Drew Xanthopoulos: Humpback Whale Documentary FATHOM

Fathom follows Dr. Ellen Garland and Dr. Michelle Fournet, two scientists focused on the study of humpback whale songs and social communication. As they embark on parallel research journeys on opposite sides of the world, they seek to better understand whale culture and communication. The documentary, directed and photographed by Drew Xanthopoulos, film uniquely reveals a deep commitment and reverence to the scientific process and the universal human need to seek answers about the world around us. From hypothesis to groundbreaking experiences in the field, Fathom showcases the passion, curiosity, collaboration, perseverance and work it takes for leading scientists to make scientific discoveries. We caught up with Xanthopoulos to learn more.

Interviewed for Risen Magazine

Risen Magazine: The idea for Fathom actually came from your curiosity about decoding communication, so how did it develop and then turn into this documentary?

Drew Xanthopoulos: I just started reading everything I could get my hands on in terms of whale communication and culture and evolution and cognition. The picture it painted was more interesting than any science-fiction book I’d ever read or movie I’d ever seen. And then it occurred to me that if I was having this much of a reaction from just reading about the science, that surely the people who are out there I’d see doing the work, it must be a profound experience for them. I showed up at whale conferences and started talking to whale scientists, and they were super generous and invited me out on their boats to show me what it’s actually like; and it all started there.

RM: I understand that you wanted to understand the people and the scientists and what that looks like. You got this amazing offer to go out on a boat to see killer whales, and it was an epic trip, but it didn’t necessarily go as you thought it would initially, correct?

DX: Yeah, I didn’t think I would be able to make this film at one point. We went out there, it was the first time we went out and it was… It’s a fishing vessel so it’s like a cork in the water. It really feels every ripple in the water. And we’re in the southern ocean in six foot chop. I was told that any larger of a chop than that is the point which they just wouldn’t go out anymore, so it was right at the threshold.

And we’re out there for awhile and there’s killer whales everywhere. It’s really remarkable. It’s absolutely magical. And I start feeling seasickness and the whales didn’t matter anymore; nothing mattered anymore. I just feel absolutely terrible and I just pass out on the lower deck eventually, I was so tired.

And woke up, the sun was on my face and a few hours had passed and I was just really hungry and I was starving for rice crackers for some reason. I ate two boxes and I never got seasick again on a boat. It was really miraculous.

RM: I had read that you had cold-called Dr. Michelle Fournet, which is a great reminder of the importance of just picking up the phone and the connections that you can make — but talk to me about why it was so important that her research be shared.

DX: Michelle’s work is incredible in that she’s trying to figure out what one sound could be for. It’s one sound that all humpbacks in all oceans make. And the question is why. And she has a theory that it might be the cornerstone for all of their relationships that they keep for their entire lives in some cases, and they can get up to 100 years old. Her work is just foundational to how these creatures maintain relationships, and I think that’s really relevant for our species where relationships mean a lot to us as well.

RM: I think it’s interesting to note although you didn’t seek this out, but the other scientist that you follow is also a female, and from different parts of the world. Talk about the importance of having multiple angles.

DX: To me, it was that their research compliment each other really well. Michelle is looking at one sound versus Ellen is looking at how culture could be shared across ocean basins, across thousands of miles. To me, it’s sort of the micro and the macro. But what they’re both looking at is how their relationships work, how they interact with one another. And what’s really interesting about that to me is that they have been doing this, they have been developing these kinds of cultures and relationships and forms of communication for longer than we’ve been humans, for longer than we’ve been standing upright, so there’s something to be learned from that.

RM: The whole focus of the documentary is on sound, but yet it’s a visual medium so talk to me about how you were able to still allow for us to see the sound.

DX: Yeah, that was a really early concept that we talked about in the development stage which is, really, in order to appreciate what Michelle and Ellen are trying to do, you really have to understand how evolving in an environment where light is not super important the way it is for us, where gravity doesn’t have the same role as for us, how that shapes how your sense of just something fundamental like space and time would be affected. We created this sequence that is our poetic way of what it might look like if you translated sound into visual, and into a visual representation, and how they perceive each other through that because when you begin… If you’re trying to figure out what something might mean or what it’s for, what they’re saying, you really have to wrap your head around how different their reality is and how different their perceptions of really basic things are.

RM: You wanted to make sure you were showing the work that went into this, but then somewhere along the lines, a little magic happened too.

DX: Yeah. You’d be a crazy person to film a field season and expect a breakthrough to happen because it’s just one field season. But a breakthrough did happen, which was pretty incredible to witness. It made it really exciting, but for me it was just the process of them searching for answers to their questions is interesting in itself, and in some ways it wouldn’t have mattered either way because science is… No matter what, they would’ve come out with new questions that they didn’t know. Even through your mistakes, even if it was completely wrong, your hypothesis, then you come out with new information. You can ask something new. But it is super nice that there was a breakthrough in the film that you witness in realtime, and it’s very magical; it’s a very beautiful moment in the film.

Fathom streams on Apple+ TV June 25

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