Episode 6: The Real-Life MacGyver in Nat Geo’s Basement

How do you photograph beavers under ice—something no one’s ever done before? You enlist the help of Nat Geo’s gadget guru, aka Tom O’Brien, whose job is to figure out how to capture images and sounds that have never been seen or heard.

Tom O'Brien photographed in the studio at National Geographic showcasing his role in creating specialized equipment.
Photograph by Rebecca Hale

In the basement of National Geographic’s headquarters, there’s a lab holding a secret tech weapon: Tom O’Brien. As Nat Geo’s photo engineer, O’Brien adapts new technologies to capture sights and sounds previously never seen or heard before. O’Brien leads us on a tour of his lab as he designs and builds an underwater camera and shows us some of his favorite gadgets—a camera lens that flew over Machu Picchu in a blimp, a remote camera he designed for the film Free Solo, and a piece of gear known simply as the “funky bird train”.

TRANSCRIPT

PETER GWIN (HOST): I want you to imagine a photograph. OK, we’re way up north in the Canadian Arctic in a place called Ellesmere Island. This is a land where packs of white arctic wolves prey on muskoxen. OK, picture big, shaggy buffalo with thick, curling horns. 

All right. Our photograph—it shows what happens after a wolf-kill. The point of view is from inside the carcass of a dead muskox. Rib bones curve across the foreground, already picked clean. A wolf stares at the rest of the meat. We’re so close that we can see something in the wolf’s eyes: a primal glint of determination, or maybe it’s just hunger. But have you ever wondered, How did the photographer get that shot and not get eaten?

TOM O’BRIEN (PHOTO ENGINEER): Wolf-proof camera traps. 

GWIN: This is Tom O’Brien. His business card says he’s a photo engineer at National Geographic. But really he’s our photographers’ secret weapon. From his workshop in the National Geographic basement, Tom designs completely custom camera gear for our photographers. If you can dream it, he can probably build it.

The photographer on the wolf assignment needed a camera that he could place inside the carcass and leave it there for days.

O’BRIEN: And I had to think like a wolf or like a dog because I was like, well, dogs, as we all know, like to chew on things, right? And so they'll chew on the cables. They'll chew on the boxes. 

GWIN: Right.

After Tom designed the camera trap, he protected all the cables with stainless steel. But how could he be sure that an arctic wolf couldn’t actually bite through?

O’BRIEN: I'll be honest with you, at one point, I definitely like gnawed on something, like, all right, could I get to this? 

GWIN: Wait a minute. You gnawed on your own camera trap?

O’BRIEN: On a stainless steel piece of conduit. I'm dead serious. I just kind of put it in my mouth—was like no definitely can't get to that. Because I could stand on it and I couldn't bend it. And yeah, I mean, they came back with gnaw marks on the boxes from the arctic wolf teeth. 

GWIN: Yeah. 

Tom and his photo engineering lab are the secret sauce behind some of National Geographic’s most surprising and iconic images. So I wanted to know, how does he do it? How does Tom take a photographer’s crazy idea and morph it into a custom camera that looks like something out of a Transformers movie and finally produce images that end up in the pages of National Geographic?

I’m Peter Gwin, editor at large at National Geographic, and this is Overheard, a show where we eavesdrop on the wild conversations we have at Nat Geo and follow them to the edges of our big, weird, beautiful world.

You’ve seen our magazine’s stunning photos. This week, we go behind the scenes in the workshop that makes them possible. We’ll follow our photo engineer as he builds a contraption designed to photograph something that’s never been seen before. 

And in honor of World Oceans Day, we’ll explain the invention that helped legendary explorer Jacques Cousteau pull back the curtain on previously unseen ocean landscapes.

More after the break.

Tom spends a lot of time alone in his lab, deep in the basement of National Geographic headquarters. He’s surrounded by workbenches and large machines with signs warning about electric shocks and possible loss of limbs. And cameras. Lots and lots of cameras. For the most part, what happens down there, only Tom knows.

