Adam Savage is known to most people from Discovery Channel’s popular series MythBusters, but if you’re a sci-fi fan, you’ve no doubt taken notice of his extracurricular activities as well—many of which are inspired by Savage’s fascination with iconic props from some of his favourite movies. Now he’s got a new book that offers a peek into his creative process.
Here’s the full cover of Every Tool’s a Hammer: Life Is What You Make It, followed by the excerpt. As you’ll see, this section follows Savage’s determined quest to complete a highly detailed Alien replica spacesuit. He also offers tips to aspiring makers/mad scientists/inventors/cosplay-masters (all of whom are the intended audience for the book, though it’s actually a fun read for anyone), on how to finally go about completing a project that’s been on your “to-do” list for way too long.
PERFECT IS THE ENEMY OF DONE
Deadlines are often the only way I can get a project done, especially if I’m following a particular thrill that leads me to make something just for myself. When I was working on MythBusters, our schedule was intense. Most television shows film over a period of a few months, and then they have an off-season. We didn’t. In order to meet the delivery demands for Discovery Channel, we filmed forty-two weeks out of the year, in three-month blocks, with two weeks off in between. As a result, even in a good month I almost never got to spend more than five to ten hours in my own shop, working on my own projects. In bad months (which outnumbered the good), I had so little time that some of the projects I was working on dragged on for years while I pecked away at them. One project in particular, a space suit from Alien, lagged for almost a decade and a half before I finished it, and it was only setting a deadline in order to have it ready for Comic-Con that finally got it across the finish line.
I’ve always loved Ridley Scott’s Alien for, among many other stellar qualities, being some of the most effective world building in the history of science fiction. Ridley and his Academy Award-winning production designer, John Mollo, built a world that was so tangible, so viscerally real, where every piece felt like part of a cohesive whole, that I could imagine myself stepping on to the commercial refinery vessel Nostromo and knowing exactly where to go and what to do when they receive the distress signal that is the inciting incident of the story and head down to the surface of an unknown planet to investigate.
Unlike the silver-suited utopia promised by the sci-fi films of the mid-twentieth century, Alien is working-class science fiction. As such, the space suits that the Nostromo crew wore to track the source of the distress signal are my favourites in the history of film. Designed by legendary artist Moebius (aka Jean Giraud) during his brief stint in the Alien art department, they’re a master class in my favourite kind of storytelling. Worn and patinaed by use, they’re a cross between early deep-sea diving suits and samurai armour. A patchwork of retrofitted pieces and discordant details, they communicate instantly that this is gritty, roughneck sci-fi. There’s no romanticism to be found here, just blood, sweat, and space dirt. So, of course, I have always wanted one.
In 2002, I began working on my own replica of the suit worn by John Hurt’s character, Kane. For months I gathered pictures, scanned old magazines, and collected information, anything I could find. I was lucky enough to spend a few hours with one of the real costumes (the one Veronica Cartwright wore) and make measurements and drawings that enabled me to do much of the problem solving for the soft parts of the costume. This was critical intel to have before embarking on fabrication of the hard parts, which were, true to their name, very hard. All of this took place over a period of about three years, and I wasn’t even close to finishing.
From there the project lagged on and on. There were so many small parts, so many details to wrangle. I had two large binders filled with information, pictures, plans, close-ups, blueprints, my own drawings, and lists upon lists. I had (and still have) a couple gigabytes of reference material on an external hard drive somewhere. When MythBusters wasn’t taking up 80 per cent of my time, I would dive into the project when the mood struck me, but never for long enough to build the momentum I needed to finish.
Then, starting in 2013, our workload on MythBusters got cut in half. We went from doing two dozen episodes a season, as the series began to wind down, to anywhere from ten to fifteen. This gave me more time in my shop and it freed up more creative space in my brain. It also helped me realise that I had to do something differently if I was going to finish this suit once and for all. It had been long enough. I needed to give myself a deadline. I found one in the form of San Diego Comic-Con in July 2014.
I’ve been going to comic conventions for well over a decade—sometimes on a panel, sometimes to satisfy my love for cosplay, oftentimes for both. Usually, I’ll build and wear an elaborate costume on the floor of the ’Con and have a scavenger hunt for fans to find me. The first time was in 2009 and I went dressed as Hellboy. The next year, I wore a Star Wars storm-trooper outfit that we’d used in a MythBusters episode. In 2011, I went as No-Face from Spirited Away. In 2012, I was the Ringwraith from Lord of the Rings. In 2013, I was Jack Sparrow from Pirates of the Caribbean AND Admiral Ackbar from Return of the Jedi. Leading up to the planning for 2014, I knew that I wanted to complete Kane’s Alien space suit and wear it on the floor at San Diego Comic-Con later that summer.
I’m still not sure how I got it done, but I know that if I hadn’t set the deadline my completist side would have been content to continue obsessing over every little thing, and never getting anywhere. I would have agonized over which lights were best, which cooling fan was most authentic. I would have fixated over things that nobody but me would EVER notice. With the July deadline, the luxury of that kind of indecision was eliminated.
There is a key to setting a deadline for yourself in a situation like this. It cannot be totally arbitrary. The deadline has to be relevant to you or to the project, or both. Comic-Con was the ideal combination: I was booked to go and the costume was perfect for the occasion. I could have set a December 31 deadline for the Alien space suit, but the end of the year is a delineation that didn’t connect to me or the project, so I could have easily pushed it off. I could have picked Christmas, and that might have worked if I was going to give the suit to someone as a gift, but again this project was just for me.
When your project is starting to lag, figure out a date that is as important to you as the project, then work backwards from there. Trust me, you’ll get it done.
Excerpt from Every Tool’s a Hammer: Life is What You Make It by Adam Savage reprinted by permission. Copyright Atria Books.