Unforgettable Elephants
Interview: Filmmaker Martyn Colbeck

Award-winning filmmaker, Martyn Colbeck, has filmed wildlife for over 20 years, capturing our planet’s most incredible species with his lens. But it was Echo and her family of elephants that inspired Martyn to devote, not one, but three films to them. NATURE had the opportunity to find out how exactly this family captured his heart.

What were your first impressions among the elephants?

It was an amazing moment as I had never seen an African elephant before. In 1989, I went to Amboseli for the first time to film a segment for David Attenborough’s Trials of Life. The producer I was working with for that segment had known Cynthia Moss for some time and she had always wanted to go out with Cynthia to see her elephants.

So Cynthia took us out in the car into the park. In the middle of this herd of elephants, she stopped her car, turned off the engine and she just started to talk about this family of elephants. This was not Echo’s family by the way. But Cynthia just started describing each of these elephants. She knew each one. She just started talking to us about them as individuals. It was almost as if we were at a party and she was describing everyone to us.

What was most amazing was that we were in the middle of Amboseli National Park. We were surrounded by Kilimanjaro. It was a stunning environment. But the individual personalities of the elephants were what stood out. It was quite a revelation to me.

How was Echo selected?

The producer’s idea was to do a film like an elephant soap opera. It would be a long-term project and was actually based on the documentary Seven up! The idea was that because elephants are so long-lived, we could follow them as the years passed.

Of course the next step was deciding who to follow. That was up to Cynthia. She was studying 53 elephant families in Amboseli. But Echo’s family came up at the top of the list, mainly because Echo was the first elephant who had been darted and radio collared back in 1972. So she was one of the first elephants studied. Also, Echo and her family were relatively predictable. And she was quite a homebody, which was a good thing. We didn’t want a family who would constantly be on the move and disappear on us through the filming. We couldn’t follow along with their life events if we lost them.

How crucial did it turn out that Cynthia had chosen Echo?

Echo is a remarkable elephant. She was an extremely good choice. She was around on a regular basis virtually every day. In order for the film to work, you just can’t go off and film a replacement family. Echo’s story is the main thread of the series.

But she was also a good choice because, over the years, the most extraordinary things happened to her and her family. For instance, in 1990, I had started to film in January and very little was happening with Echo’s family. But by February, the most incredible thing happened to Echo. She gave birth to a crippled calf. It was truly an extraordinary, very rare event. And this was the only time such a birth had been documented. And then we were able to film the most incredible events after that. We filmed them sleeping. We filmed the kidnapping.

What was Echo and her family’s perception of you?

It’s hard to know. I think there may have been an element of knowing that if we were around, there was a safety aspect. I think they accepted us as part of the family. Elephants have this extraordinary and complicated greeting display — they use this to greet each other when they’ve been apart. And occasionally, Echo actually greeted our car when we arrived. She would make a terrific greeting with the car. We spent so much time with her in that car; she must have recognized the style of the car.

Why are there misconceptions of elephants being raging creatures?

I think there is a misconception about elephants. And the incidents of elephant rage come from elephants in a disturbed population or in conflict with people. I’ve found that if you give them the benefit of the doubt, they are not generally an aggressive species. They are naturally gentle and trusting. When you betray that trust, they get aggressive. I’ve seen that with tourists. They drive fast. They rev up their engines. They act inappropriately. Some of this is to get a reaction from the elephants. And basically it just irritates the animals. Elephants are not aggressive animals. They have been made to be aggressive. Even if they are irritated with you, they will give you some warning. They are not like rhinos who just charge without warning and flatten you. If they do, there’s a historical reason — or a serious threat.

Do you think elephants can recognize people and understand their intentions?

I think they identify individuals. It is so hard to quantify though. Some scientists might be cynical. They would say you need real data. If you spend a lot of time with a particular animal — like I do with elephants — you will get a sense of what they’re thinking. There is a level of understanding with spending so much time with animals.

One of the things with filming elephants is you have to be able to anticipate behavior. You have to understand what they’re going to do. Not just acting on instinct. They are actually making a decision. I’ve seen instances of elephants having a discussion and clearly two elephants are disagreeing. And then one makes a decision and the other follows that. It is very interesting to watch. In order to know that, you have to know the individual. You have to have spent a lot of time with them.

How long are you out there shooting to document the life of an elephant family?

Each of the three Echo films took eight months to shoot. During those eight months, I would be out from dawn to dusk every day. Ideally one would film longer but budgets and other restrictions limit you. But of course, the longer amount of time you spend out there, the more likely you will capture unique events because we are actually distilling small bits of their behavior.

What was it like to be a character in this film?

