Grant Imahara has a Bachelor of Science in Electrical Engineering from USC. He has been featured in IEEE Spectrum Magazine for his engineering work, and has been a combat robot judge and a mentor for high school robotics competitions. However, if you ask him what he does for a living, he'll say, “I'm a TV Host.” That's because Grant has logged four wildly successful years busting urban legends on the popular series MythBusters on the Discovery Channel, and straddling the divide between science fiction and science fact suits him just fine. He spilled the secrets of his geeky success, and gave us the latest on the allegedly-suppressed RFID episode, during a special visit to the MythBusters warehouse set last week.
Before coming to MythBusters, Grant was in the special effects business. He worked on R2D2 for the Star Wars prequels and designed effects for Galaxy Quest, A.I., and Terminator 3: Rise Of The Machines. What's the main difference between working in FX and on MythBusters? Grant said:
In special effects, you can cheat to make it look good. In real science, you have to have results.
Picking the myths to bust isn't a problem for MythBusters — Discovery has a suggestion forum that receives thousands of suggestions every day. The problem is making sure the procedure and sample size is large enough to be accurate. This is not always possible, as Grant says, because television is plagued with the same time limitations working in the movies is, which sometimes makes it hard to get accurate results. Happily, MythBusters fans are a self-regulating lot. When the fans clamor enough to Discovery, Discovery will often arrange for the MythBusters to re-visit myths in specials such as The Ice Bullet, Peeing On The Third Rail, and the Biscuit Bazooka.
Grant says the vibe on the MythBusters set breaks the tension when they're trying to get things right:
The vibe on the set is so intense that it would be difficult to be serious all the time, and the ribbing runs rampant. Only a tiny percentage makes it to the screen.
This intimate knowledge is often useful during shooting. For example, for a recent season 7 episode, the team asked, “Does driving while angry decrease fuel efficiency?” And the crew knew each and every psychological button to push on both Grant and Tory to maximize their aggro. Among the menu of annoyances was drinking highly caffeinated beverages, not being allowed to use the restroom, being told their beverages had been spiked with laxative, rough massages, and for Grant, the last straw was being forced to submerge his feet in a bucket filled with live goldfish and water. “It's apparently not as obscure a phobia as you might think," he commented.
Such inspired thinking is de rigeur every day on the MythBusters set. Says Grant:
On MythBusters, a lot of what we do does not fall into any category of things we have ever done before. There's a lot of problem solving to figure out how to even approach a given problem. A background in science or engineering helps a lot.
That background in engineering has led him to what could be called a series of geek dream jobs.
He describes waiting outside of Mann's Chinese theater, with his mother, sitting at extreme screen left, third row, when Star Wars came out in 1977. Years later, his manager asked him to open up R2D2 and completely gut and redo the electronics. “To grow up and get my degree and get a job in SFX and get 'Yeah, Monday Morning we're going to need you to open up R2D2 and replace the electronics.' What do you say?” he lapses into a weak, wide eyed squeak: “Uhh, wh-hhaat?!??!!”
I always wanted to have a technical career that was also creative. I have been extremely lucky in that sense to be able to combine those two things. First career I had right out of engineering school was at Lucas film, not working in the movies but working in home theater. I would essentially take the latest and greatest home theater equipment and take it down to my lab and try to blow it up for Home THX, for certification.
When asked what the most dangerous thing he has ever done for the show is, Grant ponders for a moment:
It always changes. The one I can remember offhand is diving with sharks at night. That one was a good one.
The hot topic lately regarding MythBusters is the buzz that they were forced to discontinue an episode on RFID security at the behest of several corporate sponsors. When we grilled Grant on this subject, he admitted that that may have been a problem, but they did eventually film an RFID-centered episode, just not technically on the subject in question.
The RFID chip is still embedded in Kari's arm (out of all of us I thought I would be the first cybernetic organism, but I guess Kari beat me to it), and the idea is that if you have an RFID chip in your arm and you do an MRI, will the chip explode? The one she has in her arm is different than the one you find in RIFD hobby kits. You could have the lights [in your house] turn on [automatically] and your car would know who you are, and it would be cool. It does involve minor surgery. But that show did get made.
When pressed for more juicy tidbits, he says:
I am not at liberty to discuss anything that may or may not have been yanked due to sponsors, nor would I comment even if I did, but I will say there have been show that have been pulled for taste reasons, you know, something that the network felt that if they aired it it wouldn't be appropriate for the audience.
That still sounds like a lot of fun. When asked how he could tell whether or not he was working, he shrugged and said “Heh, I guess I'm working if I'm getting paid!”