When filmmakers Victoria Stone and Mark Deeble set out to make “The Elephant Queen,” their goal was to make a film that would, as Stone says, “inspire the world to fall in love with elephants and to make a difference to them on the ground in Africa.”
Stone and Deeble set out with a small crew. “We had four on the film side and a small back-up team living in small tented camps,” Stone says.
Tsavo East National Park, Kenya was where the documentary was filmed and where Stone and Deeble would be based for the next four years. Deeble explains that it took them a long time to get close to the elephants because “The elephants aren’t as used to people as they are in other places.”
The story follows Athena and her herd of elephants, but Stone says it took eight months to find the matriarch who they end up following around for the movie.
Both Stone and Debble are used to shooting on film, and even though they shot over four years, they didn’t have much footage to edit down in order to tell their story. “Our experience was in film, so we’re economical. A lot of it was waiting, watching and understanding. getting ahead of the moment and filming things that were unexpected,” Stone adds, “I don’t like too much material because it drowns the editor.” Deeble, who was mainly on the ground filming, says, “We would shoot what amounts to a few seconds a day. We’d go weeks without getting things. Then sometimes we’d get two or three minutes and that was exceptional.”
Deeble’s goal was to shoot and tell the story from the elephant’s perspective. To capture those shots, the team would tie a camera to an old Cessna plane when they were filming aerial shots of the herd. By shooting from the plane, they could show Athena’s vast environment. Other times, Deeble would be on the ground shooting at “toenail level” from inside a metal box. By shooting so low, it gave “the smaller animals a presence,” he says.
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The filmmakers also tried to add humor to their cinematography. “We would get down and dirty with the frogs. When you do that, you get a sense of them as characters in a completely different way than if you looked down at them,” Deeble says.
And for other shots, Deeble would be on their eye line. Stone says, “It was all done from a single camera using the highest res possible. We even moved from 5k to 6k during the making of the film.”
The camerawork of Athena and her herd roaming the majestic Kenyan savanna, even though they captured mere seconds a day, shows a stunning visual lushness. “For that, we would always try to shoot at dusk or dawn to bring out the rich colors,” says Stone.