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A day with the 'MythBusters'

A day with some of TV's craziest characters means coming face-to-face with shark bait, extreme steak, and some of the most interesting people on the boob tube.

Jamie Hyneman and Adam Savage, stars of 'MythBusters,' discuss experiments they're working on in front of a lathe in their workshop's machine room in San Francisco.
Daniel Terdiman/CNET Networks

This is a fish story--complete with attacking sharks, high-velocity steak, and ninjas with poison darts, no less.

This is the story of my Wednesday spent hanging out with the MythBusters-- Jamie Hyneman, Adam Savage, Kari Byron, Grant Imahara, and Tory Belleci--at their workshops in San Francisco.

MythBusters, for those who aren't aware, is a hit Discovery Channel show in which the five stars tackle famous myths--such as that frozen chickens pose a greater danger to airplanes than thawed poultry, or that a single postage stamp on a helicopter's rotors can cause it to crash and burn--and attempt to prove or disprove them. Often, these experiments mean explosions, broken glass, odd chemical reactions, and much more--just so long as it's interesting to the MythBusters crew and looks good on TV.

Immediately upon arriving, I was sucked straight into the strange, frenetic, hilarious world of the MythBusters. After a quick tour of a big warehouse space at the bottom of Potrero Hill known as M5 and a short autobiography by Hyneman, I was told I had the run of the place and that everyone was going back to work.

This, of course, is a reporter's dream--and a scary proposition. If you can do anything and talk to anybody, it's hard to know how to focus.

But focusing turned out to be easy. Before long, Hyneman sat down and explained to me one of the shark-related experiments he and Savage are working on for a Shark Week episode to be aired in July. They are trying to determine whether magnets are really shark-repellent--that is, to discover whether it is possible to control a shark's directional movement with electromagnets placed on its nose.

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Luckily, Hyneman had to make a drawing of his planned project for the Bahamian marine biologist who would be overseeing the experiment, and he let me watch as he drew. Minutes later, he'd produced a pretty simple schematic that even I could understand. Essentially, he explained, he planned to attach two electromagnets to a shark's nose and then connect them to a controller he'd have up above the surface. If he triggered the magnet on the shark's left nose, it should turn right and vice versa, he explained--if the myth is true, that is.

One thing that is true, and which the MythBusters stars are very proud of, is that while they have a small crew of assistants, they do most of their own building, cutting, and fabricating themselves. These are not just smooth Hollywood types who get in front of the camera after everyone else has done all the real work.

And I can attest to that because during the course of the day, I saw Hyneman and Savage both make very quick work of building conundrums requiring all manner of tools and machines--things no fake builders could do themselves.

"There's a lot of shows where you can see that the hosts show up, and it's all been set up for them," said Hyneman. "What you see here, we do it ourselves."

Indeed. It turns out, as the show itself makes a point of explaining, that Savage and Hyneman have 30 years of special-effects work experience between them. Hyneman alone has owned a couple of effects companies and worked on several feature films and endless numbers of commercials. Artifacts from those projects are everywhere around M5.

Downstairs, in one workroom that is adjacent to the large warehouse space so familiar to fans of the show, I smelled the distinct aroma of steak. And the reason, it turned out, is that the MythBusters crew had spent the previous day--and were planning to spend more time on Wednesday--is diving into the world of extreme meat tenderizing.

On Tuesday, I was told, they'd tried to tenderize steak with dynamite and by shooting the meat out of an air cannon at 400 miles an hour. They'd also put some beef under heavy pressure, essentially giving it the bends.

This project was testament to their playful sides.

"These are the kinds of thing that have nothing to do with a myth," Hyneman told me. "But these are the fun things for us. We're just having a blast. We're very curious about everything. For us, this kind of experimentation is just play."

After putting the meat through its paces, they'd then used a narrow piece of metal tubing to take core samples from the meat to measure--using scientific instruments that I admit I didn't understand--exactly how tender the steak was.

Savage is an extreme multi-tasker. Even as some meat was sizzling away on a grill, he and Hyneman were hard at work on their main project of the day: designing and building what they call the "fish flapper."

