Focusing on Emotions for The Elephant Queen
November 5th, 2020

When filmmakers Victoria Stone and Mark Deeble set out to make The Elephant Queen, their goal was to make a film that would inspire the world to fall in love with elephants. Stone says, “We wanted to reach audiences who were not necessarily engaged by natural history or wildlife by telling an emotional story.”

Rather than a conventional information-driven wildlife documentary, The Elephant Queen is constructed like a narrative feature with the elephants as the main characters. The style was influenced by elements of The Lion King, Shrek and March of the Penguins. “The film was released initially in cinemas and so we wanted to make the story really immersive and emotionally driven,” Stone explains. “We loved the whole biodiverse environment that elephants inhabit, the way the story is also about all the other animals who live alongside the elephants. It is all interconnected – a circle of life.”

During the writing, the filmmaking duo had to tone down the natural history information that risked drowning out the story. “A lot of our job was paring it back because you can learn so much simply by watching the elephants,” she says. “Then, we needed a delicate narration [by Academy Award nominee Chiwetel Ejiofor] which wasn’t overbearing on facts.”

Photo: Mia Collins/Apple

The couple have been making award-winning wildlife films in Africa for decades. For The Elephant Queen, they spent four years on location in Tsavo East National Park, Kenya, painstakingly gathering footage with their small team, including assistant director Etienne Oliff.

A key early decision was to shoot with just a single RED camera. “It would have saved us a lot of time had we supplemented with small POV cameras, but we felt that we could best achieve a coherent style by acquiring at as high quality as possible,” Deeble says. “I like to be behind the camera and to respond to whatever is happening – remote cameras don’t give you that same intimacy and ability. We knew we needed to futureproof as much as possible and RED was the natural partner in terms of camera to do that. The look of the image is beautiful and I think that shows in the final product.”

The pair shared directing duties, with Deeble also behind the camera. He was typically buried in undergrowth or perched up a tree. “A single camera allows you to get a more intimate shot and a bit more subtlety to every single scene,” Stone explains, “because each shot is slightly different and planned individually rather than recording remotely where you are more reliant on where you place the camera and what happens in front of it.”

They selected a RED EPIC camera, upgrading to a DRAGON as one became available. Lenses included Nikon primes and a Canon 150-600 mm telephoto – a model converted by Century Precision Optics into a true cinema zoom lens. “We take care of the kit to avoid breakdowns as we’re usually so remote we have to rely on ourselves to fix things,” says Stone. “We chose RED because we believed it wouldn’t have problems and it absolutely worked out that way. It proved to be completely reliable in dust, dirt and heat. In four years, we didn’t have a single camera problem.”

The camera’s compact size meant they could put it anywhere, variously rigging it with a large zoom or mounting a tiny prime and fixing it to the wing of a light aircraft. For aerial shots, Deeble and Stone, who both have pilot licenses, built a rig for the RED attached to a plane’s wing struts and ingeniously used a coffee tin lid as a lens protector which they could open and close from the cockpit.

“On the ground, if we needed to put a camera at eye level near a watering hole, we’d dig a trench and sink a huge metal box so the top was ground level with a letter box-style opening for the lens,” notes Stone. “Mark would sit in that for days on end unobserved.”

“From a style viewpoint, we didn’t want to look down on the little creatures,” Deeble adds. “The geese, dung beetles or tortoises had as much character and importance as the elephants. So, we put the audience down on their level, looking through the creature’s point of view when looking up at the elephants.”

Photo: Etienne Oliff /Apple

With a tiny team of just 10 (including the camp crew), their workflow in the field was just as inventive. Stone recalls, “When a card came back, we copied it onto three drives. Then we’d make proxies and log the footage before it came back to me for assembling. We had a whole little studio in a tent powered by solar and a small generator. Although time consuming, it worked really well.”

They shot entirely in REDCODE RAW to avoid having to make image decisions in the field. “We wanted maximum flexibility when it came to the grade and to master in high dynamic range,” adds Deeble. “We shot 6K when we could and 4K if we needed the frame rate of 120fps.”

From the outset, they knew that natural sound would be an important part of the storytelling, and to record it they had dedicated sound recordists (Norbert Rottcher and Peter Cayless) for the four years spent in the field. In addition, the team recorded banks of audio atmospheres at various seasons and locations for Wounded Buffalo Sound Studio in England to mix into Dolby Atmos.

The film, which celebrates Kenya’s extraordinary wildlife and biodiversity, has been translated into Kiswahili and Maa for public screenings in East Africa and is accompanied by an Outreach program that Deeble, Stone and Oliff hope will inspire a new generation of Kenyan conservation leaders.

Stone says, “We are proud that The Elephant Queen is produced to the highest possible technical standards but it is equally as important that the film makes a positive difference for elephants in Kenya.”

The Elephant Queen was an official selection of the 2018 Toronto International Film Festival and the 2019 Sundance Film Festival. It won the Cinema for Peace Award in Berlin and the UN World Wildlife Day Biodiversity Award and was awarded Best Cinematography at DOC NYC & Nature Vision. It was the first feature picked up and released for streaming on Apple TV+.

The Elephant Queen won four 2020 Jackson Wild Media Awards for Best Feature Film, Best Cinematography, Best Engaging Youth & Family Film, and Best Audioscape.