PREMIUM – Ask Adam: Project from Hell

Every week, Adam takes a question from the Tested Premium Member community in the comments section below or on social media (tagged #AskAdamSavage) and answers here. This week, Adam talks about projects that were thought to be easy but ended up being a project from hell, and how he recovered.

Comments (19)

19 thoughts on “PREMIUM – Ask Adam: Project from Hell

  1. Dots are always connecting.
    You can’t connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backwards. So you have to trust that the dots will somehow connect in your future. You have to trust in something – your god, destiny, life, karma, whatever.

    Stive Jobs

  2. Dear Adam,

    Assume there is a parallel universe where you, for some inexplicable reason, did not take the job of hosting Mythbusters, but instead continued your career as a model maker and FX artist for TV, movies, and commercials.

    What Maker skills and knowledge do you now have that the parallel Adam could never have acquired? What have you learned that you could only have gotten through 14 hard years of hosting the best and craziest show on TV? What skills can you only get paid to acquire if you’re doing it entertainingly in front of a camera?

    And what skills do you think parallel Adam has gained over the years, that you missed out on, due to the relentless pressures of an almost year-round TV production schedule? At what level is his Maker game, after over a decade of a regular, sane job with enough spare time to really delve into all kinds of hobbies and side projects? How many fewer scars does he have?

    In short, what would the two of you teach each other, if you could ever meet (and didn’t explode on contact)?

    [ I specifically underlined “Maker skills”, because comparing your own skill sets with those of the parallel Adam, the majority of differences would presumably be in the realm of show production and planning narratives, etc. — and surely nobody paid parallel Adam to become a full-fledged stunt person and driver. Restricting the question to Maker-related skills, seemed most interesting for everybody, and less obvious than, “What he learned making TV is how TV gets made”. Not that production of TV or internet content isn’t a form of Making, but you know what I mean.

    I know that you’ve already answered one of my questions, so I’m kinda banking on asking a question that is A) interesting for your audience to hear, B) fun for you to ponder and explain, and that C) hasn’t been asked several times before in interviews. ]

    Thank you!

  3. Funny how overwhelming commissions can turn into something magical or a nightmare project lol. But they do tend to teach you so much more especially when you fail. Luckily sometimes you get rewarded and sometimes you get shunned like a fraud lol. That’s great advice to offer them secondary or third option if it doesn’t go according to plan. Thanks as always for sharing Adam as I’m in the middle of a situation like that myself haha and this was a bit of a relief.

  4. As soon as I heard the parameters of the job, I thought, “Oh boy. There’s absolutely no way you can toss a freely moving, unguided ball across a display and catch it reliably. Just no way. You’d have to start with a large reservoir of balls, catch as many on the other side as you can, returning them to the reservoir, and tell the customer that they’re going to have to send someone in, once or twice a day, to collect all the missed balls.”

    Did you use a form of wheeled pitching machine, like we’ve regularly seen on Mythbusters? What was your catcher on the other end? My first idea was a large, wall-mounted foam sheet that deforms under impact to prevent bounce-back and lets the ball drop down into a catching rig. A freely (or almost freely) dangling sheet of cloth would probably work better to prevent bounce-back, but at the cost of a more unpredictable drop point.

    The way I see it, this story teaches two things:

    1. Projects will surprise you with unexpected, impossible obstacles, and it will usually be the ones where giving up and abandoning the work isn’t an option.
    2. Sometimes you’ll get lucky and be rewarded even for a swing-and-miss — just like sometimes you’ll get screwed on a job where you delivered perfect results.
  5. He put the ball on a fishing line and made a looping mechanism IIRC, so the ball was not actually flying, just moving in the same path at a slower pace…

    The full story is on youtube if you go digging.

  6. he talked about it another speech. If I recall correctly, it was a ball-on-a-wire-kinda thing that didn’t look great at all.

  7. As someone who has had to deal with that kind of project from hell, I totally understand where you’re coming from.

  8. You know, I’m totally okay with the moral of this story being “sometimes you get paid for failure”.

  9. *A Here’s the thing though, of course he got paid. They came to him with a project they knew was difficult, he put in honest labor and it turns out it just wasn’t possible to do it the way the client wanted (at least within their budget and timeline).

