If you were caught in the jaws of a great white shark and were being thrashed around in the water, would you be able to poke the shark in its eye—distracting it long enough for you to escape and save yourself from certain death? If you're Adam Savage and Jamie Hyneman of television's MythBusters, (check out all their PM columns ) there is only one way to find out: Turn a 17-ft.-long fiberglass cast of a great white into an animatronic shark, then put yourself—and a few of your unwitting colleagues—in its jaws. The results of this marine science experiment are featured in a 2-hour Shark Week special, airing this Sunday at 9 pm on the Discovery Channel. (New MythBusters episodes start Wednesday, Aug. 6, at 9 pm.) The dynamic duo takes PM behind the scenes of their coolest build yet. —Erin McCarthy
Why did you decide to tackle this particular myth?
Adam Savage: We've long heard that you can stop a shark from biting you by jamming your thumbs in its eyes. But then we thought, if you're being tossed around, could you even find its eyes? That was the kind of magic angle we were looking for.
Jamie Hyneman: That comes up when you break down what would actually occur. What's the process? What are all the details? And then you realize—oh, that's right. If you're getting thrown around like a rag doll, how are you going to focus on anything? So, we tried to build a machine that would throw us around like a rag doll.
It sounds like a huge build. Do you have any others that come close?
JH: Actually, the build was done in about four days. It's one of the things we do best: figuring out simple ways to do things. The spine was just tubular steel that we cut into segments and pinned together. Then we linked the segments with bungee cords and put a couple of hydraulic pistons on either side. The rest of the build was just dressing it all up to look good.
AS: We've done many builds that were far larger: deadly quicksand, whirlpool of death, the scuba diver being sucked up by the fire-fighting plane. But this was one of the most fun.
You make creating an animatronic shark with six points of articulation look effortless. Does your experience with special effects make building something like this easier?
JH: Absolutely. I run a business that does effects; I have to make money. I figured out long ago that the simpler and more direct the solution I come up with, the more likely it is that I make a profit. So I automatically go to simple, direct, easy—especially when it comes to something like animatronics. It's very complex to replicate a live animal or a human, so simpler is how you do it. The complex part is what goes on in your head. Anyone can build something really sloppy and complicated. If you're able to take something complex and pare it down to something simple inside your head, then that becomes part of the design process. For us, the mark of a good design is when something elegantly simple does something complex.
Do you just look at something like this and know immediately how it's going to be done?
AS: That's a really good question. Jamie and I have very different working styles, and though we can drive each other nuts, it's the commonality between us that makes working together such a pleasure. We had some rough ideas about the shark, but we didn't get a specific idea until about two weeks before we started the build, and most of that time was spent doing mental work. One of us would approach the other with a new idea once per day, every day. What we were doing was layering in the complexities into our heads, mentally building the shark piece by piece and making sure that we were both visualizing the same thing. Then, at that point, honestly, it was just cutting parts to size.
JH: This back and forth that we have is comparable to a couple of dogs that have gotten hold of a towel and are yanking on it, because they're so different. Our process shakes out a lot of things that you would otherwise miss, and by the time we're done arguing and batting things back and forth, we've got the solution.
Did you encounter any problems during the process, or did it go exactly as planned?
AS: Oh, nothing ever goes exactly as you plan it. But that's also part of the reason that building stuff is really fun. Like everything, it presents challenges as you go along. I will say that the shark build went more smoothly than most.
JH: My biggest problem on this thing was the math. We knew the psi that the system we happened to have in the shop put out, and what kind of leverage was involved, so we tried to suss out how quickly the shark was going to move around. We figured that thousands of pounds of pressure could be delivered practically instantly, but when we got down to it, that wasn't the case at all. The shark moved pretty well, but it wasn't capable of, say, snapping our necks, which the math told us the thing could do. Again, we realize from experience that you can always tune something back, so you try to get as much out of it as you can. On this kind of rig we can always put a valve or choke in the lines to slow it down, but it's not like you can make it move quicker if it just doesn't have the grunt.
