Film and model maker Tory Belleci has worked on everything from The Matrix trilogy to the Star Wars prequels to Starship Troopers, but he is best known for more than a decade of blowing things up on Discovery Channel’s première science show, MythBusters. Out of the five builders, experimenters, and testers on the show, Belleci is perhaps the daredevil of the group—he has clothed himself in red for bucking bulls and has been dragged behind horses for the sake of science.
I spoke with Tory on the eve of MythBuster’s 11th season about his storied run on the show, his place in science communication history, and why the MythBusters can’t go more than 12 hours without a “big boom.” A transcript of our conversation is below, lightly edited for length and clarity.
Nerdist: Wow. 11 years. What has changed for you since you first started working on MythBusters?
Tory Belleci: I think the biggest change is how when we first started we kind of fumbled through these experiments, and over the years we’ve done so many that now we’ve figured out the best way to get a myth tested. In the early days, every day was a brand new experience. Over the years it just became like clockwork, like saying, “OK, this is our problem, how are we going to tackle it?” We’ve all become this well-oiled machine.
N: Willingly or not, you’ve become a public science educator. Is that something you’ve wanted or did it sort of just happen?
TB: We didn’t set out to be a science show; we set out to be an entertaining show for serious people. Eventually we became vigilant; we wanted to get the science right. We screw up and we’re ready to admit it and that’s the good thing about our show. It gives us a chance to talk with the fans and hear what they have to say. If we did screw up we’ll go back and re-test it. But we didn’t set out to say, “Let’s do this really cool educational science show!” We wanted to do a cool show and it just so happened that people started learning science because of it.
N: Has science education always been important to you or has that been another side benefit of the show?
TB: I have to be honest; when I was in school my focus was to be in the movie industry and special effects. I thought I didn’t need to learn science because I was going to be doing those things. But, ever since I was a little kid, I was always fascinated and intrigued by science, not knowing that it was science. I learned lighting things on fire, making my own explosives, doing my own experiments but thinking, “This is how you do it in Hollywood, this is a special effect.” It wasn’t until I was on MythBusters that I learned there was science behind all the stuff that I was doing. Now it’s great! Now I understand what’s going on and now I want to figure out why is this happening, what is the science behind this or that phenomenon. When I started out I wasn’t like, “Aw yeah science!” but over the years it’s become so important.
N: I think that fans have the exact same experience watching your show! They may not know they like science, but MythBusters has found a sort of magic bullet of presentation and suddenly they’re very interested. It’s a wonderful mirroring between the show and the fans.
TB: Yeah! And the thing is that science is in every aspect of our lives from weather to manufacturing to the vehicles you drive. It’s all around us. During high school, elementary school, and junior high I wish they had made science more practical as opposed to pure experiments with test tubes. Actually show how it applies to practical life.
N: Some of the most popular movies, video games, and TV-shows today heavily feature science. Do you think science is getting more integral to conveying entertaining concepts?
TB: It’s hard to say. If you look at television these days there’s not a lot of shows that champion science. Discovery, National Geographic, History Channel…there’s a few networks that really focus on the exciting parts of science. If you watch Breaking Bad that’s all about chemistry! There are some mainstream shows that highlight science, like murder-detective stories that use science to discover who the murderer is. That highlights the science in a different kind of way that is really cool. But for the most part mainstream television doesn’t really champion science.
N: What’s the best example you can think of where Hollywood got the science right?
TB: So often the science portrayed in Hollywood is false. We were testing the RPG (rocket-propelled grenade), which has been in so many movies where they fire one of those into a vehicle and the vehicle blows up and flips upside-down. But if you look at the way those weapons are designed they aren’t designed to blow things up; they are designed to penetrate armored vehicles. There’s hardly any explosive property.
Most of the stuff we do in Hollywood is fake, but we recently tested a scene from the movie Wanted when Angelina Jolie is driving a Corvette and the other guy is driving a Mustang and he uses her car as a ramp to do a barrel roll. We tested that and I’m not going to say what happened but we got some very interesting results that make you question certain things…
N: Over 11 years, you’ve shot 7,900 hours of footage and featured some 840 different explosions. I did the math: Why can’t you guys go more than half a day’s worth of filming without an explosion?
TB: We learned pretty early on that when in doubt, blow something up. We were doing the myth of the exploding cement truck, where a guy decided to use a stick of dynamite to clear his truck out but accidentally used too much and blew everything up. We tested that and it actually sort of worked—it broke up some concrete without damaging the cement truck. But it was kind of this lack luster ending and we thought, “What if you had a whole load of concrete inside of a truck? How much dynamite would you need to break that up?” So we ended up going out to a quarry with 850 pounds of ANFO (a high-explosive) and pretty much made the cement truck disappear. Once that happened we were all like, “Hey I think we’re on to something here! If it works for the story let’s do it!” Nobody gets tired of seeing things blow up.
N: You’ve been a part of the science education landscape for over a decade now. How have you seen MythBusters change?
TB: In the earlier days of MythBusters we did smaller stories and took a little bit more time delving into the heart of the myth, really paying attention to the small things. As time has gone on, I feel like our experiments get bigger and bigger. Now we’re building giant ramps out in the desert, strapping rockets to a car, and launching the car off the ramps or dropping cars from a helicopter while another car races across the desert. As the show has gotten more popular, our budget has gotten bigger and our experiments have gotten a lot bigger. It’s interesting to see how the evolution of MythBusters has gone.
N: Now the show is a stark contrast from where you started with Pop Rocks and soda…
TB: Exactly! We had these quiet, interesting myths that were in the shop, easily handled within a small area. Now we have to go out to the middle of nowhere because if something goes wrong, something bad could happen.
N: Can you tell about the process of turning the scientific method into entertainment? What are some of the tips/tricks you’ve learned over the years?
TB: I think if you get too scientific, start showing the process too thoroughly, it tends to get boring. It’s a fine balance. What we do when we’re looking at a myth is look at a few things: 1. Is it doable? Is it something that we can afford to pull off? 2. Is there a good story there, as far as TV goes? 3. Is there enough science in the story that will keep the audience interested? If you focus too much on one thing, people tend to check out.
N: Does it work the other way too? If a story didn’t have enough science in it—even if it’s a very popular myth—would you not pick it up?
TB: No, exactly. Or sometimes it’s a simple question where it would take less than a few minutes to figure it out and we say, “Now what? How are we going to fill the rest of the show?” There have been moments where we’ve started an experiment and it worked right away and we had to backpedal to figure out how to build up to it and make it even bigger in the third act…it can be tricky at times.
N: What are you most excited about in the new season? Can you give us any hints?
TB: We’re going to be blowing up a lot of stuff. We actually did an episode airing tonight where Kari, Grant, and myself tested what is blast-proof. If you had a bomb and you could toss it into a dumpster or a garbage truck or into water, would that deaden the shockwave to the point that you’d survive? We have a lot of good explosions coming up.
N: Besides MythBusters, is there anything else coming up that you’re excited about?
TB: I’m constantly working on other projects. I’ve been doing a web show called Blow It Up where if you have something with bad memories attached to it, I’ll take it out to the desert and blow it up for you. We all have a lot of other projects. We’re keeping busy and hopefully we can continue the party.
The 11th season of MythBusters premieres tonight on the Discovery Channel. Expect an explosion.