Where did the idea come from?
Discovery approached us with a very broad mandate: Would you guys be interested in creating a show for us based on chain reaction machines? We came back with the caveat that we dont like competition shoes, and in general we dont like chain reaction machines for their own sake. Weve done them, but we tend to find them somewhat limiting. So then Jamie and I started to talk about what would solve these problems for us. What would it take for us to be interested in being on this show?
I dont like competitions as much as I really like the idea of two different people trying to solve the same problem. And I like the idea of that problem being either incredibly specific or really broad. So instead of your typical chain reaction machine where something trivial must happen at the end of it, or its a little nonsensical, we knew that what we wanted was the broadest [ground rules]. The theme of the [first episode] is heavy versus light. Thats the only axiom they had to follow. We gave them some other parameters, like its gotta have a certain number of steps and stuff like that, except that we also point out, you can break those rules. Just break them for a really good reason.
What makes Unchained Reaction different from other reality competitions?
We approached it the same way we do MythBusters. Once we started watching the footage as it was coming in, we kept honing in on making the show about the process, about the build itself, about the challenges of the build. People, when they watch our show, I think they get really excited about the problems that we solve, and how we solve them, and its always really clear how we solve those problems, because its right there on the screen. So we didnt want the show to be about conflict, or trash talking between the teams, or big prizes, and oh, it all comes down to this moment, your most important momentwe didnt want that. We wanted it to be about the machines.
Where did you find your teams?
We put a call out through the Southern California art and engineering communities, and people started putting together teams and submitting tapes. In general, we really wanted to make sure [for each episode] that we got a balance between art and engineering. So if there were a bunch of professional artists, wed try to pit them against engineers.
And often times, it was amazingeven though the teams dont see what the other is doing the whole time, there were really interesting symmetries between the teams and their approaches. There would be one week when both teams finished with a flaming bar-be-que. No idea why. Thered be another week where both teams decided to tell a similar kind of narrative. And the narrative partmost weeks, the teams constructed a narrative, and that was not something that we gave them as a guide. The first time it happened we were all checking with each other: Did you tell them to tell a story? And as it turned out, it was just a natural development that was really thrilling.
You guys like to see materials used in unusual, unexpected ways. Whats the coolest way youve seen a particular material used?
Early on, we pitted special effects artists against rocket scientists. And the rocket scientists came up with a switch. It was two pieces of wire stuck in a bowl of distilled water. And nothing happened. But then they had a see-saw above it, and the see-saw dumped a chunk of table salt into the water, which immediately made the water conductive, and ed the switch and activated the next thing. And that was super fun to watch because while I know that salt water conducts electricity and that distilled water is a very terrible, poor conductor of electricity, I did not know that that reaction could be made to happen so quickly. Both Jamie and I were kind of giggly about it.
Thats really great, because then the show becomes more than a reality competitionpeople can learn about science, too. Absolutely. And therein lie the keys to the castle. Because youve got this structure which has some similarities with MythBusterspeople having fun, putting stuff together, working with limitations and working with challenges. When you watch it, youre actually learning something. You might not realize it, because hopefully its entertaining television, but when you go away, perhaps you have another arrow in your quiver for solving problems later on.
You guys are also using guest judges. Why did you decide to that?
We wanted to include the guest judges because we didnt want the whole show to be about us. We didnt want it to be the Adam and Jamie train. We also wanted another eye. Jamie and I, while were very different, we do tend to fall down on the same side of the fence and we wanted a check on the fact that we tend to think similarly. We wanted an expert voice.
Who are some of your judges?
We've got some fantastic guest judges. Adam Sadowsky, who built , was one of our first judges. We had Danny Hillis, who started and runs this company called Applied Minds, probably one of the only companies I would want to work for if I didnt have this job. We also got Rick Baker, the Academy Award-winning makeup artist. Ricks a friend and a big fan of MythBusters, and hes just wonderful. And again, these are guys who, while at the top of their relative fields, are still real gearheads who love watching problems being solved and figuring out how to solve them and still do it every single day.
Theres a moment in the first episode where a machine doesnt quite perform as planned. Was there ever a moment where a machine failed totally?
We give them a couple of chances at least to get the machine to work. Its exceedingly hard to get one of those machines going and to get it to work really smoothly. These machines usually have 10 [parts], and I think some of the bigger ones have almost 20. And the idea that everythings going to work flawlesslyits amazing how consistently [they'lll work], and then itll be the simple thing that goes wrong.
The fact is, I think out of 12 different teams, 12 different machines, I think only twice the machine didnt work perfectly at least once. And thats a real testament to the build prowess of the contestants. When we walked the first machine for the first episode, Jamie turned to me and he said, "Just looking at this makes me tired." And what he meant was, I know how much energy went into this. I know how difficult it is to do this right. These guys really killed it, and they must be exhausted. And he was right.
Do you have a favorite episode?
Every single episode surprised me and made me laugh, shocked [me], taught me things. There were a couple of moments that stick out. The one that comes to mind right now is, there was a team of special effects splatter specialists, and they took on the subject of speed, and they told the story of the tortoise and the hare with gore and blood. That is one of the funniestand I dont mean to say that its gross, because its totally not gross, its hilarious and family-friendlybut it is one of the most irreverent and surprising narratives I could have ever imagined.