An Interview With...
Co-Founder BattleBots Inc/Executive Producer of BattleBots TV Show
[Imagiverse note: We transcribed this interview from audio and, because of Greg's extremely busy schedule with the premiere of BattleBots on Discovery and Science Channels this week, he has not been able to proof it. Any typos or spelling errors are not his.]
Where did you grow up and what kinds of things did you enjoy doing as a child?
I grew up in Northern California in Marin County and I enjoyed playing with Legos, building models, playing music and blowing stuff up. Peter Abrahamson, Mark Setrakian, a bunch of other guys from school, and I would often would often get together and show off the models we had built, like Star Wars models, stuff like that… and then we would blow them up.
I was a good student, so I just did my work and got things done, but I would have to say my favorite subject was Music. My other favorite subject was Video. In High School we had this fantastic Video class, that Mark Setrakian, Peter Abrahamson and I took. We all made videos and it was great. That is 90% of the reason that I am doing this TV stuff now. The rest were just like a chore, and I had to get it done.
What were your least favorite or most difficult subjects?
I was one of those kids who could just deal with school and I just did it. I did a good job. I was a good student. I sort of new how to read the teachers and knew what they wanted. So, I would do that, get a grade and be done with it. I would try to always get my homework done before I got home. I would do it in school, so when I got home, I could have fun. I didn’t really struggle with any subjects.
Did you enjoy building and creating when you were young?
Yes, I built Legos and I built models and I did a little bit of electronics, mostly for guitar (pedals and stuff like that).
No, not really. My dad is a big sports jock so he would say, "Go. Do the Team." So, I was on the soccer team, the lacrosse team and for one second I was on the football team until I got tackled and said, "Nooo, I'm not doing this. Forget it. Nope, not for me."
Did you learn any musical instruments?
Yes, huge, big time. I always played piano and I played guitar. I still play guitar to this day, that is my number one passion. I went to Music School. In college, I was a Music major. I studied to be a studio guitar player. I took lessons from Joe Satriani. You can't make any money doing music unless you are really good, but I'm lucky, I just opted for TV. But the number one thing I like to do is play guitar.
Did you participate in theater or dance?
My mom ran a local theater when I was a kid. She ran a total Waiting for Guffman Theater that was at the local Tennis Club. The adults would play all these roles from Broadway shows but they would write these spoof scripts and make them really funny, and interject local humor. So, I grew up in that environment. From the time I was about 6 years old, I was living in my mom's little community theater. I would help design sets and build the stage. When I got older, I was the assistant stage manager. When I got a little older, I was the Stage Manager. So, that sort of live event life has always been part of my growing up DNA. That combined with music and the video class I took in high school is the hugest reason I am doing this TV stuff now. If it wasn't BattleBots, it would be something else.
What did you want to grow up to be?
I wanted to be a Rock Star. I was a Rock Star... for ten days in Japan, with Mark Setrakian and Screaming Mad George, when we were Screaming Mad George's band. Screaming Mad George is a Special Effects Artist/Musician/really famous Japanese guy and we were his band… and WE were famous... for ten days.
Have any part of those early dreams come true?
Yes, I was a Rock Star (for 10 days) and that was great. I did always dream about having some sort of entertainment show on TV, so that came true. That was great.
What was your path to your current position?
I worked in my Mom's theater, I took a great video class for most of high school, and I have always been performing music. So those three things really led me towards a career in the entertainment industry, but mostly towards the production side of it. I helped my Mom produce plays. I was making videos. I was the President of the Video Club and then I did an after-school video program in high school.
I was out of college, working at an ad agency, running around with my pager (this was the mid-80s) and I get a page from Mark Setrakian, who I went to high school with. I called his cell phone and he says, "I got you a ticket to this thing. It's at the Fort Mason Center. Show up. I think you'll like it." So, I didn't really know what he was talking about, but I go to this thing. This "thing" turns out to be Robot Wars.
I walk in the door of the Fort Mason Center and I hear this cacophony of noise, and all this smoke, and I hear this crowd yelling and screaming… but, I can't see anything because there is this giant black curtain and a wall of bleachers in front of me. So, I walk through it, and as soon as I see this spectacle of these little robots, these little machines, bashing the crap out of each other, I got a giant smile on my face and thought that was the greatest thing ever.
Fast forward to six months later, Peter Abrahamson calls me, and says, "Dude! What robot are you building for next year?" And I say, "What?! Robot Building?" I never thought I was going to actually build a robot. I just thought this was a really cool event that my friends were in. I had never thought about actually building one. So, Pete's encouraging me to build. I get off the phone with Pete and I take out the garbage. I was living in this warehouse building at that point, where a whole bunch of people are living in this giant old furniture warehouse in Oakland. It is one of those artist loft things and Gage Cauchois, my neighbor, is taking his garbage out and I say, "Gage, do you know about this thing called Robot Wars?" And he says, "Yeah, I saw that on TV, there was a special on the news about it." And I say, "Do you want to build a robot?" And he says, "Yeah. We should totally build a robot."
