Interviews

The POV Interview: Niobe Thompson and Darren Fung on ‘The Great Human Odyssey’

From the small screen to epic live performance.

Anthropologist Niobe Thompson, Host of The Great Human Odyssey


Last year, CBC’s The Nature of Things premiered the three-part documentary mini-series The Great Human Odyssey presented and directed by Niobe Thompson. The series took audiences on a global tour of humankind’s evolution across the ages. The scope of The Great Human Odyssey is stunning, and the artistic efforts behind the documentary are just as sweeping, particularly the wall-to-wall score by Canadian-born composer Darren Fung, which offers a cinematic opus featuring members of the Edmonton Symphony Orchestra and ProCoro Canada. The series is currently nominated for three Canadian Screen Awards including Best Science or Nature Documentary Program or Series, Best Director, and Best Original Music, as well as a nod for the show’s amazing interactive website.

The Great Human Odyssey embarks on a new journey this month as a feature-length film presented with a live orchestral performance. This ambitious production—unparalleled for Canadian documentary, although Guy Maddin has performed My Winnipeg with live components—has its World Premiere February 25th at the Winspear Centre in Edmonton. Rehearsals are underway and POV had the pleasure to attend a workshop at Toronto’s ArrayMusic Studio to watch Thompson and Fung perfect the timing of the film with the live music and Thompson’s narration, and chat about the process afterwards.


"THE GREAT HUMAN ODYSSEY" (Trailer) from Human Odyssey on Vimeo.

POV: Pat Mullen
NT: Niobe Thompson
DF: Darren Fung

POV: The project has had quite an odyssey of its own. Can you talk about the evolution from the miniseries to the feature and where the interactive component came in?

NT: This project was first conceived, pitched, and financed as a three-part documentary for CBC’s The Nature of Things. At that point we wanted there to be an interactive component, as well, to enable people to go on an immersive journey into the worlds of three cultures other than our own—the Badjao, the Chukchi, and the Ju/Wasi Bushmen of the Kalahari. I wanted to work with Darren, and I saw that he could work miracles on a very low budget documentary. I thought, ‘If he can do that on this budget, what can he do when we actually have a commission?’ So that was all there from the beginning, but the idea to bring it back as a live performance, that was all someone’s crazy notion when we were doing the recording sessions a year ago and it sounded like a fun idea… at the time. [Thompson and Fung both laugh]

DF: It will be a ‘fun idea’ after we’re all done, too! [laughs]

NT: But what it really meant in practice was to go back and re-edit the film, making a feature, where there was none thought of before, re-score it, and then figure out how to do this live and take on all the risks that entails. It was a much bigger undertaking than we thought three years in after finishing the recording sessions. [Both laugh again, heartily]

Composer and conductor Darren Fung


POV: So did the score guide what you chose to edit from the mini-series into the film, or were you looking more at the images to determine the 80-minute cut?

DF: I think it was a combination of both. A lot of scenes and cues worked verbatim, but when you’re presenting this genre, live orchestra, there’s an expectation that’s there’s going to be more music. We’re pretty much wall-to-wall music here except for three short little periods where Niobe is speaking and it just doesn’t call for music. A lot of the creative legwork is done because you’ve created themes and of course you’re revisiting this a year after the fact, so you’re trying to get back into the zone, but you’re also coming back to it with a fresh mind. One thing I was encouraging Niobe and Krystal [Moss] in the editing process was that when you’re cutting and removing a frame here and a frame there, it totally changes the music. If you take one beat or two beats out of the music, it completely changes the structure.

POV: It changes the timing, yes.

DF: But today was especially rewarding. Not only are we seeing the light at the end of the tunnel, we’re re-experiencing the magic we felt when we first recorded in December and that re-invigorates us even more.

NT: And a documentary like this is more susceptible to being remade as a musical spectacle because, as a story of human origins, it relies heavily on recreations. We filmed recreations all over the world with indigenous people and the scenes with present-day people around the world were also spectacular, so the raw material was there to go in the direction that we need to go for a full orchestral performance. We pulled back on some of the science; we let the musical sequences breathe, and it’s almost like we’re able to do with this live performance things that we couldn’t do with the tightly timed television documentary because we had to pack a lot of information within the 43 minutes of The Nature of Things. What we were doing was pushing the music back to get the intellectual narrative forward. We don’t have to do that here!

Niobe Thompson and his crew were the first to film in the war torn Tawi Tawi region of the southern Philippines


POV: And it seems that you can do more with the sound and image too. There’s a sense of improvisation to rehearsing the live performance… so do you find that you’ve been able to fine-tune the project?

