By DERRIK J. LANG
LOS ANGELES (AP) — Bang. Bang. Bang.
Three bowling balls unexpectedly spring off a ramp that’s raised high above everyone in the room, missing their intended target — a basket made out of duct tape — and smashing into the floor before rolling in various directions. Everyone scatters as the renegade balls threaten to take out limbs, camera equipment and anything else in their path.
It’s just another day on the set of “Unchained Reaction,” the first spin-off from special-effects gurus Jamie Hyneman and Adam Savage since launching their gonzo experiment series “MythBusters” in 2003. This time, Hyneman and Savage are putting their power tools — and bowling balls — in the hands of amateurs for a reality TV take on Rube Goldberg machines.
In each episode, two five-person teams of engineers, designers and the like are given five days and a warehouse full of tools and materials to create a contraption based on a simple theme, such as “light vs. heavy” or “fire and ice.” Then, Hyneman, Savage and a guest judge watch the competing mouse traps unfurl and declare which one is the most inventive.
“This isn’t a competition show in which people are brought to the edge of their sanity, and you watch them collapse,” said Savage during a break from filming earlier this winter. “It’s a show where it’s fun to watch people build stuff. It’s about the craft. Why do engineers and artists like doing what they do, and what happens when they’re pushed to silly limits?”
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Hyneman and Savage, who also serve as the show’s executive producers and have built intricate Rube Goldberg machines on “Mythbusters,” as well as one for a Coca-Cola commercial, said they were apprehensive when executives from the Discovery Channel first approached the duo about creating a show focusing on whimsical interconnected gadgets.
“If you boil it down, it could have been just a bunch of crap falling over,” said Hyneman. “But what these people are coming up with is crazy. We’re not really giving them any guidance other than to have fun and follow this theme. What we’re finding is total surprise when we show up down here. They’ve built these things that are really imaginative.”
Hyneman — the beret-topped straight man — and Savage — the flame-haired wild child — simultaneously filmed the six episodes of “Unchained Reaction” alongside the current season of “Mythbusters,” dividing their time between the “Unchained Reaction” warehouse in Los Angeles and their “Mythbusters” headquarters in San Francisco, where the pair are based.
Hyneman and Savage hope the show will tap into what made cartoonist Rube Goldberg a visionary in the early 20th century with his wacky illustrations, as well as what kept the band OK Go in the viral video spotlight with their doodad-filled 2010 music video for “This Too Shall Pass.” (James Frost, the video’s director, will appear as one of the show’s guest judges.)
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“Unchained Reaction,” which premieres Sunday, isn’t without a reality TV twist though: In each episode, Hyneman and Savage interrupt the middle of the process to unleash something the teams must include in their gizmos, whether it’s a piano or dozens of rolls of duct tape. Otherwise, the teams are free to construct something that’s as simple or complicated as they desire.
“As a producer, it’s the scariest type of show to do,” said co-executive producer Jared Heinke. “It’s really got to come out of the minds of the teams and evolve at their pace. One team was a group of scientists who spent a lot of time drawing designs on the whiteboard. There are days when we’re biting our nails wondering if we’re going to have something.”
Some machines have involved such zany elements as a guillotine chopping off the heads of stuffed rabbits and a giant ball of duct tape rolling down an incline in the style of the “Indiana Jones” boulder. Heinke said all the teams have managed to finish their projects, but they don’t always go according to plan — like when bowling balls spontaneously slide down a ramp.
The freewheeling nature of “Unchained Reaction” also means that the devices could prove dangerous. Heinke said that’s why a fire marshal, medical team and equipment experts are on hand on set. (Three days after the filming of this particular episode, an errant cannonball flew into — and through — a San Francisco Bay area home during a “Mythbusters” shoot.)
“Knock on wood,” said Heinke, thumping on a nearby ramp that one of the teams made out of plywood to send a pair of buzz saws racing down. “We haven’t had any injuries or anything go wrong so far — except it got a little too smoky in (the warehouse) a couple of times, but that’s why we have huge industrial-strength fans to suck out all the smoke.”
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