Tested come about?

When Whalerock Industries bought Whiskey Media, Tested was a property that came with it. They introduced Jamie and me to Norman Chan and Will Smith, who were running the website. We put that all together and became Tested as a group. Jamie left Tested at the beginning of 2016. So I think we’ve been going now for five years.

How does the channel work? How do you plan projects like one-day builds or costume construction, and how do you decide what to build?

I decide what to build based on what makes sense for the amount of time we have, and what I’m interested in at the moment. A lot of times, Norm and I are in regular communication about what I’m working on and just constantly asking, “Should we cover this?”

We’ve also tried multiple different models. We’ve filmed five or six stages of a build over several weeks, we have filmed builds that we knocked out in two days. When I did the Shining maze, we didn’t film almost any of that. I did 95 percent of that building alone while shooting time-lapses with my phone. We then augmented it with an intro and an outro, and a couple of shoots where they saw me putting it together for the final time.

I love using Tested as an incubator for different ways to tell these stories. For instance, my Totoro build is ideal, because it shows how Joey Fameli, my wonderful producer, cameraman, and editor, has gotten so good at editing silence into the builds, those quiet times. I really, really like that. I watch that, and it’s one of my favorite videos we’ve ever done.

Whats your long-term goal with Tested? If you had a mission statement, what would it be?

I think of Tested as a vehicle for promoting the joy in making things. I use that term as broadly as possible, whether it’s photography or film or music or theater or costume or setting up a shop, outfitting a car. All the stuff we do on Tested, even the gadget reviews, I prefer it when they are toward what this tool can be used for, not just what it’s good at.

We’ve traveled all over the world and interviewed some of our heroes, and some people doing absolutely remarkably, mind-bendingly cool stuff. It’s really opened our world, and when we sit around and shoot the breeze about stuff we’re paying attention to, there’s tons of overlap. But there’s also so much going on that it’s great to have this team keeping pulse on all of it. I love the Tested community. It’s the only comment section I read online. I find it almost entirely a super supportive community, even when we screw things up, or even when they disagree.

So to me, it’s a love letter to that kind of creation. That’s also part of the nonprofit work that I’m spending a lot of time doing, too, getting kids interested in making.

What’s the nonprofit called?

I sit on the board for a new organization called Nation of Makers. It’s a nonprofit that seeks to provide support for maker-spaces around the country. Maker-spaces are popping up everywhere, but most often, they’re doing it in a vacuum, without a lot of support or institutional knowledge from other maker-spaces. Nation of Makers hopes to fill that gap by providing best practices, fundraising playbooks, curricula, and outreach, and equalization of access, and stuff like that with maker-spaces all over the country. Sort of like, Roosevelt did this during the Dust Bowl, sharing best practices among farmers. To me, this is the same kind of thing.

Do you think there’s a curiosity gap at some point for children that you hope to sort of overcome with this type of work?

I came across this thing in Sarah Vowell’s book Lafayette in the Somewhat United States. Sarah Vowell is a humorous historian, but a brilliant writer. She’s talking about the ultimate sensibility of the Shakers, and in the Shaker school her friend’s kids go to, the science teacher offers extra credit to every student who can find a mistake in the science textbook. I think that is one of the greatest things I have ever heard about the way education should work. Unfortunately, it doesn’t.

Unfortunately, with a bad school or a bad teacher, you're just told to memorize things, and you’re not told why. The context of how it applies to you isn’t really explained. You’re told to hold to the authority of the teacher. So again, that just supports the idea that these facts have been written and they are what they are, and they can’t be changed. And the fact is is that no, it’s a totally fluid process. If a kid understands the science textbook might have a mistake in it, then they also might realize when they find that mistake that they have something to contribute to something as amazing as a science textbook, which seems like, “Wow, this is the sum of all human knowledge.” If a 10-year-old finds something that was missed by the editors of a science textbook, they have learned an unbelievably powerful lesson about the power of their own attention. I believe that teaching to the test steers kids away from that kind of autonomy. I think eliminating things like band and arts and shop and auto-class, all of those diminish the educational process. And I don’t even know what the reason is that we consider history more important than art class.

This is also why I am constantly making the case that STEM needs to be referred to as STEAM, that you have to put art into it. And I just said this the other day on Twitter, and somebody said, “Yeah, I sort of agree with you, but art isn’t really…” They’re thinking of art as a painting on the wall. But, no amount of scientific data is parseable by other scientists unless you put it in a communicable form, and communication is art. It’s full stop. Being able to transfer our stories to each other is what art is all about.

I’ve seen you build a number of space suits. Why are you so drawn to them?

