By Sean Couch
I first came to the emerald coast of Florida like millions of others — as a tourist. Road trips would include long stretches down Interstate 10, and anticipation would only build once exiting to make our way south down Highway 331. Going over the bay bridge would prompt me to roll my window down and take in the first hints of the coastal breeze. The dense pine forests along Highway 98 were the final grand landmarks hiding the emerald green colors of the gulf that could be seen beyond the homes and dunes off iconic State Road 30A.
Like countless others, I was drawn to the area because of the prospect of life on the beach. The soft white sands. The sunny weather. But my ambition for just the beach blinded me to other natural beauty surrounding it.
We moved to the area in December 2019, and before we could get plugged into the community, the world stopped to address an unprecedented pandemic. While we grappled with everyday life during this time, we learned to find solitude in simple pleasures. We explored our new community and uncovered natural treasures beyond the beautiful beaches.
Finding new hidden gems that we would frequently pass in a “pre-pandemic” world became thrilling because we would never have slowed down before or paid attention. We found trails through state parks and neighborhoods. We discovered hidden boardwalks over captivating wetlands with large historic cypress trees towering overhead. With the historic drop in traffic to the area due to lockdowns and travel restrictions, my family watched wildlife erupt all around us. The world seemed to serendipitously guide us down a path that led away from the beach, deeper into the surrounding forests, and finally to the E.O. Wilson Biophilia Center located just north of the bay bridge in Freeport. The Biophilia Center seemed to be the culmination of our newfound adventures, and it helped give meaning to what my family had been discovering during this time. One word that continued to echo throughout these adventures was “biodiversity.”
During our inauguration of the area’s natural wonders, we met Arix Zalace, a long-time local, business owner, and filmmaker. For years he had planned to make a documentary that chronicled the area’s biodiversity, and I was starting a new charitable film studio searching for prospective projects. The timing of our new friendship felt predestined. We found kindred spirits in each other and decided to team up to create this film.
Arix’s initial idea was to create a documentary chronicling many of the area’s most unique, rare, and endangered species. After a full year of researching, location scouting, writing, and filming, we realized making a traditional documentary film was not enough. Development master plans were being drafted at an unprecedented rate to accommodate the latest real estate boom, making our area one of the fastest-growing places in the country. When you have such a substantial influx of new people moving into the area, it often can overpower the long-standing local community. There is knowledge and history that needs to be preserved when this happens, and too much content for just one film to encapsulate it all.
The Florida Panhandle used to have one of the oldest, most biodiverse, dense, and pristine forest ecosystems in the world before it was nearly lost forever at the turn of the twentieth century. Today, there are still more than 100 “species of special concern,” threatened and endangered species found in Walton and Santa Rosa counties alone. We live in an area that is an international treasure, and there is still much work left to be done.
As we reviewed the early footage we captured and continued to work on the storyline, we realized we had something much bigger than a documentary. We had a feature film on our hands and countless other storylines we could continue to create that would benefit the community and stakeholders nationwide. Thousands of hours have been spent over the past two years wading through swamps, hiking through forests and bogs, living with wild black bears, and much more to capture the epic footage needed to tell this all-too-important story.
One of the most important aspects of this story is telling the history of this biological hotspot and how it was almost lost. If we don’t understand where we came from and how we got here, it is harder to appreciate what we still have and why we need to protect it. Telling such a rich and storied past is a daunting task. We realized the best way to accomplish this was through classic hand-drawn animation that engages all audiences and provides a nostalgia effect. An animation team of more than a dozen has been working with us on this project for close to a year. Seeing the Florida Panhandle’s natural wonders represented in classically hand-drawn animation is truly breathtaking.
Live-action footage will be paired with the animation that will tell our history and share the unique perspective of the black bear.
We began the long process of choosing the actors who would play the characters telling the story of this biological hotspot. With over a thousand men and a thousand boys auditioning nationwide for the two main leading roles, we narrowed it down to our final selections. We’re more than excited to start capturing the final footage needed with them and their supporting actors in the spring of 2023, then move into the final post-production phase of this project. We intend to release the film in the fall or winter of 2023.
Producing world-class content requires significant creativity, skill, time, and capital resources. We are excited to have assembled a highly experienced cast and crew for the film, including talent from Hollywood, Atlanta, Chicago, Bulgaria, and Walton County. We are honored to have worked with over 100 professional biologists and scientists from some of the most prestigious schools and institutions. Our advisors include a former Disney animator who worked on some of the most popular animated features of all time, including The Lion King, Pocahontas, and Mulan. And our other advisors have over 20 years of media experience working with big film studios such as Lionsgate, Sony Pictures, Paramount, and more. The E.O. Wilson Biophilia Center is our charitable partner and giving us access to film on their 55,000 acres of preservation land.
We have reached the point in our project where we’re asking for the community’s support to help us complete this feature film. We have organized a crowdfunding campaign through our website where you can support the cause along with great merchandise and perks only available to our supporters.