By Sean Couch
The Florida Panhandle is a haven of biodiversity, boasting an incredible array of ecosystems, from pristine coastal dunes and lush wetlands to sprawling forests and freshwater springs. Each habitat is a treasure trove of diverse plant and animal species interwoven into a delicate tapestry of life. As one of the fastest-growing areas in the country and a hot tourist destination, the area faces several challenges in preserving lands and environmental ecosystems that are exceedingly rare. Our new non-profit, The Paper Bear, is approaching this challenge with the power of storytelling and years of filmmaking experience that will help inspire millions into action.
Last December, we announced The Paper Bear to the public with an immersive art gallery that shocked attendees. Our co-founder, Arix Zalace, showcased up-close-and-personal images of black bears that most have never seen. He spent thousands of hours tracking through wetlands and forests to find these wild bears. He then spent countless more hours waiting for them to arrive daily and studied their behavior. His presentation sparked an overwhelmingly positive wave of support. Visitors understood that black bears hold the key to helping protect and restore countless endangered habitats and species. The momentum from that event has helped us make some exciting progress.
Arix and I have been at the helm of this remarkable endeavor for the last three years. We have poured our souls into crafting a nostalgic narrative that seamlessly intertwines adventure, discovery, environmental themes, and cultural trends. Our team set ambitious goals and recruited world-class talent to help us complete this project.
Audiences will follow a coming-of-age journey with a father and son as they embark on a black bear tracking expedition into the Florida Panhandle wilderness.
Through their journey, we showcase otherworldly natural wonders and provide mesmerizing perspectives with beautiful hand-drawn animations. Before we could finish the animation, we focused our attention on the live-action part of the film this spring.
Traditionally, documentaries have inspired change because they are powerful tools that convey information and raise awareness. Still, feature films have a unique ability to connect with audiences on a deeply emotional and immersive level. The Paper Bear feature film aims to weave a captivating story with well-developed characters around educational content and history that will evoke empathy and a stronger emotional response from audiences.
While documentaries often target specific interest groups or those already invested in the subject matter, The Paper Bear film will target a wider audience, allowing it to reach diverse communities, cultures, and demographics. This will increase the possible impact and potential for social change.
As we started recruiting talent to help us complete the live-action portion of this film, it became evident that the surrounding community had a deep passion for the subject matter and wanted to help bring awareness to the cause. Most of the team have local roots or a personal connection to the area, and this film has become a passion project for everyone involved. There was a serendipitous theme as we navigated the production process, and every crew member did a miraculous job of helping us complete the filming.
Cinematography is a critical component in capturing the essence and beauty of the Florida Panhandle for a feature film. It is pivotal in transporting viewers into the region’s heart, immersing them in its natural wonders, and evoking a sense of awe and connection. To help us achieve this goal, one of our lead producers and native Floridian Savage Bell helped us recruit Brad Richard. For nearly 30 years, Brad has worked on some of the biggest television shows and films that have won numerous awards, including a project that won an Oscar for Best Picture. Brad was excited to return to his Florida roots with his team from Los Angeles and share a new perspective of his old home area.
Biodiversity is at the core of the film’s narrative, and each real-world set was treated as a character that must be filmed carefully. Brad’s team worked closely with Arix, the film’s director, to capture intricate details of the region’s richness and diversity through close-ups, wide shots, and dynamic camera movements.
From the delicate dance of a butterfly flying over a field of pitcher plants to the sun breaking through the canopy of the long-leaf pines, these visuals become a testament to the vibrant life in the area, and audiences will be immersed in all of it.
To help bring our characters to life, we auditioned with over 1,000 boys and 1,000 men to play the leading roles of the father and son. For the father, we cast Jason Burkey, an actor with a diverse background in various roles on successful television shows and films. For the son, we cast Max Ivutin, a young up-and-coming child actor who has already created an impressive work resume. Together, these two have tremendous chemistry that will lead audiences through various comedy, drama, and action story arcs.
Every crew department played a specific role that helped us complete the live-action part of the film in three weeks across the Florida Panhandle. We filmed in various challenging locations that were difficult to access or known to only a few. All of it necessary to showcase beautiful gems in a way that has never been done before. We also navigated severe weather and successfully filmed in a controlled burn zone. The collaborative efforts have resulted in a visually stunning, emotionally resonant, and educational experience that will raise awareness and inspire viewers to protect and preserve the precious natural heritage of the region.
We have reached another milestone where we’re asking for the community’s support to help us complete this feature film. The animation will play a critical role and provide a beautiful perspective of the region that couldn’t be shown otherwise. Families and, more importantly, children will fall in love with the characters we’ve developed and help foster a new generation of wildlife enthusiasts for the Florida Panhandle.
Once we have completed this film, we aim to submit it to various prestigious film festivals and get a distribution deal to help us create more content to inspire greater conservation action. We will do screenings at education centers, museums, schools, neighborhoods, and more for all to enjoy. Other merchandise, such as books, will become available that will continue the education process for years to come.
The Paper Brea Crew: Arix Zalace (Director / Executive Producer), Sean Couch (BTS / Executive Producer), Savage Bell (Producer), Ryan Miningham (1st AD), Brad Richard (DP), Erik Stapelfeldt (1st AC), Holden Miller (2nd AC), Scott Clements (Audio Engineer), Kevin Almodovar (Gaffer / Key Grip), Brandon Allen Perdue (Grip Best Boy), Bailey Miller (Prop Master), Matthew Kyle Guidry (Assistant Prop Master), Molly Todd (Hair / Makeup), Christin Gruber (Craft services Manager), Devon Black (Craft Services), Jesse Rich (Craft Services), Shannon Piggot (Production Coordinator), Dylan Costa (DIT), Chandler Williams (Drone & underwater photography)