I’m not exactly sure, because I’m also drawn to armor and safety equipment. So I think it’s all because I secretly want to be a superhero. Because all of those do the same thing, right? So I’ve got fireman turnout gear, I’ve got proximity suits, I own a bomb suit, I have beekeeping suits, Mustang survival suits, kendo armor. I have suits of armor, I have suits of aluminum armor, I have suits of steel armor, I have samurai armor, and then I have space suits, I have a mercury suit, I have movie space suits. They all kind of satisfy the same thing in me, and it is to create an environment around your body where you are protected. The space suit is the most amazing, because you’re bringing your own mini-Earth with you.

When it comes to building stuff, what are your personal strengths and weaknesses?

I am not a very good sculptor. I’m not a very good sculptor out of clay or Super Sculpey in order to make soft parts. I’m an excellent hard-edged model-maker, but I’m much less experienced as a sculptor. It’s easy for me to not start something because it’s just going to be too overwhelming, especially since I like to film stuff that I’m building. So if I were to start a Boba Fett costume, it would be like, “Oh my God, this is going to take me weeks and weeks and weeks to kind of gather this whole thing together, I just can’t even start right now.” At the same time, I built a wall of shelves in my shop specifically with the aim of putting all my uncompleted projects on them so they're staring at me, so they’re not only taunting me, but also giving me inspiration.

Why does building appeal to you personally?

Well, it’s my primary interface with the world. It always has been. There’s a piece in Brain Candy where I talk about making my own toys, and that is one of the most important skills my father taught me, that you could make your own toys. I remember being seven or eight years old and getting this big beautiful teddy bear named Gus. The next year, my dad asked me what I wanted for Christmas, and I said “I want a racecar for Gus.” And my dad made a fiberglass racecar for Gus out of chicken wire and polyester fiberglass. It was amazing! I can’t believe that he went to the trouble to do that, and I knew at the time that this was not a material he was familiar with. I can’t imagine how it made his studio stink, but the lesson to me was, “You can make anything you can think about.” I really remember being inculcated with that.

The reaching out with my hands and making something I desired is the engine of everything I have achieved. And it’s gone through this long process, but ultimately on MythBusters, I realized through many different iterations of thinking my job was to talk on camera, or my job was to explain science on camera, or I was supposed to build experiments and talk about their methodologies, ultimately I realized my job was to tell stories. Those stories were largely about science, but they were also about myself. They were also about me and Jamie, and our relationship.

I realized this as I was working at Industrial Light & Magic, gluing little knobs onto the side of a spaceship, that I was also telling stories, that the detail work I was doing for Doug Chiang wouldn’t work unless I knew the stories of the stuff bolted to the side. It’s not random, it’s never random, and a good model-maker sits there with like a bowl full of 35 little greebles and an X-Acto knife, carefully placing them where it feels right. When it feels right, it’s because there’s a story about repair and rupture and the Star Wars universe being well-used and well-repurposed. So to me, the fundamental human activity is not just to use tools, but to use tools to make things and to tell stories about them. This is what we do in art, and it’s what we do in science. Both are just forms of storytelling, both are just forms of understanding the world.

What did your dad do for work?

My father was a painter, first and foremost. He was also an animator, one of the earliest animators on Sesame Street. He raised us during dozens and dozens of interstitial spots on Sesame Street. He was a commercial director. But primarily a painter, an artist.

Do your building abilities and drive come from him and his work?

Absolutely. Look, he was a complex and difficult person to grow up with, as well. My dad was manic-depressive, bipolar. It was a very, very unpredictable childhood. At the same time, he worked very hard to structure his life around doing the one thing he had to do, which was paint. So he would animate spots for Sesame Street for three or four months a year, and that would raise enough money to pay the mortgage, and the rest of the year, he would paint. So I grew up with an example of someone doing the thing they loved all the time.

Was he around to see MythBusters and Tested?

My dad died in 1998, and I’m sad he hasn’t gotten to see any of this, because I know he would have greatly enjoyed it. He was an autodidact and a lifelong learner, and he would have found it completely entertaining.

Why do you think that in an internet age, when you can basically order anything with the click of a button, people are going out and actually making their own machines and props and costumes?

I think it has a few causes. MythBusters was also really lucky enough to grow up right alongside the maker movement. They started at almost the exact same time. The modern maker movement, Make magazine, and the maker fairs and stuff. About six or seven years ago, I started to point out that the reason electronics hacking has gotten so popular has very similar origins to post-war car culture.

