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How ‘The Elephant Queen’ Filmmakers Earned the Trust of Their Majestic Subject

It took four years to make the nature documentary, including many weeks of winning the trust of its regal star.

The Elephant Queen

“The Elephant Queen”

Apple TV+

When Apple TV+ launches on Nov. 1, one of the first pieces of original content available will be nature documentary “The Elephant Queen,” about the beautiful, tusked matriarch of a family of elephants.

Directors Victoria Stone and Mark Deeble filmed in Kenya for four years straight, but it took a little while before they found Athena, their main character.

“To begin with, she wouldn’t let us close. But we could see that with her herd, with her family, she was a really calm, beautiful, temperate matriarch. And we would just spend time with her,” Deeble told the crowd after an International Documentary Association screening of the film at the London West Hollywood, part of the IDA’s annual screening series.

Over the course of several weeks, Athena had allowed the small crew closer and closer, until they were about 40 meters from her. One day, Athena walked away to let her calf stand between her and the crew. That’s a rare occurrence for a mother.

“At that stage two things can happen,” Deeble explained. “Either she can realize that it was a mistake, and if we’re in the middle of them we’re going to get trampled, or, and what I like to think happened, she was just testing us. Because after a while, she made a very low rumble and the calf looked up, and she wandered very calmly around the front of the calf. And from that day on, she allowed us amazing access.”

Throughout the course of the film, Athena and her family experience one of the worst droughts they’d seen in their lifetimes. But Stone and Deeble, of course, couldn’t know that’s what they’d document in the course of filming their movie.

“We go out into the field knowing just the arc of the story. So we’ll know that we want to tell a story about what happens to a family of elephants in extreme conditions where they’re forced to leave home, and what happens to them and what happens to the neighbors that they share home with,” Stone said. “And that’s literally all we’ll go into the field with. We’ll do the scientific research on everything we possibly can, read about all of the different animals when we go so we know what to expect, natural history-wise. But with a film like this, we knew we wanted to tell an emotional story. So we knew we had to find our lead characters and then see what, if anything, happened. But invariably, life goes on and something happens.”

Stone and Deeble filmed with a small crew in a makeshift bush camp, using solar panels to charge their equipment and spending all of their days following the animals.

“We live like a little family there because we’re very isolated,” Stone said.

When they’re not focusing on the elephants or other large animals, they’re filming small shots of fish eggs or expansive aerial shots using a plane set up with a special rig.

“The thing I love about a film like this is that you do have to rely on your own resources. And the challenges are trying to [film everything] from the fish egg, which is almost barely a millimeter long, right up to the big aerials,” Deeble said. “So for the fish egg, we actually built ourselves a macro bench in camp, and then we’d get the camera and we’d actually move the fish egg on a tiny stage with little joysticks and cold lights in order to get to focus. We wouldn’t focus a camera or the lens, we actually focused on moving the subject. We could only do that on very still days because any wind would just make everything vibrate too much.”

For the innovative ground-level shots from the points of view of turtles or other small animals, they built “great big metal box,” Stone said. “It wasn’t actually huge, but Mark would sink it underground so that we could put the camera lens out of a little letterbox entrance and get water-level, raw, ground-level shots. But that meant Mark being inside this box from dawn to dusk. And the problem is that the top of the box was metal, so we were literally we would roast him every day in this box.”

The finished film is narrated by Chiwetel Ejiofor, and focuses on all of the animals in the area, from the majestic elephants down to the dung beetles. Mostly, though, it showcases elephants in an accessible way so that kids and adults alike can understand their importance and their beauty — and want to protect them for future generations.

“Our ambition with this film,” Stone said, “was to reach the broadest possible audience who don’t already know that they love elephants or are interested in the wild, but just to appeal to people on a totally emotional level. To say … they’re just like us, and then make the world fall in love with them. But then at the same time to really make a difference where there is a crisis in the real world with these elephants. We won’t have them on our planet if we don’t do something about protecting them.”

The IDA Documentary Screening Series brings some of the year’s most acclaimed documentary films to the IDA community and members of industry guilds and organizations. Films selected for the Series receive exclusive access to an audience of tastemakers and doc lovers during the important Awards campaigning season from September through November. For more information about the series, and a complete schedule, visit IDA.

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