This is a contraption built to examine the myth that sharks are attracted to movement and therefore are more likely to attack a fish that's flopping around than one that is dead in the water.

And on the very same table where Savage was building his fish flapper, he was also cooking his steaks.

"So many of our builds end up looking like this," Savage said. "There's a lot more complicated ways to do things, but I really like it like this."

Over the course of the day, the fish flapper proved to be a perfect example of how the MythBusters team works.

That's because their concept for the project--two dead fish hanging into the water, one from a specially built contraption that could automatically flap it around--would change several times throughout the day. But it dominated their day, with both of them spending a significant amount of time thinking about the right way to attack the problem.

After Hyneman drilled through one of the fish he and Savage were using to experiment with as part of their fish flapper project, the drill bit Hyneman used is filled with fish bits. Daniel Terdiman/CNET
By the middle of the day, they had abandoned the idea of doing the experiment with actual fish since they were aware that the blood the fish would eventually leak into the water would most likely overwhelm any nearby sharks' senses and the flapping would be moot.

In addition, they seemed to decide to abandon the mechanical side of the project in favor of someone--probably Hyneman--dangling the fish or fish-like object himself because it would be a better way of achieving the motion they wanted.

Finally, toward the end of the day, it seemed they'd settled on a system in which they would dangle two lines about 20 feet below the surface into cones surrounded by some dark material, and would string rubber fish-shape objects on those lines. By flapping one a lot, they would be able to determine, they believed, if simple movement in the water and the disturbance to the flow of the water, could attract sharks.

Working underwater--as they will likely do in at least some of their shark myths--around such dangerous marine animals is not something for the faint of heart.

But after completing more than 120 episodes--including specials and working on more than 500 myths that have demanded more than 2,000 explosions--Hyneman seems to suggest that not much frightens him.

Still, he is aware of the boundaries he and Savage have pushed over the years the show has been on.

"Both Adam and I feel that our number is up," Hyneman said, "because of the stuff we're playing with."

I asked him if that made him feel he should walk away, and he shook his head.

"No, it means we should be more careful," Hyneman said. "I don't think we've ever asked ourselves that question."

One thing both men do agree on is that they enjoy the building process and the way they almost unconsciously work together to simplify things as they go.

"We start out with some complex pile of details," Hyneman said, "and the longer we work, the more of those details we eliminate."

Another playground is M7, the satellite MythBusters workshop a few blocks away where I go for a little while in the middle of the afternoon. There, the younger three MythBusters members--Byron, Imahara, and Belleci--are working on a myth for another episode of the show.

This one deals with ninjas.

The idea is to look into whether it's realistic that a ninja really could sit underwater, breathing through a bamboo reed, lying in wait for hours for a target, and then shoot a poison dart through the reed at the target.

Grant Imahara blows a dart through his bamboo reed dart shooter. He, Kari Byron, and Tory Belleci are working on an experiment to see how long a ninja could stay underwater, breathing through one of the reeds, lying in wait to attack an enemy with a poison dart. Daniel Terdiman/CNET

When I arrive, the three are hard at work cutting a series of reeds into various length tubes, making custom darts, and then shooting them at various targets around their warehouse.

Each has chosen different width and length tubes, and the three are having variable results. Byron seems to be getting the most accuracy with her shots, while Belleci seems to be getting the most distance. And Imahara is having problems just getting his dart to even shoot.

But all three appear to be having a blast. And while they most likely won't be hitting anyone anytime soon with poison darts, soon they will most likely know more about what it would take to do so than almost anyone else still living.

Back at M5 a little later, I'm struck again by how much fun the MythBusters stars are having with their work and that, while they take what they're doing very seriously, they're also some of the luckiest people on Earth, given that they're getting paid to blow things up, to go to the Bahamas to play with sharks, and to cook and eat a lot of extreme-tenderized steak in the name of science.

"We've always said that MythBusters is a little bit of Mr. Wizard meets Jackass," said Savage. "It's not, 'Why you shouldn't jump in an elevator.' It's, 'Here's what would happen if you did.'"