O’BRIEN: Hopefully I don’t sound like too much of a dum-dum while doing this. You guys said you wanted me to record myself while I was working, right? So there you go. You get my train of thought. Inside my brain it’s a crazy place.

GWIN: So we asked him to record a diary as he started a new project this spring. This one—it’s all about beavers.

O’BRIEN: Another quick update. It’s 7:35 p.m. March 1st. beaverlution continues. 

GWIN: We’ll get into that one later. As Nat Geo’s photo engineer, Tom is always working on challenging requests from photographers. The best way I can explain the job is that it’s kind of a mash-up of two brilliant fictional characters. On the one hand, Tom is a little bit of Q from James Bond. You know, the inventor that crafted all the elegant designs for 007 to use out in the field. And on the other hand, sometimes he’s MacGyver: you know, that guy racing against the clock to get a handmade piece of tech out the door on deadline. But whatever he’s working on, it’s always one of a kind. Case in point...

O’BRIEN: And this is what I call the funky bird train.

GWIN: When Tom holds the funky bird train in front of me it doesn’t look very funky or really anything like a bird. To my untrained eye, it’s just a little metal box with a few pieces of PVC pipe. These days the funky bird train sits on a shelf that kind of serves as Tom’s hall of fame. 

Funky bird train. OK.

O’BRIEN: I'll tell you why it’s the funky bird train. So sage grouse—it's a species of bird that live out in the plains of North America. And they do a mating dance in the morning—the males do this weird mating dance. 

GWIN: And obviously a Nat Geo photographer would want to see that weird mating dance. It was actually Charlie Hamilton James, who we’ve met before on Overheard. But it’s not that easy. Sage grouse won’t dance if there’s a human around. So Charlie needed stealth, and he asked Tom if he could build a little remote-control train. The camera would go on top of the train, and it could roll right into the middle of the sage grouse and get the shot.

O’BRIEN: So we made the track out of 3D-printed railroad ties.

GWIN: Oh my gosh. 

O’BRIEN: And the track is half-inch standard plumbing PVC. So he could just pick that up out in Wyoming. And then this is all just an aluminum little cart, fully RC-controlled with a small camera on it.

GWIN: OK, but a metallic remote-control train—it’s still going to scare the birds, right? So they needed to find a way to disguise the camera. Charlie made a papier-mâché sage grouse—think kind of like a piñata—to cover everything up. They cut a hole so the camera could see out. And boom: Funky bird train, ready to roll. Get into the mating dance!

O’BRIEN: And then you can Wi-Fi control this at a hundred feet away. 

GWIN: Oh my gosh.

O’BRIEN: And this little thing out on the prairie was like, Rur, rur, rur, rur, rur.

GWIN: So did it work? 

O’BRIEN: Yeah. The system totally worked. 

GWIN: Beautiful.

In the end, the funky bird train captured a sage grouse, and no less, one bathed in the dramatic light of a Wyoming sunrise. It looks majestic, standing straight up with its tail feathers fanned out and a thick ring of white feathers around its neck, kind of like a boa you might wear to a fancy party. Not bad for a bird known for being kind of goofy or awkward. But without a photo engineer, getting that shot might not be possible.

O’BRIEN: Someone's been doing something like my job since probably early in the 1900s. 

GWIN: Yeah.

O’BRIEN: Give or take. I don't know when it started exactly, but like it's been going on for a long time. Someone's been doing weird custom stuff at this address. 

GWIN: Tom is the sole photo engineer at National Geographic. But he’s part of a long line of inventors who worked here before him. He calls them his ancestors. And the ancestors played a part in some of the most famous explorations of the 20th century.

UNIDENTIFIED VOICE: We're very happy to have Captain Jacques Yves Cousteau with us tonight. 

GWIN: Jacques Cousteau. In the 1950s he brought the oceans to life in a whole new way. Remember, this was the height of the space race. Humans were obsessed with outer space. But Cousteau believed the oceans were just as vast a frontier. He called them inner space. And they were full of treasures nobody had ever seen.  

