Unforgettable: How Alex Heffes Scored The Elephant Queen

By Mike Todd, AVP, Film/TV Membership  •  January 7, 2020

From Dumbo to Zootopia, Elephant Boy to Larger Than Life, there’s no paucity of pachyderms in feature films. With The Elephant Queen, the first original documentary released on the Apple TV+ platform, we have another screen elephant for the ages: the majestic matriarch Athena, who must lead her family across the Kenyan savannah in search of water and safety. This vivid film stands out from the herd of elephant documentaries by capturing the emotional lives of these highly intelligent animals. In Alex Heffes (Last King of Scotland, Roots, Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom), the filmmakers found the perfect composer to tell this epic tale with all the nuance of the film itself. We spoke to Heffes about his scoring process shortly after The Elephant Queen was released on Apple TV+.

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This doc gives the audience such an intimate window into an elephant society. What did you find was the directors’ most important goal in telling this story?

The directors’ goal, they told me at the beginning, was to take the audience on an emotional journey. [They wanted] something that was fun and moving that you could connect with. Because they didn’t want to make an issues-based film, or something that was hard to watch. They wanted you to fall in love with these creatures, and the music was supposed to help with that. If you fall in love with them, then you care about them, and then you’ll want to try to help, which was the mission of this film. This is why it was so much fun to do the music, because it gave me the opportunity to help that.

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Alex Heffes

How did you decide on an orchestral score?

They originally wanted a full orchestral score, almost like an animation. I said that sounds wonderful, but it's an expensive and complicated thing to do, which is out of the range of a normal documentary. So I warned them, “If you want a big orchestra, this is what it’s going to cost.” Not to put them off, but to be realistic about it. Their expectations were really high and they came back to me two days later, saying “We’ve got the funds and want to do it!”

We recorded in AIR Lyndhurst [in London] with a 70-piece orchestra for a couple of days, then did a lot of pre-records with percussion and vocals as well.

How did having an animal protagonist change the way you scored this film?

When I started scoring it, I didn’t think it would be any different. But I soon learned that you have to learn to “speak elephant” to really get under the skin of what’s going on. The directors, Victoria Stone and Mark Deeble, have lived out in the bush in Africa for literally 25 years. They’re the real deal! They actually brought up their kids in tents for 12 years or so before they even lived in a house. They truly understand the animals – so I had to look to them to explain to me what was going on, then start to read the body language and read the society that was going on between the elephants. Living among them was a daily part of their life.

When I first tried scoring a scene for their approval, they would come back to me and say “Yeah that’s good, but look at the way the elephant is wrinkling her trunk at the other one – she’s not happy with him, he’s coming onto her and she’s not having any of it.” Once you start looking at the little details, after a while you see it. This was so fascinating to have that revealed to me.

Was this any more challenging than when you're scoring human interactions?

I think once you break through the barrier of understanding what you’re trying to score, what emotions, drama or relationships, then it’s just the same. One of the things that was really apparent to me was how the older elephants are the ones that have the experience and know how to navigate difficult situations – unfortunately, they’re the ones that are targeted by poachers because they’ve got the biggest tusks. So when the big older elephants are hunted it leaves the younger ones high and dry, which is when you have a lot of accidents with those young elephants, like falling down wells and starvation difficulties. That’s one of the tragedies among the society.

They say that an elephant never forgets, and that comes across in the movie because it really is that knowledge base that's built up by the older elephants. This became very clear to me that this is all very true, not just a fanciful thing. These directors have really lived this stuff. So it was great to be asked to really have music that draws it out for the audience so they could enjoy it more as a family story – it doesn’t matter if they’re elephants or people, in a way. You just want to connect with them like a family.

Did you have to do any kind of “research” to score The Elephant Queen?

I was lucky enough to go out to Kenya and [the directors] took me into their camp in the wild. We stayed there in tents for a few days, and actually had wild elephants wandering in and out of the camp. So I was able to experience it myself, which was so incredible and unique.

Any hair-rising moments?

We woke on the first morning and there was a huge elephant, standing about three feet away from the side of our tent, just quietly eating. But that wasn’t really a hair-rising moment, more spine-tingling! Then the first night, as there is no electricity or fence around the campsite, my family and I just finished eating dinner, putting out a campfire in the dark, when we heard a lion roar. It’s one thing hearing that in a zoo, but it’s another thing when you suddenly know your place in the food chain! We all looked at each other then dived into our tents, immediately zipping it up, as if the zip on our nylon tents would do anything. We decided none of us would go to bathroom that night – we were just going to stay in that tent. ::laughs::

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Did you score any of this film in post-production? Did the rhythm of the edits play a part in your score?

The movie was almost complete and not totally locked. We had a great backwards and forwards where I would write some music and then sometimes they would re-cut the film to the music, which is sort of unusual. Again, the filmmakers were so keen to integrate the music and make it a big part of their experience which was one of the joys of it.

Did any of the elephant noises and movements inspire your choice of instrumentation for this story?

The Elephant noises did not play a role in the instrumentation, but the thing that struck me about being out in the wild when I went out to Kenya is how quiet the elephants were. I always thought they would be these huge great noisy hulking beasts. But, when we had a huge elephant appear next to our tent at 5am or 6am the only sound we could hear was a twig being munched. You could not hear the footsteps or anything. It made a big impression on me and I realized that elephants are really “stealthy,” as they’re incredibly light on their feet. So just being immersed in the silence of the bush was amazing, because you get to hear the sounds of things that may be very far away, like a bird two miles away, since everything is so open. When we came to mix the film I was keen to make sure that there were places where the music was a little lower or had more space in it to let some of those atmospheres through and that definitely made a big impression on me.

Were there any scenes or moments that were particularly challenging to get just right? 

::Spoiler alert!:: 

The storyline of the baby elephant that was very sick was a challenge, because it is very sad and it's a part of the cycle of life which you hear often. It was important for the filmmakers to show this in a way that is realistic and heartbreaking, but also sort of “matter-of-fact,” trying to get that balance of the emotion but not going too far, not making it too sentimental and finding some brief comfort, some uplift after it. You feel like “okay,” that’s happened, but life carries on. Trying to pitch that emotion there was tricky. It was good to see the film with an audience and see the ups and downs. The people seem to respond well to the film and didn’t seem forced into a tearjerker moment - they see and enjoy it for what it is without feeling manipulated, hopefully.

The Elephant Queen is part of the new Apple TV+ launch. Did knowing this impact your scoring process?

It sort of came as a surprise. I’m really excited about it. Apple is very committed to the film and the platform it gives to it is fantastic. The outreach this film will have on the new Apple platform  is sort of mind boggling! Apple has been incredible about the film and teamed up with Conservation International and doing a project in east Africa to help preserve the habitat there. One of the things they loved about the movie was that it appeals to both children and adults.

It's the first full-length feature film release for Apple. Originally the people at Apple told me they didn’t know what they wanted for their first movie, but they said we wanted something that was absolute quality, and you just knew it was the best. When they saw The Elephant Queen they said instantly “That’s it!” It’s been so great that they were behind it. [It’s] exciting to be there at the beginning of the whole Apple TV+ adventure.

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Visit Alex Heffes online: alexheffes.com

Watch The Elephant Queen on Apple TV+