Were you nervous about cutting up the full-size fiberglass mold you made of the shark? I imagine if something had gone wrong, it would have been hard—or expensive—to start over.
AS: Honestly, at that point, we both had a really clear idea of how it was going to go. With experienced craftsmen, it's not that they never make mistakes, it's that they know how to perceive in a way that minimizes mistakes. So we didn't cut out exactly the sections that you see in the special; we made some cuts and, as we proceeded, we made more cuts until we knew we had exactly what we were looking for.
JH: We could have easily built something just like that—or better—from scratch, but we didn't have the time. We can easily rebuild anything that we screw up.
How closely did your roboshark mimic the movements and speed of a real great white?
AS: We worked really hard to get it right. We looked at a lot of footage, and we calculated how a real shark moves its head. I'd say we got to about 75, 80 percent—and that's pretty darn close.
JH: As far as the question we were trying to answer—would you be able to reach the eyes of the shark when you're being thrown around—I was on the lever, controlling the roboshark and making it thrash. Whether we achieved the speed of a real shark or not, I could pretty much stay ahead of Adam. If he was going for the eyes, I could hit the lever and keep them out of reach. So, if our roboshark, which wasn't even as powerful as a big shark, could keep Adam away from its eyes, it means the time it takes to reach eyes to get the shark to release you is a realistic concern.
You used hydraulics and pistons to make the shark work—can you tell us more about the mechanics?
JH: The hydraulics were from the first rocket-car experiment we did, in 2002. They were purchased and installed in a car like a lowrider to make it jump. After we were done with that experiment, we got rid of the car. But, of course, first we ripped out all the hydraulics and kept them. So about five years later, we had a chance to use them again. I looked at the system and just in an eyeball way figured, well, if it's not enough to make a car jump around, maybe it's enough to make a shark jump around—and it was.
How did you make sure everything would work in the water?
AS: When we got in the water we did a systems check to make sure the shark moved, then we saw how fast it moved, and I got into its mouth. We took incremental steps to make sure we weren't going to snap my neck.
JH: We really weren't at all concerned about the hydraulics screwing up or the electronics—they're sealed lines. The problem was, how do you anticipate how much energy it's going to take to move all that water? We had the shark operating in the shop, and it moved just fine—just as quickly as we wanted it to. But what kind of damping would it get from the water? You can run some calculations and figure out the weight of certain volumes of water, but it's really tricky to come up with a hard figure. At some point, you say—well, we've got something that looks pretty powerful, but will it work?
I don't know; let's just try it. Also, our fallback plan—which we ended up using—was to put the batteries in series instead of parallel to jump them up to about 36 volts. The hydraulic system was only intended to run on 12 volts. So we were prepared to fry the pump motors if that's what it took, but we did everything we could to pull that card out last. It actually did make a lot of difference, although it was sort of scary to listen to those motors scream.
What was it like to ride in the shark, Adam?
AS: I would pay to do it again. I would charge admission to do it. It's like the greatest mechanical bull ride ever. I had my head dunked under water by basically my own mechanical shark that Jamie and I built. It was so much freaking fun.
JH: And on my end, I'd jerk the lever and watch him go flying. It's what we do; it's what we enjoy.
Are there any other shark myths you'd like to bust or test?
AS: There's one that showed up on YouTube about a month after we finished filming this year's "Shark Week." A guy is sitting on a surfboard with a fishing pole in his hand and 5 pounds of red meat on the hook. The video seems to show—although its veracity is in great question—the guy getting the shark to bite the meat, and then he stands up on the surfboard and surfs while the shark drags him through the waves.
How would you go about busting that?
AS: I think it would be a mix of finding out the pulling power of a real shark and designing a fake one that could do the same thing.
JH: Yeah, that would probably mean having to build some sort of a submarine, and that works for us—we haven't built one yet. It'd probably be a hybrid with solar panels on top.