In 1960 Cousteau spoke at National Geographic headquarters. He gave commentary as he played a film he had taken on recent expeditions, like a rich thicket of plants all growing together on the side of a volcano, a thousand feet below the surface. 

JACQUES COUSTEAU (OCEANOGRAPHER): No human eye has ever seen such gardens before. These gardens are far below the reach—beyond the reach of divers.

GWIN: Of course at the time, everybody wasn’t walking around with smartphones in their pockets. And capturing photos and film underwater was an extremely specialized skill, requiring a lot of technical know-how and expensive equipment. So not just anybody could do this. 

On the one hand Cousteau is allowing viewers to see sharks and whales up close—and creatures they’d never even seen before. But on the other hand he’s giving scientists a powerful new tool to explore this poorly understood landscape, like when during this presentation, Cousteau’s camera narrowed on a group of brittle star—relatives of sea stars—standing at attention on the seafloor like a troop of soldiers or a forest.  

COUSTEAU: The regularity of this forest astonished the biologists. So imagine the value of such documents, taken for hours and hours.

GWIN: But Cousteau didn’t capture these images alone. He relied on one of Tom O’Brien’s ancestors: Harold Edgerton.

COUSTEAU: Here at the right you'll recognize our friend, Dr. Harold Edgerton, who has always been with us in the interesting experiments made.
GWIN: Most of the ocean is pitch-black, and in the 1950s photographers struggled to light underwater photos. Sometimes water pressure would even shatter old-school flashbulbs. So the photographer ended up with just a handful of broken glass and no good photos to show for it. 

So Edgerton took on the challenge. He specialized in creating strobe lighting techniques. He was so well known for it that Cousteau’s crew called him Papa Flash. With funding from National Geographic, Edgerton invented a new type of lighting system and new cameras to capture high-quality underwater images. He and Cousteau would attach the cameras and lights to a sled called a troika and then tow it through the water.

COUSTEAU: Dr. Edgerton asks for one of his gadgets to be bolted on the troika. This time it's going to be a very special electronic flash, especially designed for a movie camera. 

GWIN: With the new cameras, Cousteau’s dreams came to life. He made us see the ocean the way he saw it: as a fragile, spectacular world. And more importantly, he made us care. Scientists credit Cousteau with jolting the public into action. For generations of scientists, conservationists—but also millions of regular people, including me and my brothers gawking at the television in our living room—Cousteau helped us see the hidden world inside the ocean and realize that we had to protect it. 

None of that could have happened without an engineer tinkering and discovering a better way to capture those images. And now, more than 60 years later, that’s the legacy Tom O’Brien carries on. 

Besides diving with Jacques Cousteau, National Geographic photo engineers have worked on all sorts of projects—some more far-fetched than others. They actually designed gear to help search for the Loch Ness monster, which they did not find. They’ve also attached a camera to the tail of a jumbo jet, used super high-speed cameras to study the biomechanics of a cheetah, taken aerial photos of Machu Picchu from a blimp, and photographed a bullet in flight. 

So you get the idea. I went to visit Tom in his subterranean lair. He loves to give tours.

O’BRIEN: Now this is probably one of the best parts of the entire tour. 

GWIN: One second, Tom shows me a weird, skinny camera. He’s not sure but he thinks it may have been used to photograph the inside of an Egyptian tomb. And then he tells me about a camera he made for Free Solo, the Oscar-winning documentary. The filmmaker, Jimmy Chin, captured climber Alex Honnold scaling El Capitan with no ropes. One day, out of the blue, Jimmy called Tom. 

O’BRIEN: And he explained, there’s this hard part where Alex didn’t want cameras—where Alex didn’t want people being near him.

GWIN: Right.

O’BRIEN: And said—and he told me like when they were going to try to do the climbs. And so I built them three cameras, three remote camera systems. 

GWIN: So in the film, when Alex clears one of the trickiest sections, called the Boulder Problem—that’s Tom. 