NT: It’s hard to say. No, I think this version is just different because we’re starting from the point of departure that says this is a musical spectacle and people don’t go to listen to a live choral and symphonic performance to watch someone do an interview in a lab. My challenge as the scientist of the team was to figure out how to simplify the scientific narrative as much as possible and not completely lose you.

DF: What I think we’ve come up with is something very faithful to Niobe’s intentions as a filmmaker and as an anthropologist. This film also celebrates what I think is my best work as a film composer in terms of extraordinary orchestration and choral scoring. You don’t see this amount of resources put into documentary film scores normally and since we had the privilege and the resources to do it, how could we let it die? Not “die,” but how can we have it stand there on its own?

Aerials filming with shaman character on the Russian Bering Strait


POV: Yeah, I don’t think anyone has ever undertaken a live score for a Canadian documentary before this one. Did you have anyone to go to for advice or mentoring?

NT: Most of the people I brought this idea to thought it was just nuts. [Everyone laughs.] When even the composer says you’re nuts, you know you’re out on the fringes. But certainly we had to keep this one from our funders at the CBC at first since they would have thought it too extravagant until we really sold them on the value of doing it as an event. But this kind of work just doesn’t happen and if you do hear an orchestral score [in other documentaries], typically It’s half digital tricks to magnify a much smaller ensemble of musicians into a larger sound and half is done in Prague or Beijing. It’s not done in the Canadian musical space.

I wouldn’t say [scoring the film in Canada with unions] was a good financial move, but it was a helluva lot of fun and out of it came a score that we can now bring back to audiences. We couldn’t have done that if we had generated this score on a computer. It’s given us new opportunities that we didn’t even suspect were there when we started out.

DF: I think almost any film composer loves working with orchestras and choirs and to have the opportunity to do this is a treat. To do this here in Canada and to do this properly… we’re giving this project legs and we’re letting it live longer, and it deserves it. You’ve seen the film: it’s stunning. I am not a science guy, but what Niobe has told as a filmmaker, it’s the story of us as a species.

NT: Bravery and curiosity, anyone can relate to that.

DF: Absolutely. And you take these themes and you attach something universal like music to it and that helps tell a story, a scientific story.

POV: I really like the tone you two found for the film. A lot of the time with nature documentaries, they’re—I don’t want to say ‘heavy-handed’—cautionary tales?

NT: ‘Manufacturing emotion’?

POV: Yes. How did you find the right way to give it a hopeful sensation?

DF: He beat me with a stick. [Mimes batting motion] “Hopeful!” “Hopeful!” “Hopeful!”
[Everyone laughs]

POV: Well, maybe there’s another word for it? [Laughs]

NT: Many documentaries are much more explicit about where we’re going as a species and certainly, I share a lot of those concerns. We have a huge challenge on our hands with climate change and global overpopulation. The approach with this film was to say, “Hey, we’ve been through this before: there have been die-offs; we have been reduced as a species to potentially 200 breeding individuals; we’ve been through these bottlenecks, these terrible crises as a species, and we’ve recovered because we’re ingenious, inventive. We find a way.” That’s my way of saying to the audience, “You connect the dots.”

Everyone knows that we have problems in the 21st Century. Look back at our deep history and see that we have always had these challenges. We have never lived on a planet with a stable climate. Stable climates actually don’t exist in our evolutionary history. We are actually specialists at dealing with climate change. It’s up to the audience to draw their own conclusions.

But in terms of the tone, Darren and I sat down when we were at the fine cut stage and we did what we called “spotting.” We talked about the meaning and emotion of every sequence, and it was clear for both of us that there were lighter moments and heavier moments, and you kind of parse out the emotional rhythms of the film and from there it’s up to Darren to deliver.

Humans are the only hominid ever to adapt to the Arctic


DF: Sometimes you don’t ask musical questions, you ask emotional questions. I often like to ask ‘Whose music is it?’ The audience’s? A character’s? This was our first time working together and we were a little terrified since it took us four weeks to do the first episode and it took us three weeks to do the other two. Nothing like a good deadline to kick you, right?

NT: We had to feel each other out. Darren had to figure out what I meant when I said we needed to have [in a self-deprecating manner] “a tone of scientific inquiry,” but by the end of it, we knew each other’s minds. I think that what I happened into with this project, not by design, is something that’s really exciting. I knew nothing about the world of orchestra finances and programming, but symphony orchestras are under enormous pressures. I mean, if we think it’s bad in documentary… They’re looking for ways to renew audiences and rediscover how they present their work to audiences. There’s a great appetite for collaboration with filmmakers.

