Career Profile: Grant Imahara

Aug. 21, 2008
The cohost of Discovery Channel’s Mythbusters talks about being a human guinea pig, filming a TV show, and making your own luck.

Edited by Victoria Burt

What does a typical work day look like? There is no such thing as a “typical day” on our show. We could be jumping out of planes, learning to swing on a trapeze, swimming with sharks, and the list goes on and on. We usually find out what we’re doing for the week on Monday morning. As hosts, the three of us (Tory Belleci, Kari Byron, and myself ) design and execute our experiments. Adam Savage and Jamie Hyneman, the other two hosts, design and execute their own experiments. We use ourselves as “human guinea pigs,” although sometimes a situation is too dangerous to use one of us, so we design and build machines to stand in for humans.

A cameraman and sound recorder follow us around during the day documenting the things we say and do. A team of researchers finds background information and sets up filming locations, experts, equipment rentals, and procures any special materials we might need to do our testing. A producer ties together the whole process and makes sure we’ve filmed enough sequences to tell a coherent story. In Sydney, Australia, where our home office is located, another team handles the writing, editing, sound mixing, and final assembly of the raw footage into a broadcast-ready show for Discovery Channel. We do not have people who design or make our experiments for us, and the building and problem-solving process we go through is a part of the show.

What is your biggest technical challenge so far? A vehicle-mounted grappling hook which allows a car to make a high-speed 90° turn by attaching to a light pole or other vertical structure.

What tasks do you most like to do? Learning new skills is always fun. As a part of my job, I’ve gotten instruction in stunt driving, trapeze, skydiving, scuba diving, and firearms to name a few things. Because our myths don’t come from just one genre, we’re constantly exposed to new things.

What do you least like to do? Make sacrifices for the sake of time or money, but that is something you’ll have to face regardless of whether you’re an engineer, artist, or a TV personality.

Did you ever consider doing something else with your life besides engineering? I like the creative process and briefly explored a career in screenwriting. However, these days, I couldn’t imagine a life without engineering.

What attracted you to an engineering career? I liked the challenge of designing and building things, figuring out how something works and how to make it better or apply it in a different way. When I was a kid, I never wanted to be James Bond. I wanted to be Q, because he was the guy who made all the gadgets. I guess you could say that engineering came naturally.

What traits and habits help you excel in engineering? Although I personally hate to fail, I know that it is an important part of engineering. I like to start out with a simple design and keep testing and refining it until I get the results I want.

What advice would you give a young person interested in pursuing engineering? Young people approach me for advice all the time. Usually, they want to know how to get on TV, or how to learn how to blow things up, or how to work in the movie business. I tell them all the same thing: Luck may exist, but you shouldn’t rely on that to be successful. Many people say that they became successful by being in the right place at the right time. The trick is to get yourself to the right place at the right time, have the necessary skills, and be available for opportunity. All of these things are totally within your control.

Mythbusters uses science to prove or disprove urban legends. The hosts break down each myth into constituent parts and perform experiments to see if they check out. Before landing on Mythbusters, Imahara worked as a licensing engineer for three years and an animatronics engineer/special-effects technician for nine. “I’m older than I look,” he adds. Imahara has a B.S. in electrical engineering from the University of Southern California.

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