Victoria Stone and her partner Mark Deeble went through a pretty long casting process – a year and a half, to be exact – to find the pachyderm star of their Apple TV+ documentary “The Elephant Queen.”
“We started working outside the national park [in Africa] and everything’s going fine until price of ivory rose [and] the elephants became extremely scared [of poachers],” Stone revealed during Gold Derby’s Meet the Experts: Documentary panel, moderated by this author (watch above). “She really found us rather than us finding her. We came back one day to camp … and there was this little group of elephants under a tree behind the kitchen tent area, and the matriarch just turned her head and she had these amazingly long, even beautiful tusks, and a very calm manner and a family of youngsters in it and about the size we were looking for. Then we just started following them and she became the subject.”
The titular elephant queen is Athena, and the film follows her as she leads her herd in search of water during a drought. Stone and Deeble, who’ve been capturing African wildlife for more than 30 years, first got the idea for the film 10 years ago. “There was a drought in 2009 that we saw what the empathy that was within an elephant herd, shown particularly by the females, to the stress that they were all under,” she said. “It totally intrigued us that these emotions, which were seemingly so human and the extent to the elephants would go to protect each other, to look after each other, and how they dealt with the situation really opened up the idea to the story.”
Stone and Deeble spent four years filming “The Elephant Queen,” which paints a vivid portrait of the African savanna. While the elephants are the stars, the supporting players include the animal kingdom’s other creatures, like dung beetles, killifish and baby geese. The film features incredible ground-level POV shots of the animals, achieved by a contraption the team constructed.
“We built a metal box, which we sunk into the ground, and literally it was about the size of Mark, plus a tripod and a camera, and you’d have ground-level shots,” Stone shared. “It’s not just about the elephants; it’s about the whole circle of life around the elephants. So the other smaller characters, not only do they sometimes bring the humor or some variety to the emotional story of the film, but we also wanted to be down on their level, giving them as much stature as the elephants.”
At one point, Stone and Deeble contemplated making the film issue-oriented, focused on the poaching. “But luckily for us, Richard Ladkani was making ‘The Ivory Game,’” she said. That freed up the duo to carry out their intended goal of making the world fall in love with elephants. “Because if we don’t know why we love and care for something, then you’re probably not motivated to protect it or want to share your planet with it,” Stone explained. “But at the same time to use the film to make a difference on the ground in Kenya, so around the film we’ve got a massive outreach education program back on the ground where the film is made.”
Video by Andrew Merrill
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