After 15 Seasons, the Popular Discovery Channel Show Goes Out with a Bang
Wasn't it just like MythBusters, the beloved Discovery Channel show, to go out blazing? For 15 seasons and 278 episodes, the science-based hit enthralled thrill-seeking geeks with its creative and exhilarating mix of brilliant builds, bust-ups and pratfalls while putting urban legends, fantasy vehicles and quotidian head-scratchers to the truth test. Can you ignite a pool of gasoline with a lone cigarette? Is it possible to make a rocket car that actually flies? Does a rolling stone gather moss? Created, cast and executive-produced by Peter Rees, the long-running series was a weekly lesson in the Socratic method, a microcosm of critical thinking for the entertainment-technology age.
It was also great television. With visual effects shot breakdowns as their guide, co-hosts and ILM alums Adam Savage and Jamie Hyneman (the curious, gleeful kid in the pyrotechnic candy store to the droll, stoic parent) blew things up in spectacular fashion — 920 times, to be exact. Additional co-hosts (Kari Byron, Tory Belleci and Grant Imahara), legions of experts and special guests like James Cameron, Roger Clemens and Barack Obama also took part in the serious fun. Savage, a trained special-effects model maker whose credits include Galaxy Quest and Terminator 3, had previously worked with master builder Hyneman, the owner of M5 Industries, on Star Wars: Episodes I and II and the Matrix sequels.
For the final episode of their 14-year run together on MythBusters, the pair abandoned the show's question-build-test formula for full-on explosive set pieces. More nostalgic than instructive, the featured stunts proved particularly moving for the long-time cast and crew.
A supercut of the final episode's operatic combustions filmed at ultra high speeds.
Capturing it all, frame by frame and from every angle, was a fleet of high-speed and small-format cameras that could be easily configured and rigged to safely record the action. DP Scott Sorensen and the minimal yet long-term crew transitioned from lipstick cams and HDV Handycams to second-camera use of Blackmagic Design Pocket Cinema Cameras in 2013, around the time he became the show's DP. Fresh out of UC Santa Cruz's film program, Sorensen joined the show after answering a generic Craigslist ad for a production assistant nine years ago and never looked back.
"By the time the show ended, our crew consisted of me, our sound recordist and two camera operators," he says. "It's not your normal television shoot and it's much smaller than most other crews I've worked on. But the operators, like me, learned on the job and worked their way up from PAs, interns and shop assistants. I think we stayed together because of the way the show itself is structured—we all were always learning something new."
The studio and shop scenes were mostly filmed with the Sony FS700. Sorensen's go-to camera rigging was a mix of readily available grip equipment and custom tripods and housings held together, in the spirit of the show, with "a healthy dose of butyl" rubber tape.
As the show and its camera needs evolved, Sorensen says it was only natural to shift to gear that could more accurately and cinematically document the very essence of every MythBusters' reveal. "Back when I started, our little cameras were the Sony HDV-tape Handycams," he says. "They were fine, but when we recorded an explosion, the force of the shockwave would actually jostle and interrupt the tape head, causing an error. And because of the compression in HDV, there was a 14-frame delay between the time the camera saw something and when it actually laid it down to tape. What that meant for us is you'd see this image of something about to explode, then the screen would go blue. When the image came back, there would just be dust."
DP Scott Sorensen prepping to shoot an experiment at close range.
A series of format transitions followed as the series and technology progressed. "It's impressive over the course of the show how the camera equipment evolved," he says. "When they long ago retired HDV tape, we moved first to the memory-stick cameras, then flash-memory cameras. But as soon as we went down that path we started dubbing, in real time, the second-camera rushes. We'd record all the Handycam footage onto an XDCAM deck. That was the first boost to the post team: instead of bunches of tapes with 30-seconds of pre- and post-explosion footage on them, they were now getting just the good bits. But it still required lots of processing on their end or I'd lose one of my cam ops for an entire day after an explosion. Media managing became a real hassle."
The initial idea to move to the file-based Pocket Cameras actually came from the post-production team in Sydney, Australia, where the show was cut. "They were dealing with all these different file formats and suggested shifting to the Pockets," says Sorensen. In search of selective focus control and more dynamic range in a compact package, the production team had already started experimenting with DSLRs.
