The Queen of Trees
Behind the Scenes with the Filmmakers

Filmmakers Victoria Stone and Mark Deeble

Wildlife filmmakers often go to great lengths to get that perfect shot. But not many end up installing a picture window in a ripe fig the size of a grape, just to watch what’s going on inside. That’s just one of the creative — and painstaking — steps that filmmakers Victoria Stone and Mark Deeble took to film the almost microscopic fig wasps that are the stars of NATURE’s The Queen of Trees. Using specialized, custom-built equipment, the pair spent two years in the Kenyan bush waiting for just the right moments to film these minuscule insects.

For viewers, it was worth the wait: Deeble and Stone present a remarkably detailed portrait of the fig wasp’s complex relationship with the sycomore fig, a tree that is a billion times bigger. Yet wasp and fig are forever entwined, dependent on each other for survival.

“It is an amazing relationship,” says Stone, who credits Climbing Mount Improbable, a 1997 book by evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins, with sparking the idea for the film. But the couple, who have been making award-winning documentaries for several decades, knew it wouldn’t be an easy story to tell. The wasps are so small they can fly through the eye of a needle. Much of their most interesting behavior takes place inside a fig tree’s small fruit, hidden from view. And to top it all off, it can be hard to predict when key moments in the wasp-fig life cycle will occur, meaning the filmmakers would literally have to camp out near a tree and wait.

“We knew there’d be massive complications,” recalls Stone. “The most basic challenge was to film the behavior of the wasps inside the fig [without ending up with blurry or out-of-focus images]. And it couldn’t just look okay. It had to be beautiful and enticing.”

Deeble says technological advances — and a bit of ingenuity and patience — made it possible to overcome the complications. One key advance was the arrival of high-definition cameras that capture sharp, crisp images with a good depth of field at low light levels. Another was the team’s construction of a specialized, vibration-free work table that could be taken out into the field and used to film extreme close-ups of very small actors. “We’d set it up on a concrete platform in our camp, bolt down the camera, and then go get a fig from the tree,” recalls Deeble, who studied marine biology before becoming a filmmaker. To capture a particular scene of female wasps collecting pollen from tiny “gardens” inside the figs, the team even cut tiny windows into the fruit and covered them with strips of glass. When all went well, the wasps carried on, unaware of the peeping camera. “That was probably one of the most difficult 10-second scenes to get,” Deeble reveals. “It took weeks to get everything just right.”

Other weeks were spent erecting and moving around specialized towers and platforms that allowed the filmmakers to get up into the treetops, where showy birds called hornbills built their distinctive, prisonlike nests, and monkeys and birds feasted on fresh fruit. “Using towers takes a long time,” explains Deeble. “Even if you want to move just a few feet to get a new angle, you’ve got take the whole thing down again… ropes, pegs, everything. You can be lucky to get one or two shots a day.” The filmmakers had to be careful not to damage the trees as they worked, Stone adds.

Overall, the couple, their two young children, and a small team spent two years camped out near the magnificent, gnarled sycomore fig that is featured in the film. The filmmakers had discovered during a previous project on hippos that things could be slow at times; when there was nothing to film at the home tree, the team searched far and wide for other fig trees where interesting things were happening. It took them another six months to sift through all the film and assemble it into a compelling story.

The team is now working to make sure that The Queen of Trees is seen in Kenya. “One thing we do is translate our films into Swahili, so that they can become resources for educating [Kenyans] about their environment,” says Stone. “Not everyone knows the story of the wasp and the fig, or understands that the trees are such a rich source of habitat. It’s a keystone species that has a huge impact on the entire ecosystem.”

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  • Anne Uva

    This film was just so beautiful,inspiring,poetic, and a truely aesthetic work of art. I am in awe at the story, but also at the amazing shots.Wow! Thanks!

  • Deb

    My husband started watching the program, and I was going to read. However, after the first 30 seconds I was hooked! I’m not sure which was more amazing – - the story or the shots. I plan to watch again!

  • CU10

    Incredible, incredible work.

    Thank you!

  • Heven

    Thank you for this wonderful film and story. The shots inside the fig just took my breath away!

  • Maina

    Saw this film 10 minutes ago at the Nairobi National Museum in Kenya & I just had to find out more about it. It was truly amazing. Beautiful work!!

  • Shah

    From my experience this was the best nature show. I was moved by the story of the fig and the wasp. This story had everything a story teller could envision but the beauty is – it’s real. Thank you NATURE!! I loved this documentary.

  • David Brillhart

    Congratulations Victoria and Mark on such a great accomplishment. Please let me know if you ever do a presentation at Nat Geo in DC. Excellent story telling.

