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With 'Unchained Reaction,' the MythBusters go Rube Goldberg

Q&A After years of successfully busting myths on one of Discovery Channel's most popular shows, Adam Savage and Jamie Hyneman are adding a new show to the mix.

'MythBusters' host Adam Savage (second from right) and Jamie Hyneman (right) inspect the work of one of the teams on their new show, 'Unchained Reaction.'
Discovery Channel

For years, Adam Savage and Jamie Hyneman were known for one thing: being the "MythBusters."

But now, the two have launched a new show, Discovery Channel's "Unchained Reaction," "a new six-part series that pits two teams of varying backgrounds against each other to build an elaborate chain-reaction contraption."

Think giant Rube Goldberg machines--balls falling and knocking things into other things. Seesaws going up and throwing things into the air, each step in the process impacting the next, with each team vying to build the most impressive contraption in five tension-packed days. The teams, which are comprised of highly-skilled builders, scientists, and makers, are given a theme to follow, and identical sets of supplies with which to work. The imaginations are what sets them apart from their rivals.

Savage and Hyneman--whose "MythBusters" has moved from Wednesday nights to Sundays, just before "Unchained Reaction"--have hybrid roles on the new program. Though they appear prominently and are two of the judges, they are not onscreen the whole time--after all, they have another show to put their time into.

But they did have time to talk to CNET about "Unchained Reaction," and based on what they said, it sounds like something worth watching.

Q: Where did the idea for "Unchained Reaction" come from?
Adam Savage: It was a collaboration. Discovery came to us and asked us what we might do with the idea of a competition show based on chain reactions. We don't really like competition shows. But that being said, if we were going to build one, we wanted to build one we'd be interested in competing in. And "Unchained Reaction" is that show. It's much broader. The parameters are super broad. We give the contestants rules and tell them if you break them it had better be for a good reason.

What would be a good reason for breaking rules?
Jamie Hyneman: One of the basic premises of the show is that it represents the intersection of art and engineering. It's not just about a bunch of things that knock each other over. It's about being creative. So by definition, we don't want contestants to feel constricted, we want them to have a lot of fun. If they break the rules, it should actually help with something for what you're building, not just to be willful. So we're finding that these teams are going way farther afield than we thought they would. The builds are metaphorical, and are telling stories with what happens with their devices. It's surprised all of us.

How involved are you in the production of the show?
Savage: We've been involved from the very beginning, from planning to filming, all the way to editing. We just got back from doing a voice-over session. Our primary role on the show is as executive producers and our secondary role is as judges.

So you've been guiding the show?
Hyneman: Yes, most of the creative content that goes into the way the show is set up comes from us. And we judge it by the way we introduce the contestants at the beginning, and the way we judge, and we interact a little bit. And we have some effect in the middle of the build in terms of goosing them to go one direction or the other. We call that the missing link. We are heavily involved. But we're not there on hand all that much while they're building.

Savage: We don't want to give the impression we're solely responsible. It's a fantastic production team and we work closely with them.

Do you think it will appeal to "MythBusters" fans, or an all-new audience, or both?
Savage: It's hard to say. I hope it appeals to the "MythBusters" audience. We did "MythBusters" trying to understand the reasons for our success, but at same time trying to remain ignorant of them so we can keep doing what we do.

Hyneman: No doubt a large portion of the audience in the beginning will be fans of "MythBusters," but this also opens up a lot of other directions and that's one of the main reasons we were interested in it, because we're excited about taking off in new directions to see if we can employ some of the same creativity and sense of fun we have in "MythBusters" in other areas.

What's been the most fun for you with the new show?
Savage: Pretty quickly, and almost every team did this, in order to attack the themes, the teams built stories, and narratives with a beginning, middle, and ending, with conflict, and that's not anything we foresaw. At one point, we asked ourselves if one of us had given them an idea they were working on, but it was just the contestants looking to go deeper, and that was thrilling.

Hyneman: A lot of it is based on who the teams are composed of, and it's reflected in what they do. Even if it's reflected in ways that astonish us. We had a team of rocket scientists from NASA and we thought they'd be the most conservative. They turned out to be the craziest. So we give them a lot of freedom. It's a little upsetting for the production, logistically, because they never know what's going to happen and when. But so far, what we've all seen is that these groups are pulling out all the stops and doing things we never expected.

It seems to me that the show has some similar structure to "Project Runway." Did you ever think about calling it "Project Rube Goldberg?"
Savage: It's interesting that you mention "Project Runway." I really like "Project Runway" as a competition show, and it stands above the others, and the reason I like it is because it's about the craft. It's about watching the contestants really care about the product they're making and it's less about them beating their competition. And I find that to be a much more rewarding experience as a viewer.

Did you intentionally put similar elements in the new show?
Savage: We didn't set out to do that. But it's certainly possibly that some of those elements made it in by osmosis.

Another aspect is that as makers, when you're working professionally, you're working under tight deadlines and tight financials, and far from being limiting, I think both Jamie and I have had the experience that limits on time and money can be fantastic at honing an elegant solution. When you can't hire 16 engineers to replicate what you want to do, the solutions you come up are often better than what you thought you'd end up with.

Hyneman: It's also one of the reasons that "MythBusters" has worked so well over the years: it's accessible to the audience. If you're using things on hand that are readily available, and putting them together ad hoc, it's something anybody can do. So the audience goes along with you.

There's clearly a lot that ended up on the "Unchained Reaction" cutting room floor. Given that, what's the biggest challenge for making what you've got into entertaining TV?
Savage: The toughest challenge is telling the story in an engaging way and figuring out what to focus on. There's 10 contestants, four cameras, three judges, and a mentor. And you can't show what happened all week long. You have to pick your battles, and exemplify the things that are important to us. Which builds exemplify what we're going for? Or, show what's difficult about achieving some particular ingenuity. It's not an easy show to edit.

What's been the most exciting element on the show for you?
Savage: We add a wrinkle in the middle of the build, what's called the "missing link." We force them to use something that has nothing to do with the theme. They're tired, sometimes not getting along, and we add this wrinkle, and sometimes it just allows them to sing. It produces some solutions that are absolutely thrilling.

In the first episode, you made a point of pointing out that it was filmed in Los Angeles, and that you had to leave to go back to San Francisco, where you film "MythBusters." What's different about doing productions in L.A. than in San Francisco?
Hyneman: The whole place has a different feel. We usually film in a shop we've been using for a long time, so it's a different environment. But at the same time, there are more resources in L.A., because of all the film work done there. Not just in terms of grips and lighting, but also in material resources. We supply teams with what they need, a random supply of stuff, and L.A.'s a better source of that kind of thing than San Francisco.

How do you decide the themes?
Savage: That was the easy part. We were just looking for broad concepts that got us interested--things that as builders would get our creative juices flowing.

Hyneman: Not all the episodes do this, but we like going from one extreme of a phenomenon to another. Like, from fire to ice. Hot to cold, something like that.