So Gage and I got together and started building a robot. I said, “you know, my cousin Trey is a fantastic remote control car driver and he should join us. Plus, he has some money and he can help us pay for the robot.” So, we got Trey involved, and then Trey got $1,000 from his Mom, to buy some stuff and a remote control. We also got some money from Paul MacCready, a friend of the Roski family, who is one of the most famous engineers on the Planet Earth. (He built the Gossamer Condor, that human-powered plane that now hangs from the ceiling of the National Air and Space Museum next to the Wright Brothers' plane and the Apollo 11 capsule.)
So, we got some money and we built LaMachine. It was mostly Gage's idea. Gage said, "Let's keep it simple!" Trey and I wanted to build a spinning propeller, like on the back of a boat, but turn it vertically and make it spin, kind of like what Slam turned out to be. We wanted to build that, but Gage said, "No, that's too complicated. We're just going to build a wedge. That'll be easy." So, we built this wedge called LaMachine, and we went to Robot Wars 1995 and to our great surprise, we completely kicked ass. We were middleweight and we built all the other middleweights. The audience loved us so much they screamed for us to come into the heavyweight rumble, where all the heavyweight robots fight at once, and… we won that! We beat Mark Setrakian's robot, The Master. We beat Thor which was this crazy robot that had a hydraulic hammer, which even to this day would still be pretty competitive.
Once we won that trophy, and we were sort of the darlings of Robot Wars, Robot Wars founder, Marc Thorpe, had people interview us. We thought this was the greatest thing ever and we wanted to do it. So, we did it the next year and the next year. We helped Marc organize other events and helped him make videos. We helped him build arena weapons for the 1996 Robot Wars. Anything we could do to help Marc, we did it. Then came the lawsuit that stalled Robot Wars and dragged on and on. Eventually, people encouraged me and Trey to do our own event. So, Trey and I joined forces… well, we are cousins, so we have always been a joined force… and we started BattleBots. The first event was in Long Beach in 1999 and it has never stopped.
It took us about two months to build LaMachine but it really takes about six months to build a robot today.
Have you ever messed up when building one?
We mess up all the time. Building a robot is a constant process of messing up and fixing and messing up and learning and fixing and improving. There is a saying: "Damage is weakness leaving a robot." So, when you mess up and you incur some damage and some breakage, that is weakness leaving the robot. You learn from that lesson and you do better the next time. Failure is one of the greatest lessons that we have.
Have you ever built one that proved to be a bad design?
Oh yeah! Ginsu! So after LaMachine, we got kind of bored of the wedge. Even though we added a pneumatic spike, with the help of Scott LaValley, to LaMachine to make it a little more exciting, we wanted to build something new. So, we made a robot called Ginsu that had, instead of wheels, 24 inch dual carbide tipped saw blades. So, your wheels were your weapon and the idea was to run over your opponent and cut into it. Mostly what happened with Ginsu, the chains would fall off. Even though we had chain tensioners, and chain protectors and everything, the chains would just plop off the gears and we would lose. What I learned from that design is that I should produce the show and not build the robots.
Yes, of course. LaMachine and Ginsu. My favorite robot, I guess, was LaMachine, because it was the first and it did well.
No way! I will leave that up to Ian and Simon from Warhead.
Have you made a bot that looks like an animal?
Nope. I have not. We made a bot that looked like a doorstop. Yes. Yep. Uh-huh. That's what I did. 😄
So if I was still fighting today, I would fear the spinners. They are crazy. They rip you up. And me, sort of coming from this artistic background… yeah, I helped build a really boring wedge, but I still come from this artistic background and I would want to build something funny and weird and strange and cool. So, if I was in it today, I would not want to build just another spinner. I would want to build something funny and weird, and strange and cool, but I know it would be destroyed by a spinner, so that's who I would fear the most.
Is the bot or the driver your biggest concern?
Probably the bot. I let Trey drive.
How do you feel about drones in the fight?
I love drones.. I think they're fun. They haven't really had a chance to prove themselves yet. It takes a lot of practice. I think, given a few years, we might see a skilled drone pilot who can actually do something in the arena that could help win a fight. This year in Season 3, there were far less drones than in Season 2, but the people who brought drones could definitely fly them much better. I wouldn't give up on drones just yet. I think there is something that can still be done with them.
I think I have seen, literally, about 2,000 robot fights. Between BattleBots, early Robot Wars, and things like RoboGames where I was a judge for a number of years, I think I have seen like 2,000 bot battles… over 2,000 bot battles. So, I can't really tell you. I always really loved Bronco when he just tosses robots eight feet in the air and they do triple flips. That to me is some of my favorite stuff. A specific fight would be too hard for me to pinpoint.
At this point, as one of the people helping to make the show, what I enjoy is getting to see all the new ideas that the bot builders come up with. I really enjoy going through the applications to be on the show and seeing the people who are pushing the envelope, coming up with new ideas and innovating. So, for me it is super exciting to see a robot like Chomp. Zoe has added artificial intelligence. She is mapping the arena. She can fire the weapon autonomously. She can track the other robot autonomously. I think that kind of stuff is really cool and I hope we can see more of that. Not just artificial intelligence, but people pushing the envelope in general. Not only from a technology side but also from an artistic side. I really want BattleBots to be both kick-ass, crazy, insane robots but also a showcase for fun, strange, funny, weird robot designs. So, every season you will always see one or two robots that we know are not going to win but they are really just silly and fun or cool or interesting and have a cool unique vibe to them.