  • Linda Luker

    Going to Kenya & Tanzania in September and this film makes the trip all the more exciting…will be looking for the fig trees. Who says the big five are the reason to go to Africa….those little wasps and that pink mantis…Wow!

  • Chris’ grandpa

    We owe a great debt to PBS,Victoria & Mark. It is just a little short of miraculous that such photography can be done. Plus all of the biology research along with it. And PBS presents it to us. Thanks to all of you.

  • Charles Baker

    Wow!It was AMAZING how you got those P-P-PERFECT shots!
    And spending two YEARS there for only, maybe, a few dozen of ‘em*! Thanks a lot for the Great film!

    *I mean the shots

  • Anita Bond

    It was absolutely aaammmmazing!

  • geno

    It is so amazing to see how nature works. One creature so dependent on the life or death of another. Makes it easy to see why even a tiny insect is important to our world. Good job!!!

  • Tom Prince

    The Queen of Trees is the best Nature episode I have seen. The photography is both technically and aesthetically top notch and the narration is equally good. Taken together the episode Is like a beautiful poem. Hats-off to the two artists/technicians. Thanks.

  • Helen Jones

    Outstanding, spellbinding footage of the miracle of interdependence of nature. The narration, the background music were so perfect. Thank you for all your efforts. I still can’t get my breath! How were you in the right place at the right time to catch the baboon(?) jumping in the river? AMAZING!

  • Nancy Weinstein

    What can you tell me about the hauntingly beautiful music that accompanied the program? Did it contain a folk melody?

  • Joe Goffeney

    I have been watching Nature for many years: this is one of the most amazing, compelling and interesting episodes I have ever seen. I’m not sure if I was more taken with the fantastic photography or the biological reasearch that went into the Queen of Trees.
    Just wonderful!

  • Betty Macaulay

    One of the most beautiful & compelling programs ever. The film makers are incredible!! Thank you so much.

  • Devin Norton

    A truly amazing program! Beautiful in every aspect.

  • Lary Snyder

    I love to watch Nature shows on PBS and they are all good, but The Queen of Trees is the best. Great photography, great narration and music that was perfect for the story. And such dedication by the producers: Two years on site! Amazing!

  • Sulekha Shah

    I try not to miss nature shows on PBS and I am so glad I watched this one. It was simply amazing to watch the story unfold and then to find out that the fig wasps are tiny enough to pass through the eye of a needle. A wonderful job of photography and a wonderful story. I plan to watch it again.Thank you PBS.

  • Mike Frankklin

    This is the best documentary I have ever seen, and I’ve seen a lot of them. The photography was perfect. It was visual poetry. Thank you, my life has been truly blessed by seeing “The Queen of Trees”.

    Mike uin Bellingham, WA USA

  • Edee

    Thank you for creating and sharing such an insightful look into these otherwise concealed amazing creatures and events.

    You have succeeded in giving me a deepened appreciation of this minuscule world around us and of the one who created such things, Jehovah God.

    With such obvious order and cooperation among so many creatures, how can one surmise these things came about by pure chance? It makes no more logical sense to believe a complex blueprint came about by chance than to think the earth and the universe did not come from the master architect, Jehovah.

  • Kitty Sell

    This documentary was awesome. To me it was a mind blowing experience. Bless the two who had the patience to put this wonderful video together to share with the world.

  • Ron Dale

    From the above comments I became aware this was a repeat showing. Thank you for repeating it because I had missed it the first time and agree with others above that this is by far the most awe inspiring, deeply moving, of any other Nature programs(and in my view of any such programs) and I have seen most of them. Thank you film makers for spending the two years of you life making it possible for so many to be bowled over by such great miracles of nature – miracles that millions would never know and be inspired about had it not been for your dedication. Let it become required educational viewing of all children learning about the wonders of our world. If this film hasn’t received the highest awards, in my view is is a great injustice.

  • H. B. Matthews

    I’ve seen the film twice now and I am as facinated the second time as I was the first. It’s truly amazing work, film, etc.

  • Ayele,Abimalek

    Still amazed, awesome is the only word that comes out of me.
    Fantastic documentary. Great job.

  • Stuart Edmondson-Xcorps TV

    Two years camped near the fig tree shooting! Wow after seeing this production I believe it!
    Lots of work getting those GREAT shots! Nice scripted VO match up too.
    Extreme example of superb nature film making! I felt eXhausted after watching it because I knew what it took to get those shots!
    Keep it going on the next one! Thanks to PBS for presenting the film as well.
    Xcorps

  • OpenDome Productions

    I was very impressed. Being a nature photographer, I always admire great shots, but even more impressive was the scripting. Great job illustrating the dynamic relationships between all of the creatures.
    -JCummings

  • kent

    I really enjoyed this show and all the detail there was in the bugs and animals.