O’BRIEN: And you get absolute terrible vertigo at that shot. 

GWIN: Oh my gosh.

O’BRIEN: No thank you. I’m decent with heights, but not like that. 

GWIN: Yeah.

OK, so blimps, tombs, funky bird train—in Tom’s workshop if you can imagine an image, he can come up with a contraption to capture it. This spring we got wind that Tom was actually starting a new project. It’s called—you guessed it—beaverlution. 

O’BRIEN: It's, uh, 7:26 p.m. Still at the office. It's March 1st. Of course it's 2021. 

GWIN: The beaverlution idea came from one of Tom’s repeat customers, Ronan Donovan. 

He’s the photographer who captured the arctic wolves we heard about at the beginning.

O’BRIEN: And he wants to do a specific image in a way that hasn't been done before. 

GWIN: Ronan wants to photograph the way beavers store food under the ice in winter. As far as National Geographic staff can tell, Ronan would be the first person to ever capture that image. So how’s he going to do it? Ronan plans to camp out at a frozen beaver pond. He’ll chainsaw a hole in the ice and stick a camera down the hole, into the water. 

O’BRIEN: And it's a tricky thing to do remote cameras underwater because, well, for starters, it's underwater and cameras don't like water. 

GWIN: So here’s what Tom has to do. First he has to protect the camera in the cold, icy water. He also has to create some kind of frame that sits on the ice with the camera hanging down into the water. And then he has to fine-tune specialized cables for power, lighting, and for Ronan to control the camera. Oh, and by the way—he has less than a month to slap together the beavercam before the winter ice melts.

O’BRIEN: And I've done some of this before, but it's a nice challenge for once to get a weird one. This is going to be fun.

GWIN: OK, so here we go. After Tom sketches out a plan, he orders as much of the gear off the shelf as he can find on the internet. And about a week after our first update, Tom gets a package.

O’BRIEN: So we're just going to open a box. What are we doing? We’re going to open up a brand-new underwater housing that arrived today. What have we got in the box? Lots of packing peanuts in the box. All right, what do we got?

GWIN: Tom unwraps a black box with a glass dome bulging out of the middle. It looks like the outer shell of a camera, and it has lots of little levers and buttons inside. This is an underwater camera housing. It’s a little astronaut suit that keeps the camera dry and warm underwater. And it’s ready to go out of the box. But Tom wants to make a few small modifications so that it works with the rest of the equipment he’s making. 

O’BRIEN: That's the name of the game—is reverse engineering things that are off the shelf, modifying them, and sticking them back in the field for photographers and hope for the best. All right. Ooh, those are wobbly, so we're going to need that size bolt. Cool. Cool. Let's take off another one of these. Come on, get off. 

GWIN: Thankfully, no tools—or knuckles—were broken in the making of this episode.

O’BRIEN: They put this on really hard and they really didn't—wow, that is in tight. I'm about to break a tool doing this. What the heck? I’ll be right back.

GWIN: OK, so Tom eventually got the bolt off. And underwater housing: check. Next he needs a way to anchor the camera above the ice so that it can hang down into the water. He plans a simple metal frame, about the size and shape of a basic workbench you might have in your garage. 

The frame’s feet will stay on the icy surface of the pond. And after Ronan cuts a hole, the camera will hang down into the water from the middle of the frame. It kind of looks like a swingset—if a swingset had a gigantic lens staring at you in the face. Not only does Tom have to make the frame, but he has to fabricate little metal pieces that keep the camera attached. 

O’BRIEN: We're going to do some cutting of aluminum. We’re gonna do some welding, I think, of stainless steel. Probably some eating of pizza while walking around the shop. Very sanitary. Here we go. 

GWIN: By now he has just days to finish the frame and get everything shipped out. He’s super busy welding, milling, cutting, assembling, and testing. But when I visited, I couldn’t resist getting him to show me the coolest tool he’s got: the plasma cutter.

