Elephant Queen is a documentary film that has been eight years in the making, receiving its worldwide premiere at Toronto International Film Festival, followed by a European premiere at London Film Festival where it received a standing ovation. BA (Hons) Film graduate Pete Cayless was one of the crew behind the camera for the four years in the field, diligently shooting in the heat of the African wilderness and capturing once-in-a-lifetime imagery.
Narrated by Oscar-nominated Chiwetel Ejiofor, Elephant Queen has also become the first feature-length film purchased by Apple, promising a secure future for the wide distribution of the film.
The film sees majestic 50 year-old female elephant Athena lead her family on a journey in gruelling heat in search of a fresh water source when faced with a devastating drought. The team behind the film camped in small tents as they followed the herd for this journey, encountering creatures and critters of all sizes along the way.
We caught up with Pete to find out more about his career since graduating, and his experience working on this incredible piece of cinema...
How would you describe your practice of filmmaking?
I focus on crafting a dynamic and solid story in whatever form it needs to be in. It’s what motivates me and what better way to tell a story than beautiful imagery, words and music? There’s a race going on at the moment for filmmakers to utilise ever more amazing technology to create incredible imagery, and the pace is only going to increase as time goes on.
With the use of drones, high-speed cameras, robotics and advanced software you can create something pretty cool. A lot of programming now relies on the technology being an actual ‘feature’ in the film. It has become a selling point and one that seems extremely popular with broadcasters and audiences.
However exciting these gadgets are, they are merely tools of the trade. The one thing that remains unchanged, since filmmaking began, is actually a very simple thing and yet it’s often overlooked - a good story.
Who would you say are your biggest influences?
Thinking on who my biggest influences are has just made me realise that I have a lot of them, as I think do most people. A lot of people have been a source of inspiration and help.
The wildlife filmmaking industry is pretty small, everyone knows each other, but it’s also incredibly difficult to get into. Pretty much everyone who has succeeded and managed to stay the course has had help to get there themselves and therefore are willing to help others. Some of my influences were there for me from the beginning, and others came into my life as my career progressed.
"One of the highlights of studying at Plymouth College of Art was the freedom to explore my craft."
As a child and while growing up I was captivated by Alan and Joan Root’s films from Africa. I had an obsession with Africa from as early as I can remember. Other than the Root’s films and the classic BBC Landmarks series the other inspirational films for me were made by filmmakers Mark Deeble and Victoria Stone. Various people helped along the way to get into the industry, including Series Producer Mike Salisbury and Cameramen Doug Alan, Charlie Hamilton James and Alastair MacEwen. Other greats include the infamous Barry Paine and Jean Hartley.
The list is endless! I also loved these legends who have all inspired me; Nick Gordon, Dieter Plage, Roger Jackman, Hugh Maynard, Hugh Miles and Simon Trevor, Armand and Michaela Denis.
What was your highlight of studying at the college?
One of the highlights at studying at Plymouth College of Art was the freedom to explore my craft. I guess there was always the scope to potentially lose focus, however, I was in love with filmmaking and therefore could really indulge. I’d also say that we weren’t confined to a genre either so it gave me endless opportunities to explore my obsession.
If you’re serious about getting into the film industry then you can’t waste any time at all. The clock is ticking!
How did your studies prepare you for the career you have now?
My studies and course were very practical. It was a shock having just come from A levels and for years having the words exam, pass or FAIL pounded into your brain. Finally there were no exams. Now, only filmmaking existed.
It doesn’t matter how well read you are as a cameraman, if you don’t pick up a camera and use it with a vengeance you’ll struggle to find work. So practise, practise, practise!
How has your practice changed since you graduated?
The film world is continually changing. As a cameraman the production companies continually want you to be able to do and know everything. However you’re only as good as the time and effort you put into it.
You need to play smart too, you have to constantly keep up to date with all the new kit coming out which means firmware, software, and continual updates. On top of this of course every client wants to combine different kit, which means overriding incompatibilities, you become an engineer.
Where technology is rapidly replacing skill base with camera moves you still have to be good at it. For instance the Movi and Ronin are all the rage at the moment, theoretically, anyone can use one because the technology is so accessible and yet to get the moves just right - you really have to practise. It’s the difference between just keeping your subject in shot and doing a slick move that’s composed to look out of this world.
Can you tell us about some of the projects you've worked on?
I’ve been lucky enough to have worked on a variety of projects now. Many of them in exotic locations with weird and wonderful creatures from childhood story books. I’ve also spent years filming some very cool and weird creatures in the UK, from carnivorous insect-eating plants to spiders that live most of their lives underwater. The macro-world is insane and there are still many hundreds of films to be made about what’s hiding under our back doorstep.
Describe The Elephant Queen and your role in its production…
The Elephant Queen is an incredible story set in Africa. It’s been described as a masterpiece and one of fifteen films that could shake up this year's Oscar race. There was a very small team of us making the film in the field for four years, so my roles varied a lot. My main role was camera assistant but I also spent much of my time shooting additional footage for the film, capturing time lapses and the elephants. I was also one of the field sound recordists.
I managed all the equipment in the field, set up fly camps and helped to maintain the light aircraft that we used to get about in. I also helped problem solve when it came to software and firmware, which inevitably suffered issues in the extreme environments we were filming in. I familiarised myself with every piece of kit so thoroughly to ensure I could strip the camera down and rebuild it in the darkness in the middle of the African bush.
How much of an adventure has it been to film this feature?
I always wanted to work on a film like this. It’s a once in a lifetime opportunity. Beside that, living in a tent in remote locations in Africa, surrounded by things, small and large and some with a nasty bite, is pretty adventurous and a huge privilege - the stuff dreams are made of.
The film was selected for it's premieres at Toronto International Film Festival and London Film Festival, how does that feel?
It’s been a long journey and so now that it is finally appearing on the big screen is very exciting. It’s an honour to have it selected for film festivals like TIFF and the London Film Festival.
I missed the TIFF film festival due to working on a new BBC wildlife series in production. However I went to the London Film Festival recently for the European Premiere, which was incredible. We had a standing ovation and the most wonderful reaction from people of all ages from seven to seventy!
What was the highlight of making this film?
One of the highlights to working on this film was getting to spend four years living my boyhood dream, working on an epic wildlife film, from a tented camp in the middle of the African wilderness. It will stay with me forever.
What's next for you?
I’m currently working on a new epic wildlife series for Netflix. As well as shooting for that series I’m currently developing my own ideas, I love camera work but I’m a filmmaker at heart.