Post World War II, we had a populace that had yielded a much stronger middle class in the United States, because of the G.I. Bill. People had disposable incomes, and cars as a technology had reached a certain level where people realized they weren't just black boxes, but you could modify them, and you could start changing them. In the ’50s and then ’60s, car culture grew out of that realization. When I was a kid, electronics were absolutely a black box. But now you’ve got seven-year-old girls programming Arduino robots with multiple sensing capabilities. At the same time, rapid prototyping systems, started with things like Fab Lab, MakerBot, and laser cutters, have been around much longer. But the consumer-level versions of rapid prototyping have, I think, radically increased small-batch manufacturing.

Go and look on Etsy, and you’ll find some absolutely magnificent stuff laser-cut in garages in the Midwest, or apartments in Seattle, or wherever you want. I think that’s a really excellent thing. Mass-market culture has given tremendous boons to humanity, and it’s also depersonalized it. I’ve been to all 50 states, and there are corners you can stand on where you’re looking at an Arby’s, and an Outback Steakhouse, and a Target, and you could be in Hawaii or Rhode Island or Alaska. They all look the same. Nobody wants the world to end up like that, so I think Etsy is a great example of what I think of as an important future for maker culture, where the site itself encourages an interaction between the seller and the buyer, unlike eBay. I’m tiptoeing around — to me the central message is when we make something and we give it to somebody, there’s a story there. Like, what you find charismatic about someone is sometimes because they tell great stories, but more often, it’s because they’re listening to your stories. [Ed note: Adam ran back to his changing room and came back with a Totoro doll that a fan made for him.]

There’s a guy I met at New York City Comic Con last year who asked me to sign a ring box to help him propose to his girlfriend at the convention. They’re getting married at Dragon Con this year. I was dressed as Totoro at New York’s Comic Con, so he and his girlfriend brought this to me last night at the show. She knitted this. So this will sit on my real, full-sized Totoro in my house. There’s a person behind this. It’s not a machine that made it, it’s not a faceless person in a Third World country. It’s a human who made it for me, and that’s a really lovely story. It infuses the object with something important, with something that has been important since the beginning of humanity, which is that we’re all manipulating the world around us, and sharing our experience.

How important are internet communities to this process?

They’re massively important. In the mid-‘90s, I was making lightsabers. You had to look at ‘zines or the back of Starlog and stuff like that to start finding a community. It’s so much easier to find those communities now, and that’s thrilling. For the longest time, people with strange hobbies felt mostly alone, and I think most people realize now that there’s somebody out there now who has a similar weird freak flag to you. I think that’s really invigorating.

I mean, there are a lot of perfection nitpickers. So if somebody like prop company Master Replicas puts out a thing that they’re like, “It’s a perfect model of blah blah blah,” those nitpickers will be like, “Oh, perfect? Let’s see.” They’ll point out everything that’s wrong. But then you’ll have some 17-year-old kid from Topeka like, “I’m going to make Iron Man armor, and all I have is some red and gold duct tape and some cardboard,” they will be like, “Dude, keep it going! You’re doing awesome! Beautiful! Amazing! Share your patterns with me! Here’s where you’ll get some of my patterns.” That encouragement is great.

The furry community is almost like a test case for a community that is, by most of the world, very marginalized. They support each other very well. They pay each other reasonably for the freelance work they do in helping with costumes and avatar drawing. I think they’re exemplars of a community that’s very supportive of its members.

Along those lines, do you prefer costuming or cosplay?

The term of art is cosplay, and it is also costuming, but I think costuming is something you do for hire, costuming is what you do in a play or a movie, you make a costume for an actor. Cosplay is arguably the hobby of dressing up as characters you appreciate, especially manga characters, is where it started. When my friend Deborah Nadoolman Landis creates a costume for a movie, she does research about a character and talks to an actor and takes all the things she knows about history, and about movement of clothing, and about character, and puts that character into a costume, which she puts on an actor.

It helps the actor find something in themselves to deliver to that role, the same thing is happening to a cosplayer. The cosplayer is taking all of their knowledge and all of their history and infusing it into this costume. It happens to be a different narrative, but they are also finding something within themselves in the transformation of putting on that costume.

Why do you think cosplay as a general hobby type has been gaining popularity? It seems like it’s gotten a lot more mainstream.

I feel like the internet has a significant amount to do with it, because cosplayers can trade so many techniques, and thus the legitimization of the hobby. But people have always dressed up for Halloween. It’s been my favorite holiday since I was old enough to know what Halloween was about. I feel like the drive to put on costumes at things like Mardi Gras or cultural events might even be more popular outside the United States, but people have always put on costumes for transformation, and celebration, and contemplation. I feel like the internet engenders the widening of those communities, and cosplay is perhaps maybe one of the most spectacular.