[sound of plasma cutter machine]

O’BRIEN: Plasma is the fourth type of matter—form of energy. You know you've got solids, liquids, gases, and then you have plasma. We're not going to go into it. Nutshell, it's like a lightsaber. It's like the closest thing on earth to a lightsaber, and it's fantastic. 

[sound of plasma cutter machine]

GWIN: Yeah. I totally know what I’m asking for for Father’s Day. After Tom finishes all the little touches on the metal frame, he starts working on all the cables. OK, this is tedious work. But it looks like he’s going to meet the deadline. 

O’BRIEN: It’s almost like a sprint because there's just days left, and it's just me. I can't be like, Hey, you, friend, can you come help? There is no friend to come help.

GWIN: As Tom raced to get the beavercam finished, I started to wonder about the end result: the photographs. What would these beaver photographs look like? And after all this work, what will readers in National Geographic magazine actually see? 

You know, Ronan will set this up. How many images do you think will come out of this that will actually end up either in the magazine or online? 

O’BRIEN: One.

GWIN: One published photograph. That’s what all this is for. So why do you go to all the trouble for one published photograph? The answer to that question lies with the people who decide what goes into the magazine: the photo editors.

KAYA BERNE (PHOTO EDITOR): We had been doing a few digital—like short digital stories on beavers, very specific. And I would always be pulling my hair out trying to find a decent photograph.

GWIN: This is Kaya Berne. She’s a photo editor on our animals desk. This beavers story is her brainchild. The Nat Geo photo archive is gargantuan—something like 11 and a half million photos—and for an in-depth story, photo editors like Kaya regularly look through tens of thousands of frames, looking for the one image that stands out from the rest.  Kaya says she can count on one hand the number of good beaver photos: photos that seem intimate or give you a glimmer of the animal’s personality.   

BERNE: Every other beaver photograph out there really is not good. It's typically taken from above the water. So you have horrible reflection. So I was just getting frustrated. 

GWIN: She thought, If there aren’t any good beaver photos, we’re National Geographic, we should go make some. So she planned a whole story, including the shot Tom’s beavercam is designed for: seeing beavers underneath winter ice.

BERNE: I mean, they are probably second to us when it comes to knowing how to engineer in their environment. So being able to actually show that, right? Underwater, middle of winter, a food stock that they put together throughout the summer and fall for themselves. 

GWIN: So Kaya wants her story to show how beavers interact with the natural world and how they interact with us. It all starts with seeing an extraordinary side of nature. Jacques Cousteau showed us that seeing is the first step to pushing people to protect it. If Cousteau could make us care about what’s hidden beneath the oceans, why not beavers?

BERNE: I think that if you can create some feeling within a person of maybe not empathy but connection and similarity in a way, you can then get them to care about that animal.

GWIN: Back in his lab, Tom is near the finish line with the beavercam. 

O’BRIEN: So it's 4:33 p.m. on Tuesday, March 23rd of 2021, and I’ve got a bit of an update for everyone. As in all things in life, things can change.

GWIN: He’s almost ready to ship it out. And then he gets a phone call.

O’BRIEN: So going into this morning, it was all go, go, go, go, go. Full commando mode, full MacGyver mode. Just figure it out as hard and as fast as I could, so we could try to get this thing shipped out later this week.

GWIN: But projects like this have a lot of moving parts. And the photographer, Ronan, tells Tom there’s been a delay. He won’t make it into the field before the ice melts, so the beavercam won’t see action just yet.

O’BRIEN: There will be no triumphant send-up of all the gear at the end. 

GWIN: Tom says it was disappointing to get that call. But he was also relieved. 

O’BRIEN: You know as an engineer—any real, any true engineer—no one wants to—I don't like that I have to rush projects. So when you get more time, all of a sudden you're like, OK, first off I can go take a nap. OK, great. Secondly I can take time to work out all the problems.

GWIN: OK, there was one upside. Since the beavercam was delayed, I actually got to see it in person. And there’s really only one feature that dominates your attention: the glass dome of the underwater housing with the camera peering out. 