They are 250 lbs.
How do they compare with the bots from the early years of BattleBots? How have the bots and the competitors changed through the years?
They are way more powerful! None of the BattleBots from the early days of Robot Wars or even BattleBots could stand a chance against Tombstone. He'd just destroy them. They'd be dead. And not just Tombstone… any of the crazy spinners or someone like Bronco with the lifters. With the battery technology, the weapon technology, the motor technology and the skill that people have been refining and refining and learning from over the last twenty years… the robots have just gotten way, way, way better. The builders have had twenty years of evolution and learning from everyone's successes and failures so that informs everyone's design now. There is a body of work that everyone can use to make much better robots today.
Easy! It's called Lexan! We use a lot of it, and it is very expensive. We have the BattleBox arena and it is a steel reinforced cage shrouded in Lexan, super thick Lexan, that will withstand the impact of three 44 magnums fired at it simultaneously. So, that is what we do to protect people. Plus, we have a number of strict safety protocols that we use from day one of the competition. For everyone's safety: from inspecting to the protocols we have in the pits and the protocols we have for transporting the robots back and forth from the pits to the arena, activating and deactivating the robots, flame testing, pneumatics testing, failsafe testing… and all kinds of stuff.
What happens when there is a fire in the BattleBox? How do you prevent the spread of flame and smoke?
We have an exhaust system that sucks it out. We have recently made a vacuum system. Our Crewbots and Trey will go in there with a big giant vacuum and it sucks the smoke, from the LiPo battery fires, out of the arena into a filtering system.
Have you ever been injured building robots?
Yes, I have! One time I was stupidly filming Tazbot (Donald Hutson's old robot) and Rampage (Jason Bardis' robot) and Tazbot picked up Rampage and flung it around and it came off of the spike of Tazbot and it hit me right in the shin. My shin exploded into this swelling, red, horrible mass of flesh. Yeah, that sucked. But that was my only injury. And it was stupid. I was filming and I got way, way, way too close, even though they were just rolling around. So I learned my lesson there.
There is no better learning experience than failure and in BattleBots, or any kind of robot combat, you fail all the time. You win and you lose. Things break and you have to fix them. So, what robot combat teaches better than the more practical robot competitions is how to fix stuff, how to be resourceful and how to have on-the-spot ingenuity to fix a problem… because your robot just broke and you have to get it fixed before the next fight. So, I think there is a huge amount of positivity in the destructive aspect of robot combat fighting.
Why is robotics and BattleBots a good activity or sport for children (boys and girls)?
Again, because you get to learn to be innovative, resourceful and you get to learn a bit of tenacity. So, what I have always loved about robot fighting is that kids love it, so they want to get involved in building one. They start along that path of building one. They actually have to take an idea that is in their head, put it on paper (or a CAD file or whatever), design it, and then actually build it. Then they make a hundred mistakes they have to fix and then they fight it and then it breaks and then they have to fix it again. They win a few and then another robot beats them and then they have to figure out how to tweak their robot so that it beats the guy or girl who beat them. It is this constant learning evolution on how to improve your design. If that is not a metaphor for life, or for getting a job, I don't know what is. Just that experience for anyone, like as young as eight years old, all the way up to your teens… doing that… going through that experience is a lot of work. It is the same exact experience that an adult goes through getting a job, or getting an advanced degree, or trying to start a business. So having that experience so young is huge! It is probably one of the greatest experiences you could ever give a kid.
Yes, I am.
How fierce is the competition between the various teams?
It can be very fierce but everyone has a lot of camaraderie and good sportsmanship. They all share ideas. They share parts. They share tools. Because they all want the robots to be at their best.
What goes on behind the scenes when builders are working on and repairing their robots?
People are fixing, frantically, to get their robots ready for the next event, the next fight. People are talking shop (talking about their designs and showing off how they solve problems). Other people might be borrowing tools or borrowing components from other teams who graciously give them, because this is a very solid, great sportsman community. It is just sort of a family, who get together and break each other's toys a couple times a year. We do it in a fun way, with great respect for each other.
Yes, build something! Don't just think about it. Don't just say you are going to do it. Just do it. Do it. Do it. Do it! Just do it now. You have an idea in your head, get out the Legos and build it. Get out the Erector Set. Build it. Whatever you've got, start building it. It doesn't matter if it is going to fail. It does not matter if it is not going to work. Start. Just do it. Take that first step. Don't just think about it all day long and not do anything about it. Always take that first step. There is nothing better, that anybody can learn, than to actually do it. Take the first step. Start down the path and go for it. Most people don't do that. If you learn, as a kid, how to do that… if you learn to go for it, and do it and just try, and just make an effort and see what happens, you will be a thousand times better off than most people who just don't do things. They have ideas. They say they are going to do this and going to do that but… they never do it. So, just do it.
"Do or do not. There is no try." ~Yoda
- 11 May 2018
13 May 2018
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