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Whitney Johnson is Director of Visual and Immersive Experiences at National Geographic.
No photographers were harmed in the making of this picture.
That's partly because of Tom O'Brien, a resident technical wizard who designs things like the camera trap used for this photo of wolves picking a muskox carcass in the Canadian Arctic. Back at Nat Geo HQ, O’Brien even gnawed on part of this camera trap to test it, anticipating a probe by a hungry predator.
If Nat Geo were a James Bond movie, Tom would be Q, the British intelligence gadget builder. In Tom’s case, however, he equips photographers so that we can see the extraordinary in our world.
“If you can dream it, he can probably build it,” says Peter Gwin, speaking to Tom’s ambition in this week’s episode of the Overheard at National Geographic podcast. And he’s right. For more than 100 years, engineers have been designing and fabricating custom cameras and other visual storytelling contraptions for us.
“I don’t like to share these ideas, but I will share one here just for you, the readers,” Tom wrote, when I asked what keeps him awake at night. He tells me that he dreams of building a remote amphibious camera platform that photographers can control to get near dangerous, or even skittish, animals in wetlands, or other areas where remote-control vehicles cannot navigate.
“I’ll keep my secret on how I plan to do it–and leave it to your imagination,” he adds.
Tom (pictured above) is so ingenious—brainstorming with our photographers about what they want to do, and then turning those ideas into reality through mental imagination, research, 3-D computer design, rapid prototyping, and fabrication—that he is rarely without a solution. Though there is one challenge that sits just out of reach, he admits: underwater camera-trap sensors.
“Normal terrestrial camera-trap sensors work similar to motion sensors,” he explains. “But they simply do not function underwater.” Yet.
If you’re lucky enough to take a tour of Tom’s workshop, he always begins: “I’m here for the wide, the long, and the weird.” So join me, as we take a look at a few highlights:
The snow leopard: Tom helped photographer Prasenjeet Yadav build several camera traps to capture images of the elusive cat. At left, one trap catches an image of an old male snow leopard on a mountain. Prasenjeet observed this cat for two years before its death in March, when it chased an ibex off a cliff. At right, another hidden camera setup for the assignment.
The Boneyard: To make this image at the world’s largest aircraft dismantling and repurposing facility, in Arizona, Tom gave photographer Luca Locatelli a camera mounted on a 27-foot pole.
The funky bird: For a magazine story on sage grouse, a species of bird that lives in the plains of North America, photographer Charlie Hamilton James wanted to capture an image of the sage grouse doing their mating dance (above). There was a problem. Sage grouse won’t dance if there’s a human around. So Charlie asked Tom to build him a remote-control train with a camera hidden inside a fake bird, a contraption that he now calls “the funky-bird train” (shown below).
A dizzying challenge: For Free Solo, the Oscar-winning documentary that followed climber Alex Honnold scaling Yosemite’s El Capitan with no ropes, Tom was hard at work. He built three remote-camera systems for photographer Jimmy Chin to film a particularly difficult portion of the ascent (below)—when Alex Honnold didn’t want any cameras, or people, near him.