So this looks to me like a giant robot eye. This big black, unblinking, scary—this is Big Brother, right? 

O’BRIEN: Yeah, I mean it's close enough, I mean… (fades out)

GWIN: For now that robot eye sits in Tom’s workshop, waiting for its chance to capture beavers like we’ve never seen them before. But already, Tom is dreaming up new uses for the beavercam. For one, he plans to re-use it with other photographers and other projects beyond beavers. And he also sees some more possibilities to use it to bring beavers to life. 

O’BRIEN: So in theory with this, I can now—sorry, this is all very exciting, my brain. We could make a Zoom call or like a video call, conference call on his computer and then have the footage be direct from an underwater view of a beaver dam.  

GWIN: That’s right. beaverlution livestream, straight from the dam.

O’BRIEN: And maybe you would see a beaver swimming by or something like that. That's crazy. I just thought about that. We're going to have to try this.

GWIN: And even though the beavercam is finished, there’s plenty of day-to-day craziness. Tom is also a one-man help hotline for our photographers. At any time he could get a call in the middle of the night from India or an update from an explorer stranded on an iceberg.

O’BRIEN: So you know, it's always exciting. Every day is exciting and you never know what screwball thing some photographer or visual journalist is going to come up with next and be like, Hey, so I got an idea. Can we do this?

GWIN: And whenever those ideas come up, we have a guy. Actually, our secret weapon. 

O’BRIEN: And with that, I sign off for now. Goodbye.

GWIN: More after the break.

All right, so if all this talk about photography has you fired up, check out the show notes. We have plenty of photos of arctic wolves; the sage grouse, as captured by the funky bird train; and a super slo-mo of cheetah running at top speed. You’ve got to check this out. It’s crazy. Also, for World Oceans Day, learn more about the legendary Jacques Cousteau. He pioneered scuba diving, brought the ocean to our living rooms, and sparked people to protect the world around us.

And, even though the beavercam photos haven’t published yet, we have a really cool story about beavers and how they change the world around us. It’s a previous episode of Overheard called “March of the Beavers.” Some of you may have already heard it. Go listen again—it’s awesome! Check it out in your feed, or in the show notes. They’re right there in your podcast app. And while you’re there, be sure to rate and review us in Apple Podcasts. It really helps other listeners find us.

CREDITS

Overheard at National Geographic is produced by Jacob Pinter, Brian Gutierrez, Laura Sim, Ilana Strauss, and Menaka Wilhelm.

Our senior producer is Carla Wills.

Our senior editor is Eli Chen.

Our executive producer of audio is Davar Ardalan.

Our fact-checkers are Robin Palmer and Julie Beer. 

Our copy editor is Amy Kolczak.

Hansdale Hsu composed our theme music and engineers our episodes.

Thanks to Karen Cerka for archival research, and for providing the recording of Jacques Cousteau heard in this episode.

This podcast is a production of National Geographic Partners.

Whitney Johnson is the director of visuals and immersive experiences.

Susan Goldberg is National Geographic’s editorial director.

And I’m your host, Peter Gwin. Thanks for listening, and see y’all next time.

SHOW NOTES

Want more?

See photographs mentioned in this episode, including wolves captured by a gnaw-proof camera, sage grouse as seen by the funky bird train, and a cheetah running in super slow motion. Want to see what goes on in Nat Geo’s photo engineering lab? Follow Tom O’Brien on Instagram @mechanicalphoto. And learn more about Tom’s predecessor, Kenji Yamaguchi, who held the job for more than 30 years. 

Also explore:

On World Oceans Day, learn more about Jacques Cousteau, who pioneered scuba gear, brought the oceans to life, and jolted people into environmental activism.    

And hear more about beavers and how they shape the world on a previous Overheard episode, “March of the Beaver.”

If you like what you hear and want to support more content like this, please consider a National Geographic subscription. Go to natgeo.com/explore to subscribe today.