Grant Imahara is in the business of busting -- or proving plausible -- myths. As one of the faces of the Discovery Channel show MythBusters, Imahara gets to test out the tall tales that drive us crazy. (Can you really break down a locked door like they do in the movies? Is quicksand really an instant killer?)
I caught up with Imahara, a member of the show's build team specializing in animatronics, by phone last week while he was on the MythBusters set. He explained how he got into this field, talked about the myth he really wants to test and shared details of the project that's keeping him late at work (hint: it involves a late night TV show host).
How did you get into animatronics?
I was one of those kids that would take apart the remote control and take all the wheels off my little toy cars. My life really changed at four when I got my first Lego set. The idea that Lego is a system and it's modular and it gives you a way to build things is really the foundation for my interest in engineering. As far as animatronics, I started out in college working for Tom Holman. He was the inventor of the THX sound system. Through him, I got an internship at Lucasfilm. After I graduated college, they asked me to come back and work in the home THX division doing audio. I happened to meet a couple guys who were working in the model shop. ILM's model shop dates all the way back to the original Star Wars movies. My first job there was doing miniature lights for the sequel to Jurassic Park, which is The Lost World. We got the job to make the next generation of Energizer Bunnies. That became my first animatronics project. From there I went on to work on different movie [projects including] R2-D2 for episodes one, two and three of Star Wars.
Why did you leave movies to join MythBusters?
When I used to work in special effects at the model shop, I couldn't imagine having a better job. We made spaceships and miniature cities and I was working on robots. Then the MythBusters opportunity came along. It was sort of a great moment. The model shop at ILM, they were traditional special effects, meaning that they were models that are shot with a film camera. That sort of work happened to be on the decline due to the popularity of computer graphics. MythBusters sounded like such an incredible opportunity. Where else might I be paid to make robots blow things up? [Or] get to do all these crazy things like swim with sharks? Plus, it was with people I knew. It was so tantalizing that I couldn't pass it up.
Why is it smart to watch MythBusters?
It teaches you science in a way that is so engrossing and so entertaining, you don't realize that you're learning all these great concepts about the world. We take all these concepts that are sometimes difficult for people to grasp, or they have a stigma, and we wrap them with all this exciting stuff like fire and ballistics gel dummies. When you watch the show, you are getting smarter. It's presenting these things in a way where average Joe will watch the show and say, "Oh, I understand what a ballistics trajectory is" or why it's important not to fire guns in the air or what stoichiometry is.
What myth haven't you done on the show that you'd like to do?
I've been wanting to do this one for years. The myth is called "upside-down race car." Supposedly, a Formula 1 race car has enough downward force because of its aerodynamics when it's driving at speed that it could actually run inverted. Based on what I know about aerodynamics and about how these cars are designed, it is entirely possible that this is true. The only problem is, it's more of a budgetary thing. We haven't found anyone who's willing to lend us a Formula 1 race car. And the actual physical challenge of building a track to try to drive this car upside-down, not to mention either having someone drive it or being able to remote control it, are preventing us from doing this very cool myth.
What have you learned from being on the show?
I studied physics, so I have a reasonably good understanding of physics from a book perspective. But on the show, it really forces you to re-examine how much you really know about physics and actually to apply these formulas and see the physical result of them. I'm one of those people who is a perfectionist. I hate to fail. And I think what working on MythBusters has taught me is it's OK to fail. Failure is something that you learn from. When something goes wrong, you look at what went wrong and say, "I understand now the mechanics of that and now I can redesign what I'm making to make it better." Out in the world, people think that failure is a bad thing -- and in many cases it is a bad thing. But in the case of science, it's an opportunity to learn.
You're working on a robot sidekick for Craig Ferguson. How did that come to be and how's it going?
Craig Ferguson is a huge fan of MythBusters. He enjoys our work, as we do his. He recently joined Twitter. He, as a joke, calls the people who follow him [on Twitter] his "robot skeleton army." He had the idea, What if I had a real robot skeleton? I think he mentioned it on his show. I got a few tweets from people who are both fans of his show and our show who said, "You should build this robot skeleton for Craig." I tweeted to Craig. I said, "If you get me to 100,000 [Twitter] followers, I will build you your very own robot skeleton sidekick." Virtually overnight, I got up to 100,000 followers. We've been communicating back and forth about what this robot skeleton might be like. He's so excited, as am I, to see this thing come to life. It's going to be on [Ferguson's] show April 5.
Have you completed the robot?
It's not done. I'm basically building this sidekick for Craig in my spare time. Right now, we're in the middle of production on MythBusters. We do all the planning and building for the experiments. It's a full-time job. I stay late every night and I go in on the weekends to work on this robot. It's taking quite awhile. He's looking very, very good and I think he's going to be a really fun addition to the show.
Photos: Grant Imahara and the MythBusters team / Courtesy of Discovery Channel