“Who’s going to be handling the ducks?” producer Ethan Galvin asks into a two-way radio. Then he looks at the ducks and says, “If they run them over, that’s good for us.”
It’d be good because they’re for an episode of the new Mythbusters, and the ducks are not real, but part of a test for volunteer drivers. I’m on location with the small crew of Mythbusters, Science Channel’s revival (Wednesdays at 9) of the long-running Discovery Channel show, watching the production set up for an afternoon of testing.
The new Mythbusters, Jon Lung and Brian Louden, are halfway through filming their first season, and while they are new, the show is otherwise unchanged: the same narrator, same editing, same production company—though now the Mythbusters can test with synthetic cadavers instead of just a crash test dummy.
A year ago, the network aired a competition series to find new hosts, and today, the first Wednesday in August of 2017, Jon and Brian are an hour’s drive east of downtown Los Angeles, are preparing to shoot part of an episode that will eventually air right before Christmas.
What’s being tested are the volunteer drivers’ responses: It’s the “Rock ‘n’ Roll Road Rage” episode, which will try to find out if “listening to aggressive music leads to more aggressive driving.”
Volunteers will have their brains monitored as they drive a course with various obstacles: parallel parking, a toll gate, greeked construction cones that get so narrow it’ll be impossible to drive through them without driving over them. The fake ducks are on wheels; to add an irritant to the drivers, they’ll be pulled in front of cars by someone hidden behind fake bushes—two wood cube frames covered with fake foliage.
The five volunteers will drive twice, once with soft music and once with loud, aggressive rock ‘n’ roll. Their course winds past buildings and trees, through what seems like a perfectly ordinary suburban neighborhood that was evacuated when its residents fled a hoard of zombies.
There is no question why this space is now used by Hollywood: it’s still, quiet, and full of options. There are streets, buildings of all shapes and sizes, and brown grass that’s green only where weeds have appeared. There’s an empty swimming pool and an empty merry-go-round, fenced off and fading, its horses’ bodies in motion, mouths open. The more than 300-acre property now belongs to the California State Polytechnic University, but before that, for almost 90 years, until 2014, served as a community for more than 14,000 developmentally challenged people.
The new Mythbusters work alongside the show’s crew
Jon and Brian and other members of the small crew—there were 10 people total when I was there, including the two Mythbusters, two producers, one camera operator, and one audio engineer—walked around the course, sometimes driving short distances by scrunching into overstuffed production vehicles.
There were no air conditioned trailers, nor air conditioning of any kind, and it was unnaturally humid, especially for Southern California. I say that as a Floridian who’s so used to damp air that, on an average summer day, I could fall into a pool and be less wet than I was the minute before.
Mythbusters has a small and nimble crew, and although Jon and Brian are the show’s stars, they would have been indistinguishable from the crew members if not for their occasional moments speaking into a camera. Otherwise, they were working. They weren’t waiting in a trailer; actually, there was no trailer.
This didn’t seem like the function of budget for a smaller cable show, though it may have been; it seemed like who Brian and Jon just are, people who work when there’s work to be done and because they’re passionate about that work.
After driving around and setting up obstacles for an hour or so, they were now standing under a small tent, getting ready to outline the course for the camera. There was a chalkboard but no chalk, and after it was requested via radio and arrived, Jon marveled at it. “Look at these things—they’re so adorable,” he said to no one in particular, referring to Crayola sidewalk chalk.
Supervising producer and director Steve Christianson has been with the show for most of its life, and has received five Emmy nominations for his work with Mythbusters. One of his many tasks as director is setting up each of the shots, making sure the show is getting the footage it needs. That often meant retakes, and there were a few as Brian talked while Jon drew.
Earlier, Jon demonstrated parallel parking and then did it again, for a total of three times, for a moment that will end up taking just a few seconds on the show. Near where crew members were about to assemble and power a stoplight, Brian acted as a pedestrian, dropping oranges all over the pavement. With his Australian accent, Steve said simply, “let’s go again.”
During my few hours on location, I noticed a pattern during the brief moments when the camera was on: Steve would prompt the guys for what they needed to accomplish, they’d improvise, and usually they’d get a brief note (“Be calm.” “Lighten it up a bit.” “Having fun.”) and do it again. But there was no stress, no annoyance on anyone’s part.
“Is that weird?” Jon asked at one point. “Super weird,” Steve said.
The on-camera moments are obviously performative, but Jon and Brian were not all that different when there was no camera around at all, self-effacing even as they high-fived each other, joked, or complimented the other’s lines, none of which were scripted, though they were refined over time.
Both were especially gracious, to each other and to visitors, including me, but also including their volunteers, five people who would run the course they were laying out. As lunch arrived, they helped unload it from a car, and then sent their volunteers through the line first, even though they’d been working all morning in the heat.
And the Mythbusters also delivered for the ducks: they sat out in the heat, waiting to be run over by one of the volunteers, and they were not disappointed.