"We were at the point where we were looking for our next camera platform, and all of us had shot with DSLRs before. We loved that look but there were too many drawbacks, especially for our type of show. The Pocket cam hit the sweet spot: it gave us this really nice image but it also continues to roll for hours on end. As soon as we moved to the Pockets, and it was all file-based and ProRes, everything became much, much simpler and streamlined. And they just loved it in post."
Blackmagic Pocket Cinema Cameras fit with various housings and lenses.
Sorensen figures after nine years he's likely "forgotten more cool explosions at this point than most people have seen in their lives." The first one filmed for the MythBusters finale obliterated a Breaking Bad-style trailer, an homage to a 2013 show special with Breaking Bad creator Vince Gilligan and star Aaron Paul. Looking at the footage, shot at 50,000 fps with the Vision Research Phantom v2512, Savage reverently observes "the most beautiful shockwave, like a lens" radiating around the explosion.
"That was the fastest camera Vision had available at the time and the fastest we've ever recorded with," says Sorensen. The v2512 maxes out at 1 million fps, but at around nine plus recorded hours of footage per second of real-time action, that wouldn't be much fun to watch in real time.
The second filmed stunt, complete with its very own heroic replay, featured the rocket launch of Buster, the much-battered, rebuilt and reused crash test dummy who boldly went where Savage, Hyneman and the other hosts dared not. Buster literally vaporized upon impact with a cement wall. The next involved a trip down memory lane in which Savage, driving a bigger, badder wedge truck constructed by Hyneman, plowed through a long line of favorite props from seasons past. "When I saw it all laid out, it was pretty overwhelming," says Sorensen. "Just the sheer distance it was spread over was impressive. But then I started seeing things that I'd forgotten we'd done. It was definitely kind of emotional, but we were mostly just very proud of the way it turned out."
The infamous truck wedge…
…and its path of destruction.
Both the Pocket and Phantom cameras proved indestructible all the way through to the final episode's shoot. "We didn't lose a single one," says the DP, "though we almost drowned a Pocket cam during this last 'Shark Week,' and one of the finale explosions nearly took one out — the lens was shot, but the camera was fine. They were the only camera systems we didn't completely destroy during the show.
"I rigged one of our Pocket cams in a big panel van, which was one of the last things the wedge truck hit. The camera starts rolling, and it's looking through the windshield of the panel van, which already had a couple of cool-looking bullet holes in it. You start to see this cloud obstruction get closer and closer before Adam smashes into the van." Instead of succumbing to the force of the blow, the camera threw a kind of Hail Mary pass to the filmmakers. "It actually pivoted upon impact to get a shot in which the wedge truck is perfectly framed through the open door of the panel van," he says. "It was the perfect pan, and you never could have planned that, even if you'd tried."
The episode culminated in a repeat of a fan-favorite cement truck detonation, this time crammed with 5,001 pounds of powdered ANFO (ammonium nitrate/fuel oil). The resulting explosion left a crater where the vehicle and, for that matter, the show had been.
"It's really cool to think of where MythBusters came from and where it ended up," says Sorensen. "By the end, that show was just lean muscle. It was so efficient to shoot, and we only needed about two weeks to shoot each episode."
In the process, Sorensen says he gleaned invaluable production experience as well as building skills he'd never had before. "I got really interested in art directing and prop building," he says. "I'm most proud of a mask I made for our Star Wars episode. It had to be good enough to pass muster with LucasArts, but we all wanted to create authentic, cool stuff, so our standards were really high. We couldn't find any really good Ewok costumes on the market for a Return of the Jedi theme, so I ended up making two Ewok masks. I was really pleased with the way they came out."
Post-explosion: the glass didn't make it but the camera did.
They aren't Sorensen's only keepsakes from the show. Savage, it turns out, salvaged a chunk of Buster's foam exterior from a surrounding dirt berm. "For our parting gift, everybody on the crew got a clear box containing a dead GoPro and a piece of Buster," he says.
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