  • Howie Burch

    WOW! Thanks to Tivo I’ve watched the show two times and it is indeed the best show that Nature has presented, and that’s saying a lot. Outstanding photography and editing.

  • Paul

    Unbelievable!

  • george

    I just watched the show twice! I will watch it again. Every thing in life is so dependent on many things. Who would ever know the eco-system in a tiny fig. Thank you for the great film work;and education.

  • David Spiegelberg

    I watch quite a few “Nature” programs on PBS, but this one is very special indeed.

    To Victoria, Mark, and everyone else involved:

    You’ve done a very artistic and beautiful job of telling this incredible story. As a professional photographer, I can truly appreciate the hard work, patience, and perseverance required to capture fleeting moments in time. This program will surely make every viewer stop, take notice, and appreciate the wonder, the beauty, and the complexities of Mother Nature.

    Great job!

  • Jeannie Wong

    The documentary was amazing and utterly beautiful. It was incredible how close the filmmakers were able to get to the wasps and their parasites. I applaud their patience, ingenuity, and desire to share their work with all of us as well as those who live close to the fig trees.

    I was just channel surfing until I came across this Nature episode and could not stop watching the activity of the wasps inside the fig. I was hooked and I was rooting for both the wasps and the queen tree.

    This piece is just a wonderful reminder of the importance of studying nature and helping to preserve it. Thank you so much for such an insightful piece on how one tree can nourish so many, including man. You couldn’t have picked a better title, and thank you for sharing the backstory as to how this piece was made. It makes me appreciate it even more so.

  • MT

    WOW. Boyfriend and I watched this last night and have been discussing it all morning. The amazing circle of life, specialized functions…how can these things all happen by instinct, and how could they have evolved together like this? Wow. Thank you for your patience and time in elucidating this amazing story for us all.

  • Cesar Arredondo

    What a great documentary! I’ll be thinking about this film for a very long time, how everything is interconnected and interdependent in nature and even about the role of humans in those and other relationships. “The Queen of Trees” is filmmaking at its best. Those extreme close-ups of insects, worms and fruit’s insides are amazingly beautiful and revealing. And the unfolding of the story, as narrated in the most perfect tone and words, remind us of the richness of nature, which can help us think and/or rethink the role of man in the world, especially about the protection of balance for the benefit of all species–including our. Victoria Stone and Mark Deeble are masters of their craft. Thank you for your work.

  • Kristine

    The most amazing film !!! Thank you for the beautiful, beautiful insight.

  • Nancy H Smith

    Thank you so much for a trip of mighty wonders. This film took us on a fantastic journey which we will never make physically. As amateur photographers, we were constantly amazed at the shots obtained. Our kudos to the team of Victoria and Mark.

  • Nadia

    This is by far the best Nature documentary I’ve ever seen (and I’m a big Nature fan). My husband and I were completely mesmerized and have now seen it twice. My 6-year-old daughter was equally captivated, sitting through the entire film and has asked for it since. I’m buying copies of it as gifts for Christmas. It is a truly stunning and awe-inspiring chronicle of an amazing ecosystem.The way the filmmakers put it all together into a breathtaking story is worthy of the highest honors in documentary film-making. Thank you, thank you for the inspiration, dedication and hard work!

  • JIM

    I happened on this documentary while channel surfing and I could not stop watching. It was awe inspiring!!! It all made sense to me after watching this. A life changing moment.
    BRAVO!!!

  • Karin Wessely

    My jaw dropped, I was spell-bound to the screen. This documentary proves that nature should be protected, honored and marveled upon. Thank you for making such a visually beautiful film and threading such an amazing story about one small space in nature’s ultimate throne.

  • Alessandra

    I am so glad to hear that you translate it into Swahili and show it to the kids in Kenya. It’s very important that children learn about their environment, respect it and help to protect it. Bravo! You two are simply amazing! Thank you for such a wonderful and very educative program.

  • Zora

    I’ve seen this film many times on PBS reruns in the past year or two, and I never get tired of it! The photography & the cinematography are incredible. It’s funny, but I never thought to look up the ‘Making Of’ before, until today; suddenly, I just couldn’t go one more day repeatedly asking myself “How did they GET that shot??”

    The lighting, music, and pacing are all soft and tend to cast a spell (which may be why I always find myself watching this episode every time even when I intended to do something else). The fig-interior shots just blow my mind, knowing how small the fruits are, and seeing how many layers of life and battle are going on inside it at once. Especially the nematode worms, who are so very tiny compared to the wasp, who herself can fly through the eye of a needle– to be able to make a nematode fill up my TV screen, and to show it crystal-clearly!– it’s a showcase of excellent technology as well as artistry.

    Mark and Victoria, you’re absolute miracle workers (and camping out by that tree for 2 years, your kids must also be made of steel). Bravo to you.

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