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Experiments and Explosions: How the MythBusters Crew Captures All the Action

The main cameras used to cover the show’s stars are a Sony PDW-700 XDCAM HD camcorder and a pair of Sony NEX-FS700s.

Scott Sorensen loves his work. And who wouldn’t? As a member of the camera department on Discovery’s MythBusters for eight years and now director of photography for the current (tenth) season, he’s seen the series’ stars—special effects experts Jamie Hyneman and Adam Savage—blow a cement mixer to bits, slam a rocket sled into a car, raise a sunken boat using thousands of ping-pong balls, and stage hundreds of other wild stunts. “It’s always something different,” Sorensen says. “Working on the show definitely keeps your mind engaged.”

Sorensen joined the MythBusters team after answering a Craigslist ad for a production assistant. He quickly moved up to shooting high-speed material, then to operating one of the main cameras. He eventually assumed director of photography duties, overseeing the camera work of the stars planning the stunts as well as the two operators doing high-speed B-camera work and setting up small crash cams (mostly GoPros of late).

The main cameras used to cover the show’s stars are a Sony PDW-700 XDCAM HD camcorder and a pair of Sony NEX-FS700s. The team likes the XDCAM disc format for recording. “It’s a proven, reliable media,” Sorensen says. “It’s robust and your archiving is built-in. You don’t have to worry about a hard drive going bad on you.”

Hosts Jamie Hyneman and Adam Savage (in a protective suit) get ready to blow something up.

He also uses the cameras in conjunction with a Kessler CineDrive multi-axis motion control system for time lapse photography of stunts being set up. “It’s nice that we can build some movement into our time lapse photography,” Sorensen observes. “It gives us more room to be creative. That’s especially helpful for some of the bigger builds that can take a couple of days or more.”

Sony’s FS700 cameras are used for A-camera coverage as well as for high-speed work. “For a long time, high speed was a camera attached to a laptop and some clunky battery solutions,” he says, referring to early models of Vision Research’s Phantom that used to be the show’s high-speed workhorse. “We still use an older Phantom for some very high-speed work”—it records up to 6,900 fps at 720p—“and they’ve come a long way now with the Miro, but for our purposes, the FS700 has worked out very well for grabbing high-speed shots on the fly. You just pick the camera up and go!”

Blackmagic Pocket Cinema Cameras have also played a role this season, serving as an extra camera covering Hyneman and Savage as well as capturing additional time lapse material. Sorensen’s team sets these cameras to 4:2:2 recording in “film” mode (log gamma) to hold onto more shadow/highlight extremes that can subsequently be massaged during the color grade. Lenses for these cameras include some Micro Four Thirds optics, such as the Bower 7.5mm fisheye for shooting in tight spaces and some Panasonic Lumix zooms, as well as a lot of Nikon lenses adapted to Micro Four Thirds via Metabones Speed Boosters.

Figurines of hosts Jamie Hyneman and Adam Savage stand among toy soldiers on model battlefield.

The crew also carries an amalgam of Sony CX series Handycam camcorders (they’re now on the HDR-CX570) and GoPros. “For a normal, everyday explosion, we’ll roll the Handycams first,” Sorensen laughs. “They can go all day on a single battery. Then the Blackmagic camera, which can go about two hours on a 128 GB card. And they’ll go a little closer. Then we put some GoPros right in harm’s way. Then we might have to be positioned say 1,000 feet back and be inside a shipping container and behind shatterproof glass. Then we blow something up!”

Sorensen feels sympathy for his cameras. “GoPros have a very hard life,” he says. “They’re often strapped to something that’s about to blow up or be dropped 400 feet or mounted on a car and smashed into a wall. Last season, Jamie Hyneman shot one. We do our best not to destroy cameras, but we do have a box under the staircase full of dead ones.

“It’s a great feeling when you put a camera somewhere where there really shouldn’t be a camera and you look at the footage and see you got the perfect shot!”  

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