How “How It’s Made” is Produced

How It’s Made” is a quirky program on the Science channel. What it is a demonstration of how various products are made.  Each segment is about 5 minutes long and on the cable channel the program will have four or so to make up the 20 minute show(1/2 hour with commercials). Here’s a short segment from a typical show. This one is for vacuum rated ball valves.


Here’s another one.

I recently ran into this piece from the Atlantic about “how it’s made.”

So I called up their producers to see if my little theory was right. It’s not. In fact, they said, part of the reason How It’s Made is still so successful, is that it hasn’t changed much. Yes, they’re shooting in clean rooms more often. But in fact, part of the reason the show has stuck around so long, is that it has a really successful and standard formula. “I think what is one of the great appeals of the show as a viewer myself is how little has changed over the years,” Rita Mullin, the general manager of the Science Channel, told me. “This is formulaic in the best sense of the word.”

Wyatt Channell, the executive producer of How It’s Made did admit that the show isn’t exactly the same as it was in 2001. The producers have gotten faster, he says, shooting each segment in just two or three days. And the language of production has changed. People understand what gluing something together or cutting it apart means. They don’t have the same kind of familiarity with superconductors or lasers. Channell says that in tackling these newer pieces, it’s all about figuring out how to tell the story. “I’ve always heard that jazz are the notes that they don’t play,” he said, “and a lot of the craft behind what the How It’s Made team does is figuring out how they can skip steps and which aren’t necessary to tell the story.”

The machines here are mesmerizing, and it shows the process broadly, but the show has never really been in the game of trying to fully explain how something works. And in fact, the real magic of How It’s Made isn’t when they’re telling you how something that’s clearly complex and technological like a hard drive or an MRI machine is built. It’s when they show you the process by which simple, everyday objects are made. “Our motto is ‘question everything,’ and because of How It’s Made, when you look at the items around you and understand how this lamp was made or that door handle was made,” said Bernadette McDaid, the vice president of production for the Science Channel.

Unfortunately the Atlantic article doesn’t give any details about how “How It’s Made” actually does a shoot.  Having looked at a bunch of episodes it’s fairly obvious that the emphasis is showing the process clearly rather than accurately.  For instance, if you know how fast machines can be run, you can see clearly that the machines are typically run at the test cycle or other slowed down mode for a shoot. Which is a good thing if you get a chance to see some production processes operating at speed.  Or not see, because the process runs too fast to actually see it work.

In it’s 15 years or so, “How It’s Made” has covered the diverse industry that we all rely on, but never actually see.  When we buy something it’s really hard sometimes to figure out how it went together.  Seeing how something is made makes whatever it is more appreciated.  That’s the secret to “How It’s Made.”
The Japan Science and Technology Agency makes a similar program which has the same sort of format as “How It’s Made” with typically more detail and showing the machines being run at both low and high speeds.  Many of the shows are in English and on YouTube.

I think that that “How It’s Made” should do a program on how they shoot the show.  After all “How It’s Made” is all about how it’s made.


  1. JP Kalishek · December 7, 2016

    I’ve been known to talk to the TV and correct the narrator while watching How It’s Made.
    I noticed my Dad also points out the mistakes whenever he sees the show (he dropped Satt and cable, so doesn’t watch it much any more). The mistakes are few and far between, though.
    I have noticed the mistakes are far fewer in the later years, and some I think possibly, are intentional, either by the show, or the manufacturers.
    Anyhow, the mistakes are far, far less annoying than those in Mythbusters, which is so bad, I can’t watch the show very long (though the “disappearing” cement truck show still makes me giggle).


  2. David Lang · December 8, 2016

    The “big ticket, high tech” segments ten to be rather boring (after a few times of watching people assemble components, there are no surprises to catch your interest). It’s the smaller things when you hit moments of “that’s a neat trick”, or just “huh, interesting”


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