    He then gave them an alternative that worked for the concept, if not the exact effect. They didn’t end up using it, which happens a lot for things like these.

    Now, he was going to be nice about it if they argued, and that is a professional curtesy, not at all uncommon either, especially if you feel there might be a chance for more work with the client. However, I trust his contract was such that he was still 100% entitled to full compensation. The company made the call to not use it, and so they weren’t going to argue.

    Had the client been a smaller store/business and been upset, and he wanted to get their business again, he could have cut a bit off the top to be nice. But the moral of the story here, to me at least, is more about knowing your limitations and turning down projects that have too many red flags. Be it scope, difficulty or unreasonable deadline.

    Because these are the ones where you burn out, don’t deliver what you’d both hoped, end up taking a pay cut… and still feel like shit on both your own behalf and for the client.

    I know that feeling well. I have done six month projects that get axed by the client and they pay you with a smile, and I’ve done two week projects where the client just isn’t happy with the result, and you bend over backwards and give them discounts and extra work to save the relationship. As designers and makers, we are often way too eager to get the job, and not good enough at clarifying expectations. Because it is very scary to say “listen, this might not work exactly as we want it to, but if so, we’ll figure it out within the budget” up front. Sometimes you’ll lose that job, but when you don’t, you can work hard to solve the problem without feeling like your rent is on the line.

  10. Rumor has been out there for many years that Adam personally owns the chess set (tower) and birds created by Rick Ross. Is this true, and if so, can we see a review of it sometime?

  11. Rumor has been out there for many years that Adam personally owns the chess set (tower) and birds from Blade Runner created by Rick Ross. Is this true, and if so, can we see a review of it sometime?

  12. Adam, When is it okay to leave a project that is not going well or the project has changed and will no longer be something your interested in and will not be beneficial either financially or creatively.



  13. I’m not Adam, but I do have experience as a freelancer and “creative” professional, and generally, for this kind of work of any size at all, you want a contract that breaks the project and payment up into phases.

    Make it very clear that either party can terminate the project after each phase (with a kill-fee, i.e percentage of the remaining job, if the client terminates the project). There are sample contracts out there that you can modify for this, and if you sign the client’s contract it is generally already included (if it isn’t, try to get it in there, often they won’t have a problem with it).

    Every once in a while, you’ll get clients that don’t love the first round of ideas and kill it, but it is probably worth it if you don’t have to slog for weeks on something that is no longer the project you signed up for.

    PS. some clients balk at the kill fee, but you have set aside time and turned down other work for this project, and if it goes away, you need to be compensated for the time you lose while finding new work.

    There are alternative ways of doing this for less clear-cut collaborations too. For example, if you are working as a rented resource on an internal team, you might treat it like a two-weeks notice as an employer. I.e. specify that a termination notice has to be given two weeks before work stops. That way, you have time to line up the next gig, and the client still gets whatever work you do for those two weeks. If they want you to stop working sooner than two weeks, they still have to pay for those weeks.

  14. Adam, I can only imagine how full your schedule is. From One Day Builds (my favorite) to MythBusters Junior you must be busy every minute of every day. How do you keep yourself from being overwhelmed? I find myself with a long list of things to do and feel down on myself. Any advice for a student with a family, working part time, to develop maker skills? Hoping the hear from you! You’re the best!

  15. Love it; sounds properly nightmarish, “good” ending and all.

    Two questions: Are you willing to say how much money we’re talking about? Surely the statute of limitations is long past?

    And how would you do it today? You’ve come a ways after all… for bonus points, use materiel only available from the day!

  16. Ahh what an awesome story- hearing this as a fellow maker and freelancer I see so many parallels between scenarios I have encountered myself- including taking on the jobs no one else can and the late night visits to hardware stores -which more recently migrated into Amazon prime (next day delivery) panic purchases! It’s comforting to hear someones trod the path before you with equal mayhem!

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