Playback: The Real-Life MacGyver in Nat Geo's Basement
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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. In this episode, originally published in June 2021, 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—including 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.”

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Want more?

See National Geographic's Pictures of the Year and our five picks for Photographers of the Year. To capture one of the year's best pictures—an encounter with elephants in Gabon—O'Brien outfitted a photographer with 1,100 pounds of custom gear.

Our photographers capture millions of individual frames per year. In a previous episode of Overheard, Nat Geo's deputy director of photography breaks down the process to select only the best images.

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:

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 to subscribe today.

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