It gave me the opportunity to tell people how I felt about elephants. Usually when you make a film, you have a narrator who is not involved in the film telling the story to the audience. But with this film, I had the chance to tell the story. It was quite nice to tell audiences that I’ve been with these elephants for 20 years. I’ve spent a lot of time with them. I know these animals. And this is how I feel about them. Of course it is slightly unnerving to put yourself on the line. But I had the benefit of expressing sentiments that scientists can’t.

Will there be another Echo film?

It’s an ongoing story. I don’t feel like I’ve completed the filming because these animals are so complex. I still look forward to spending time with them. We’re learning more about them all the time. They communicate on such complex levels, and we’re only scratching the surface. We’re sure to discover so much more. The more people understand about elephants, the more people understand how much they’re worth conserving.

Are elephants your favorite animals?

No doubt. They would have to be. I’ve done a lot of filming of primates as well. But elephants continue to surprise me. There is just so much more to learn.

  • Ted Schulze

    Just unbeiveable. I wish I was younger and could do the same. I think we are to full of ourselves to think we are the only one’s (god whoever you belive in) loves only Humans. I belive you do not know your

  • Marcie

    Thank you for this beautiful documentary. I watched in amazement and cried a couple of times – it was so touching and the filmmaker keeps the focus on the elephants, not on himself and his accomplishments. I appreciate him and PBS for making it all possible.

  • Natasha Maskell

    This film has captured my heart in seeing how intriguing these beautiful animals are. To tell the truth I’ve always considered them Intriguing, but have never had the opportunity to watch a family interact over a period of time. The 15+ years devoted by Martyn Colbeck is a generous gift of time that the majority of us would never be able to afford. What a selfless and charitable donation to bring us into the lives of these wonderful creatures that he obviously cares so much for.
    To watch Echo and her growing family, the happiness and sorrow that they share, the comfort they give and the care they take with each other over their life span is remarkable. The fact that they return every year to a relative’s death site shows their emotion and thinking faculties. I became part of her family. Martyn’s commentary was absolutely necessary to understand the bonds. Really with out him doing the photography and the narrative it wouldn’t have given the depth of understanding conveyed in the film.
    I thoroughly enjoyed the entrance into their lives and understanding their complexity a little more fully. What a brilliant glimpse into our Creator’s ingenuity. What a fantastic breath into their world. Thank you.

  • gina anson

    I happen to fall upon your particular show and MAN, I am glad I did! I am such an animal lover and I was SO GLUED to the TV! It was such an AMAZING piece of work you did! I just don’t know how you can do it without completely breaking down when a family member dies, especially when you practically belong to them! I broke down when I watched but so loved what you reported on ~ THANK YOU for sharing! I just want to know how to purchase some of your FABULOUS photography?? Could someone email me with this information?

  • Walter and Hanni Kolouch

    we have a longtime wish, to see Elephants up close, privat or with a very small group, is this possible, perhaps with Cynthia Moore???
    Martyns Colbeck documentary was truly wonderful,such facinating Animals.

    Thank you, Hanni Kolouch

  • Chad

    I enjoyed this program, and I appreciated the insightful knowledge that can only be gained by someone who has spent many years, in the environment, gaining the trust of these great majestic, wild, animals. I can understand a viewer who would prefer that the narration is limited to simple observations, but I valued the personal experience that this filmmaker brings to this story.
    We viewers could never understand the interrelations of mother and sisters assuming mothering roles with such compassion, as when death takes place, or when a calf is kidnapped, by another group, if we did not have the real life experience of the filmmaker to fill in with direct observations. I believe that those are rare or fine distinctions in understanding nature, and they evolve, that takes time, this director helps us to better understand the species, as well as these, individual animals.

    We can always armchair direct what we believe the director should have done.
    I am pleased that this director did it this way. If I wanted to make my own narration, I would turn down the audio. Then you can have editorial control of the story telling. Sadly, I believe you would have missed important, valuable, first hand knowledge, that is a central element of this great and moving story.

    I believe it is a delicate balance, not easily achieved. Thank you, for this program.

  • Cheyenne Tiera

    Thank you, PBS, for sharing this beautiful experience with your viewers.
    Martyn’s film confirm everything I know to be true about elephants and I’m so grateful for his skill and sensitivity. And to those who helped him.
    How can I contact Martyn?

  • Sam

    Thank you for a great program – educational, captivating and great photography throughout the show. Your dedication, patience and understanding of elephant habits are exceptional. Plese consider a follow-up session.

  • Kim Biggane

    Well the only thing I can say is you did a wonderful job. It was the best Elephant documentary I have ever seen. i have Elephants every where in my house i just adore them from blankets to cups to cookie jars and obviously statues and pictures. They are the most wonderful animals God ever created. Thank You so much for this film.

  • Alison

    This was an amazing documentary about elephants. I have an anewed admiration for elephants and also an active interest of the current happenings of this family.

