How 'The Eagle Huntress' Took to the Air With Drone Photography

How do you tell the story of a young girl on the ground and her eagle in the air, set in remote parts of Mongolia, sometimes in sub-zero temperatures?

That was the question for Simon Niblett, director of photography of documentary The Eagle Huntress, which premiered at the Sundance Film Festival and is planned to unspool during the Telluride and Toronto International film festivals before an Oct. 28 release by Sony Pictures Classics.

The Otto Bell-directed documentary, narrated by Daisy Ridley of Star Wars: The Force Awakens — who was an exec producer with others including Morgan Spurlock — uses ambitious, stimulating cinematography to tell the story of Aisholpan, a 13-year-old girl, as she trains to become the first female in 12 generations of her Kazakh family to become an eagle hunter. Bell, Aisholpan and her parents are scheduled to attend both upcoming festivals — and Aisholpan's eagle will also make an appearance in Telluride.

While there are many Kazakh eagle hunters who reject the idea of any female taking part in their tradition, Aisholpan’s father and mentor Nurgaiv believes that a girl can do anything a boy can, as long as she’s determined. With this dynamic, the film is both empowering and awe-inspiring as the 13-year-old becomes the first female to compete in the Golden Eagle Festival, facing off against 70 of Mongolia’s top Kazakh eagle hunters.

“We wanted to capture as much of the magic and beauty as we could,” Niblett says. “But access to that part of Mongolia was limited and we were limited in terms of [budget and] what we could bring. We took the basics but were keen not to leave anything out that would compromise the cinematography.”

The film was shot in 2014 and 2015, primarily with a 5K-capable Red Epic digital camera. And Niblett, who additionally operated the camera during filming, also brought a lightweight Blackmagic Pocket Cinema Camera mounted to a DJI drone. “A drone can get you in the air with little effort, time and money; we used it a lot. It was just too good not to use it. It was windy and cold, so we did have some problems, but I don’t think we could have made film without it.”

The Kazakh hunt with golden eagles, one of the fastest moving animals on earth, capable of reaching speeds of up to 190 miles per hour. These eagles weigh up to 15 pounds and average about three feet tall, with wings that can span more than six feet.

Niblett says his documentary background has taught him that in many cases, animals are not bothered by cameras, but admitted “it was a gamble the first time the drone flew close to the eagle, but the eagle didn’t seem bothered by it.”

The cinematographer also harnessed a GoPro camera to an eagle, to obtain unique point-of-view shots. And Niblett, who has a knack for building camera gear, also modified a lightweight crane to get his camera an additional three meters in the air.

The harsh cold proved the greatest difficulty, both in filming and maintaining the gear. “It’s difficult to work wearing gloves, and you take them off and your hands are frozen in minutes. We also had to keep the batteries warm,” Niblett says. “I modified some tire warmers, but it was a catch-22 because you use twice as many batteries. In the van, we used the engine to warm them up. If you left the Blackmagic camera running, the processor would stay warm.”

The Eagle Huntress was produced by Stacey Reiss, Sharon Chang and Bell.

Last spring, 20th Century Fox Animation grabbed the rights to remake an animated version of The Eagle Huntress.