Interviews Videos

QUEENS’ Faith Musembi and Sophie Darlington Put Female Elephants First in New Groundbreaking Series

The wildest places on the planet have always been home to powerful leaders, but this is a story of a new hero – fierce, smart, resilient and … femaleQUEENS features matriarchies and female leaders around the world to tell a story of sacrifice and resilience but also of friendship and love. These QUEENS aren’t always kind or gentle, letting nothing come between them and the success and safety of their families. Guided by award-winning actress Angela Bassett’s powerful narration, QUEENS brings the natural world into focus through the female lens for the very first time.

In celebration of Nat Geo’s QUEENS groundbreaking docuseries and in honor of Women’s History Month, The Koalition spoke to Director of Photography Sophie Darlington and Director Faith Musembi to learn more about exploring matriarchies, following elephants of the Savanna or hyenas, and how the series breaks new ground with unflinching storytelling of success and heartbreak. The final episode of the series celebrates the women who have gone to the ends of the Earth and dedicated their lives to documenting and protecting animal queens.

“We had some extraordinary cinematographers because there are very few women in our industry and [the women] who are behind the camera was one of the main drivers behind QUEENS. [We wanted] to get more diverse people who didn’t look like. [We wanted] more voices, different voices and we got them on board,” said Darlington.

Even the men that joined QUEENS wanted to pay forward the opportunities that they’d had and to celebrate their fellow female colleagues. Darlington continued. “Unfortunately, or fortunately, we’ve got a load of male allies who came on because they recognize that gap and how we can tell better stories by collaborating. We get different voices working with Faith, having her expertise as a Kenyon gave us so much and more richness to the Savannah QUEENS episode which we would have been daft to have not taken full advantage.”

Queens’ Cinematographer and mentee Erin Ranney films elephants in Africa from a specialized filming vehicle on the RED. (National Geographic for Disney/Robbie Harman)

As seen in the show, the African Savanna is home to the ultimate animal sisterhood: a family of elephants. A new baby will need the family’s support to make it through her early, vulnerable months. While mom learns how to care for her, the baby’s grandmother, the matriarch, must protect the infant. Facing predators, drought and a rapidly changing world, can this growing family of iconic females survive?

“Elephants are incredibly emotional and so for me and for the whole team, Faith and I were lucky enough to work together on the elephant on Savannah QUEENS. We were looking for ways to show that leadership elephants give and the gentle way they lead. This whole series is about female leadership in nature and how they all do it differently. Elephants do it through passing down knowledge. It’s a really hard thing to show, so you have to be absolutely fine-tuned. We had a book of elephant language which has been developed by Joyce Poole, an elephant researcher. Every single way an elephant moves, its ears, its trunk, its body posture, can be interpreted. We were just queued into looking to all those subtleties so we could really tell the fullest stories about these incredible creatures and engage you and if we have engaged you, we have won,” said Darlington.

It’s easy to see the similarities of human behaviors of sisterhood were politics, power plays and manipulation are a survival tactic. “Ultimately, we want to film behavior, something you can see and go, ‘Oh this is happening.’ So often we’re also trying to tie that in with the characters because we want you to fall in love with these characters. You don’t want to watch this and then just go, ‘This is Elephant 2467.’ You want to see personalities; you want to see how they’re relating with their family. All these moments of behavior, all connect to tell a fuller story. At the end of the day when we get to the edit [after] we’ve filmed for three years, and now we’re watching hours and hours and hours of footage. We have to determine what moment that we’re seeing is going to come together to tell a complete story. If we included everything, we’d have you watching one episode for days and days but everything you see is true which is really important to you. There’s such strength and veracity,” said Musembi.

Musembi continued, “When you’re in the field and it’s happening, obviously you don’t have the benefit of being in the edit there are moments that you just do your best to cover as well as possible; getting it from different angles so when you get to the edit you’ve got everything you need. Sometimes it’s very clear, ‘We’ve got this.’ This is a defining moment. Such as when Sophie filmed the moment of predation with the hyenas and the elephants on Savannah QUEENS.

A herd of African elephants walks at sunset across the plains of Africa. (National Geographic for Disney/Oscar Dewhurst)

Darlington added, “We knew that was an incredible moment, especially because we were filming in the pitch dark with just the light of the moon with this incredible technology that allows us to film in color. Your heart is in your mouth because you’re filming something and you’re rooting for the baby elephant because, ‘It’s our baby, please!’ but you just have to do your job. Nature is writing the script, and you have to let it unfold as it did. Thankfully unfolded well and we knew it was going to make the final story because it’s never been filmed before. It was the first time I’ve certainly ever seen it and it blew me away actually. It’s an incredible moment in the in the show.”

From the beginning QUEENS captures the viewers’ attention and never lets it go, making each species a character in a larger story. The bees, the environment and other aspects all play a role in telling the story. “We wanted every animal from the tiniest ant to the biggest elephant to have their Hollywood moment and to give them dramatic storylines,” said Show­runner/Writer Chloe Sarosh during Nat Geo’s portion of the Television Critics Association winter 2024 press tour. “All our storylines are based on new science and from the people that spend their time in the field with (the animals).”

Four years in the making and helmed by a female-led production team — groundbreaking in the natural history space — the seven-part series leverages cutting-edge technology to reveal surprising insights into how females in the natural world rise to power.

“[Technology] affects [our filming] in so many ways because with drones or with cameras they can go along and move with an animal. Elephants walk a lot, so you’ll see she’s walking and walking and walking. That’s much easier to do if you can walk with the elephant. We’ve brought everything from the kitchen sink from the movie industry, we’re using tech, bumping along on really a horrible terrain, killing cameras that’s meant to be used for filming F1 Motorcars. But it really helps tell the story and put points everything we want to show women. You need to have a message about the story, it needs to be solidly behind the story,” said Darlington.

Musembi added, “The technology just immerses you in that world. You want to feel like you’re like when we’re moving with the herd, your part of the herd, and the technology we used even for the bees, you’re literally at eye level. It’s real, it’s not CGI or anything. It really immerses you which was part of the series ambition is to just put you right there in the in the world with them.”

To learn more about QUEENS and the Savannah Queens episode, check out our full interview in the video above.

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