    What happened to Enid’s calf after she died? Did this calf survive long after her death? Also was Echo’s son Ely ever seen again?
    This documentary on Echo and her family does not feel complete, but perhaps it would never feel complete unless a life time of Echo’s existence was followed documented.

  • Carole

    We stumbled on this just as the program was beginning and we were riveted to the TV the entire hour. I’d like to see the other two episodes on Echo and her clan. All through, I could not help thinking of an article in the NY Times Magazine about a year ago titled, “Are we making elephants crazy?” It was a staggering account of how the impact of man has unsettled these gentle creatures and how, in self defense, they have occasionally lashed out towards man. All the while, they have the same connection to us that we have with them–I’d recommend that article to anyone who loved this show, as we did.

  • DaveL

    This was an incredible documentary about one of my favorite animal species. We sat transfixed throughout the entire hour. Afterwards I immediately ran to my computer to make a donation to our local PBS station. Thank you, Martyn and everyone at PBS that helped bring this amazing film into our home.

  • David Thomas

    Thank you Martyn.

  • Monica DeMeo

    Moved to tears. Thank you Martyn and PBS for this most beautiful documentary.

  • Nancy

    I’ve always had a great admiration for elephant’s and this beautiful documentary says it all. Well done.

  • Gwen Eales

    Excellent documentary! I am a big fan of Cynthia Moss and purchased her earlier two films. I was very glad to view this new film on PBS. I hope Martyn does more films not only of elephants but other wildlife. I enjoyed listening to his comments.

  • Susan M

    Truly inspiring film. Love the relationships depicted therein. Admired the photography. Watched some of it camera-in-hand… you’ll understand.

  • Andrea Cowart

    I love this episode and have it saved on my DVR. What a wonderful job you have, and a wonderful job you did. I am still a novice nature photographer, but this episode inspires me to do what I can to document and preserve that bit of nature in my own backyard and my community. I would love, someday to have an opportunity to go on a trip with someone like him and experience the same thing. Thank you for a beautiful story and the time you’ve given to both the elephants and us for this documentation.

  • Anthony Wayne

    Some things , you wait your whole life for . Other things make your
    whole life worth waiting

  • Richard Odom

    Mr. Colbeck,

    I watch a lot of PBS, and especially Nature. I had previously seen a few shows on elephants, and had come to like these creatures (We are all creatures in the sense that we are living creations.). I was struck by one show in particular, about a woman who took in ophaned and disposessed elephants. The indigenous people working with her each took a calf, fed it, nurtured and slept with it, as there was risk of the young ones dying as a result of having lost not only their mothers, but their families as well. Even the grown ones were fragile, as they usually came from life situations that were often abusive, and even traumatizing. There was one mature female who wouldn’t come out of her new housing facility. But another, who had apparently known her some time in the past, would wait just outside for her each day until, by degrees, the frightened one emerged a bit further each day. Eventually, in this fashion, she acclimated to the herd. The woman herself, who was European, but living in Africa, came to care for such elephants in an equally poignant, though painful, way. She had been given a “baby elephant” by a relative, and noticed that the little animal didn’t seem to have much appetite for life. She treated it well, though, perhaps ike many of us would relate to a “pet”. Then she spent a few days with a relative (daughter?), and when she returned, the calf had died. She came to understand that it had died of a broken heart, as we humans sometimes put it, and sad though it was, this event precipitated her into finding out more about elephants, and creating this special sanctuary for the “discarded” ones. There was quite a lot of land available to her, and she had the elephants divided into age groups, so that they could grow into adulthood in stages with each other, and used some of the more secure ones to help other more frightened (or lonely) ones. The eventual goal was to return to large sanctuaries (like Ambelosi) whoever was able to make this final re-integration. I think she always did this in groups, new families so to speak.

