Testing Star Wars: An Interview with Mythbusters‘ Jamie Hyneman

StarWars.com talks with the effects veteran about making real tauntaun innards and more!

Many of us have grown up watching the television show Mythbusters, learning quite a bit from Jamie Hyneman, Adam Savage, and the rest of the crew. For those to which science does not come easily, they made it understandable and fun; helped mold open but critical minds, and provided a lot of pretty awesome explosions. From cheese cannons to underwater blow darts, Mythbusters tested not just myths, but the limits of our imagination. And, of course, we can’t forget those few particular experiments that brought a galaxy far, far away a lot closer to home. In just two epic episodes, the Mythbusters team took on some of the most famous Star Wars events: The team saw if they could dodge stormtrooper blaster fire, take advantage of higher ground, and spend the evening inside a tauntaun…and maybe find out if they do really smell as bad as everyone says. With the end of Mythbusters‘ original run still fresh in our minds, StarWars.com had a quick chat with the beret-wearing buster about his start in the special effects world, what one thing he’d like to create from the Star Wars universe, and the future of the Hyneman.

And just to be clear: Don’t try this ( i.e., anything you read) at home.

StarWars.com: Let’s begin with the beginning. What drew you to the world of special effects?

Jamie Hyneman: After working as a charter boat captain and dive master in the Caribbean for a number of years, I decided it was time for a change. I figured I should think carefully about it and research my options. I made lists of interests and priorities, spent a lot of time in the library reading about anything that seemed like a possibility, and decided special effects was the way to go. It embraced a wide variety of disciplines, was very hands on, was creative, involved working with a variety of people, and was not that repetitive. The end product has the potential of reaching a lot of people, also; if, for example, you do sculpture as fine art, it might get put somewhere that people will see it, but sculpture in movies, like an alien done as an animatronic puppet — that might get seen by millions. So I went about getting my foot in the door in NYC at a couple of different shops, liked the work, but wanted to do more in movies. So I moved to San Francisco, knowing that there was a thriving cluster of FX houses that had popped up there after Star Wars. I only worked for a short time at ILM on one commercial. I have a lot of experience, like your dad (Mark Walas) and uncle (Chris Walas) do, with animatronic puppets, and they brought me in to help on a rush project. In the Bay Area at that time there were a lot of artisans like myself that worked on a freelance basis and either I would hire them at my company M5, or ILM would, and so we had a fairly tight-knit community. It was in all of our interests to support the freelancers because we relied on them and the skills they had, as they were unique.

StarWars.com: Moving on to the myths, when you’re first handed one to bust, do you judge its plausibility in your head before you start? What were the most surprising results from busting a myth?

Jamie Hyneman: We often have an idea about what the truth is about a story before we even start. Things like whether somebody falling out of a plane in WWII and landing on a train station as a bomb is going off would survive because of the upward rising blast, well, anybody with any sense is going to understand that is not going to happen. The person would be falling into an expanding gas bubble and associated shrapnel moving toward him at something like 18,000 mph…you’d be more likely to survive falling flat on the ground than from that plane. That said, there have been lots of times on the show that we have been taken by surprise. So many that I can’t really say what was the most surprising. One way or another that meant that we learned to come into the testing with a pretty open mind, if a skeptical one.


StarWars.com: And now for the Star Wars questions. When testing whether Luke could have survived the harsh weather of Hoth inside a tauntaun carcass, how did you determine what the that inside would be like?

Jamie Hyneman: We just sort of made it up as best we could. We knew about what size the animal was, that it had fur on it, and it was very cold out. Based on that, we assumed that for the sake of argument, the animal’s body might be similar to the large mammals on our planet. So, its composition became mostly water, like us, and thus we had a certain mass that we figured would take a while to cool off at a rate similar to actual large mammals.

StarWars.com: What kind of physics came into play when debunking the myth that it’s possible to dodge a barrage of stormtrooper blaster fire?

Jamie Hyneman: If you study the footage, you could estimate how fast the blaster bolts were moving when the stormtroopers were shooting their rifles and then recreate that. However, that effect was put in during postproduction, so there’s no real basis for their speed and direction. While working on this, it took a lot of troubleshooting to get the behavior of the bolts right so that they move in a way and at a speed similar to the ones in the film. Although the bolts are purely special effects, George Lucas might have purposely intended to make them go slow within the film so that moviegoers could really see them and be excited about the fight. There’s also utility for the stormtrooper to be able to see them as well; real soldiers do use tracer rounds because it helps them dial in on a target — to see whether they are way off or not. With an automatic weapon bouncing around, you aren’t using a scope; it’s more like a fire hose, so the slower moving bolts could be helpful. I think it might be better to just have laser sight, though.

StarWars.com: Was there any futuristic device/concept in Star Wars that you would love to try and create for real? Do you think the science is pretty grounded in Star Wars?

Jamie Hyneman: I did come up with a device that was as close as I could think of to behaving like a lightsaber. My idea was to take several high-power handheld lasers, which are, give or take, a thousand bucks or so a piece, and which actually burn stuff like paper. You would then mount them all together in a cluster, aimed so the beams would intersect at a point as long as the length of the lightsaber blades in Star Wars. Then you would take a length of piano wire just as long and mount it in the middle and put a steel ball on the end. When you turn on the lasers, they would all be stopped at the ball, which would get very hot. Without the ball, you would just have a bunch of lasers shooting all over the place, not something that is three- or four-feet-long. If you swiped at someone, the ball would singe them, and the piano wire would bend, letting the lasers burn the person where they intersect. Then, when the ball cleared, the wire would spring back. Thus, you have this laser thingamajig that is long as a sword and lit up, etc. — basically a lightsaber. It’s not going to slice somebody’s arm off, but it’s dangerous, uses light, will burn someone, and is sword-like. The idea was turned down by production however, and we ended up doing the “you can’t win, I’ve got higher ground” bit because it was an excuse to have Adam and I have a sword fight.

StarWars.com: Now that the Mythbusters chapter has closed, what’s on the horizon for you?

Jamie Hyneman: Now that I’m not a puppet for some director, the Hyneman is free to explore the world at large. I went from doing movie props and effects to building and testing (sometimes) real stuff on Mythbusters. I like to think I’ve graduated and now can play around for real, and the challenges out there in that realm are far more exciting to me than faking something for TV. It’s taken me months to get the shop back in order after a decade and a half of film crews scrambling everything, and I’m just about back in order now. All those boxes on the walls have been stripped of all of the prop and model making stuff now and I’m full on into engineering and prototyping. I’ve got a variety of projects going, from (believe it or not) shipbuilding for the Navy to giant fire-fighting robots. Heck, maybe someday I’ll get around to actually making a lightsaber that’ll cut your hand off. I’m having a ball!

Make sure to keep an eye out for an upcoming interview with the other Mythbuster — and Star Wars fanatic — Adam Savage!

Anina Walas, a recent graduate of Seattle University, is currently an intern at Lucasfilm with the StarWars.com team. She loves pretty much everything Disney, great weather, making/eating really good food, and of course, Star Wars. You can follow her on Twitter @aninaden, but beware, she’s terribly inconsistent about tweeting things.