Dramatic recreations of early humans surviving dry periods in Africa’s climate history


POV: What’s nice about this is that it becomes an event. Nowadays, documentaries appear more as home entertainment—watching them on Netflix—but this really emphasizes the scope.

NT: Absolutely. Here I am as a documentary filmmaker with a film on the big screen. This is the Holy Grail for many documentary filmmakers. We go out and shoot this work on RED Epics and 5K resolution and then people watch it like this [makes a phone-sized square with fingers], but now we have the opportunity to put it back on the big screen. I think as hard as it is to get Canadian audiences to get to a theatre and watch a Canadian drama or documentary, it’s a better proposition to say, “Come to your local symphony orchestra and see the live performance.”

DF: In the same sense, the way audiences hear Canadian classical music is as something contemporary—and I don’t mean this disrespectfully, because that’s what I’ve been orchestrating, this classical avant garde thing—it’s often experimental and it’s not often very palatable. Usually, orchestras programme the new music as the first piece in the concert, because then if people are coming in late, they’re not going to miss the Brahms or whatever. I joke about that, but I think what’s neat about this project is that it’s a really Canadian project, which is accessible to audiences.

I’m originally from Edmonton and Niobe’s team is from Edmonton. It’s a very Edmonton-centric project, and to premiere it with the Edmonton Symphony Orchestra and the artistic community there is amazing. It’s where I got my start, writing my first piece at 15 for the young composers’ project.

NT: Not that we don’t hope to tour this all over the world once we prove that it works—

Anthropologist Niobe Thompson, host of The Great Human Odyssey.


POV: It has such a nice global flavour. If and when you tour around the world, will you play with different orchestras?

NT: The idea is that we would arrive 24 hours before we do the performance. We have the technical and human resources to make this work. It’s a system that’s very robust. We come with hardware and headphones so that any trained symphony orchestra can follow.

POV: Like a virtual conductor, sort of?

NT: Yeah. [Looks at Fung jokingly] Yeah!

[Fung blushes and hangs head. Everyone laughs.]

PM [backtracking]: No, no, not the same nuance, or…

DF: One of the challenges when you’re doing something live is that anything can go wrong. Take a look at the Vancouver Olympics. They were piping music into the building because it’s a risky proposition. When you’re doing live music to a film, how do you synchronize it? You can give a conductor a pair of headphones, but if you don’t give everyone else a pair of headphones, they don’t hear the metronome click and they’re just going to slowly, slowly drift, and the important nuances that we have aren’t going to get across.

Oftentimes people will bring in Disney or Pixar in concert because, frankly, they put bums in the seats and they make good money for the orchestra, and rightfully so, but we want to take this beyond a quick buck. We’re proud of what we’re accomplishing. Our workshop model is based on what I did in a two-day workshop experience with opera because you need to know how much can go wrong and you want to work out all the problems in advance. You don’t want to be troubleshooting when there’re 100 people watching the stage.

NT: The other thing is that when you’re making a film with a composer, like Darren you want him to follow your punctuation because sometimes an idea will land whether it’s narration or something else, and there’s a musical answer for it. But that’s a matter of fine timing, so it’s one thing to do that when you’re in a post audio setting and you can control everything. I can say to Darren, “You need to hit that right there, that’s our punctuation point,” but how do you do that live? I’m noticing today that there are plenty of occasions that we’re hitting it.

DF: [nods in agreement] Mmm-hmm.

NT: That’s amazing to hit a punctuation point together with 70 voices onstage. Technically speaking, it’s an undertaking for sure.

DF: And to give a system where Niobe is comfortable to be a host, but also realises that if he talks too much or strays too much off the script, it has implications because it’s so finely timed. He’s basically using an ADR machine, but he likes to be flexible with an audience. And I think what this proves is that we’ve really taken care to make sure that it will be outstanding. Not only is it great music, but it’s a great film and they work together, and it should be just as exciting to watch as it is to perform.

NT: Right now it’s really a grim time for people in my business. We’re watching reporters drop like flies. The old financing models are disappearing. It’s a brave new world. It’s nice to have the opportunity to celebrate a documentary and one that’s made in Canada that can inspire anyone in the audience to sit back in their seat and go, “How did they do that?” That’s a good thing to be doing right now, I think.

The Great Human Odyssey premieres with a live orchestral performance in Edmonton on Feb. 25.
Please visit the Winspear Centre for more information on this performance and visit the CBC to see the original mini-series.


Making of a Film Score from Human Odyssey on Vimeo.