    I had seen and read about other animal reclamation projects, and was always glad to find out about them, but this one had a very strong emotional impact on me. Then I was recently looking through Netflix movies and saw one called “Echo of the Elephants”. I got it, and was so affected by it that I had to get the ’sequel’, “Echo and the Elephants, the Next Generation”. This disc had both films back to back. I can’t tell you how many times I have seen it, but my cat and I watch it each night at bedtime. Although they highlighted Cynthia Fox and her twenty years of research with these many elephant families, you were singled out as the film maker and director, especially in the second one, where there is a shot of you talking to Cynthia from your vehicle with the camera mount, apparently deciding on your next course of action. Every time I saw Cynthia in her Rover following the elephants to their next situation, I knew you were there filming it all. I was so drawn to it because of the way it depicted not only the scenes themselves (which were so compelling – how could births, helping Ely to walk, deaths, mating, Beach Ball and Lexi going at it, the Kidnapping and Rescue, etc., not be compelling?), but also because of the sequential nature of everything, the ’story line’ which was the unfolding of their life situations and Echo’s gentle, yes thoughtful, tolerant, and when needed, directive nature in dealing with situations that called for some decisive response from her, like when they were going through that drought, hungry, aimless, nothing to help them deal with it, and she took them to Emily’s remains (so deeply moving, with the prospect of starvation an increasing possibility, and they are all brought to this singular re-visitation of a loved one a strong experience in different ways for all of them (Was it Elsbeth that seemed to repeatedly suppress an involuntary retching response as the calf pointedly backed away, then paced in front, not leaving, but obviously affected on a visceral level by being in the presence of Emily’s bones (who she may well not have known), and each one in turn having their own reactions (Echo waiting, then gently slipping her trunk through the skull, as though she might, in the privacy of her mind, be once again caressing the face of the one she was once so close to.) From whom did Echo learn this expansive repertoire of emotions, her decision making ability, and willingness to take so much responsibility on herself, and appearing (to me) as being understated about it. How much did she internalize from significant elders in her early life, and how much was it simply her nature? Even during the kidnapping of Ebony, so provoked, she stayed calm, calling Ella and the others, and waiting while her child was kept from her in such an abrupt and violent manner. With her setting the tone, a counter attack kept Ebony from being trampled underfoot (Was it Ella who rotated her body so that Ebony could walk safely under it to Echo’s trunk summoning her to safety, and with a final touch, escape? Echo was right there when it came time to get Ebony back, but still enough in possession of herself that as soon as it was obvious they were safe, she stopped, thinking of her daughter’s needs (and, I suspect, aware of the great fear Ebony must have been going through), and waited, while Ebony, apparently unsure of what to do at first, finally reached her head up, guided by two adult trunks, found her mother’s nipple, and with eyes closed, took that long drink as George Page explained she never would have got one from from her kidnappers. I’m not at all sure Ebony knew that, but I do think it calmed her, which brings us back to Echo, who probably wasn’t so much concerned about her daughter’s thirst as, perhaps, lingering fears that could be dangerous in themselves, with so many large hooves surrounding Ebony, which it would do the calf well to remain aware of.

    I was trained in a strict empirical scientific tradition, but I don’t mind attributing emotions and thought processes to other animals than our own species. It is called anthropomorphizing, unless of course it is true.

    About a month ago I read a letter from Cynthia in response to people’s asking about what had had happened in the years following what was covered by the movies, and I found out about Echo’s death, Enid’s apparently difficult adjustment (They were so close, and she with Ely, of course, who was gone for maturational reasons, but still gone; and how the forty something (forty!) family members had split during the succeeding drought that claimed lives. I thought it interesting that none of the calves with Echo’s grand daughter died during that drought. After all she had been through with Big George and the broken Leg, she still applied the learning, and stayed calm for Sleepy, though she put her foot down about being chased again. First, she learned motherhood by helping Echo with Ebony, then had her own. I think, like Echo (and Enid if her world hadn’t been so torn apart by Echo’s death and Ely’s departure), she had a natural inclination towards motherhood, such a gentle, compassionate nature. I think that beyond the obvious good reasons for understanding elephants, in terms of applying the learning to helping them live to be the kind, persevering, intelligent souls that they are, learning about them supplies us with role models for alternative behaviors to the often destructive ones we as a species have become notorious for, as unfortunate as it is true.

    Finally, I accidentally caught the end of your last film about Echo and the family a few nights ago. I was so sorry I missed it. I had read your letter from France to the people at Ambelosi, and thought that, though your experience with Echo and the family had been a singular and rich experience in your life, you had moved on to other things. Then I saw you talking about Echo and your relationship with her (during the last two minutes of the show), and I thought, “Great. Another ’sequel’ (for lack of a better word) about Echo and the gang, and narrated by Martin, no less, who isn’t worried about hurting his reputation as a scientist by talking to and about Echo (I totally understand why Cynthia had to be prudent in that respect). So I will but the DVD from PBS and look forward to many more hours of watching it and learning from it. It would be wonderful to visit Ambelosi, and watch the elephants (especially the ones I’m familiar with), but I think I am getting too old (69), and am too poor (retired teacher) to do that in this lifetime; but thanks to you, and Cynthia, especially (in addition to all the people who have made these wonderful windows into the lives of these marvelous creatures possible), I have the next best thing, and can also continue with my own endeavors. Thank you, and all of you, for these unique and excellent long term studies that you yourself filmed so well (every now and then I would see some footage that was less germain to the scientific aspect of the study but incredibly beautiful, and I would say to myself, “There goes Martin the artist, again, thank God.”, A une bonne vie pour vous toujours, Richard Odom.

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