Few places combine untamed wildness and man-made sophistication quite like Florida. And there’s more, writes GARY SMITH — in addition to dramatic land-, sea- and skyscapes, the Sunshine State is also home to some of the best crews and infrastructure in the US
Filming a shoal of bait fish under Florida's waters
Florida is huge, covering an area roughly two and a half times the size of France. It includes more than 4,000 islands and, at 1,350 miles (2,170 km), has the longest coastline of any US state after Alaska.
Asked what is unique about this huge state, location manager Leah Sokolowsky says: “There’s something truly wild and untamed about this place.” She also points to Florida’s combination of heat and topography: “Southeast Florida is very special. The sky is an amazing shade of blue but, in fact, it’s the clouds that DoPs and directors often comment on. They form over the Everglades and hang very low in the sky, especially in those parts of the Everglades close to the sea. And then there’s the sea itself, which is a crystal-clear patchwork of multiple shades of blue and green — and it’s warm.” Then there’s the fact that nature is present in even the most urbanised areas: “The term concrete jungle was invented for parts of South Florida, but all that lives alongside rare birds, alligators, manatees and armadillos,” Sokolowsky adds. “Then, around Miami Beach, there are historic buildings, including entire streets of Art Deco and some blocks of mid-century modern and Victorian, so you can easily create a variety of looks, from period urban to rural. And even though it’s not easy to get permits to film in the Everglades, there are Everglades-like areas in some public parks and on private property where permits are much easier to obtain.”
Miami’s South Beach: “Unique and difficult to duplicate anywhere else in the world"
According to Michael Savitz, executive producer at Shoot Collective and regional director of AICP (Association of Independent Commercial Producers) Florida, it’s the combination of beautiful year-round weather, diverse locations, skilled crews, state-of-the-art equipment, a multi- cultural talent pool and a supportive, film-friendly government that makes the state unique. “Plus you have our amazing and experienced team — and we’re great fun,” he adds. “We often service jobs for production clients in Germany and France, and lately we’ve produced several projects for production partners in the UK and Ireland.”
Among the Shoot Collective’s recent projects was a short film for Mercedes, produced by Anorak Film. “It covered multiple locations throughout Miami and the result was a beautiful story and film highlighting both the Mercedes and many of the area’s great locations,” Savitz says.
Crandon Park in Miami is one of Savitz’s favourite locations: “It’s a beautiful, pristine beach with soft sand and calm waters,” he says. Also “amazing and unique” is Stiltsville, a cluster of homes built on stilts in the middle of Biscayne Bay. “That makes for a great location when doing nearby boat shooting,” he adds.
Executive director at Film Florida, John Lux, points out that the state is also rich in history: “Florida has tremendous historic and cultural locations. First and foremost, St Augustine is the oldest permanent European city in the US. The cultural feel of South Florida is vastly different to Northwest Florida. At the same time, Florida’s Space Coast has a different cultural feel than the Ybor City area in Tampa. Those are just a few examples of the variety of culture a production can tap into throughout the state.”
But for Lux, what sets Florida apart is its diversity of locations: “East Central Florida [Orlando and Cocoa Beach] looks completely
different to west Central Florida [Tampa, St Pete, Clearwater and Sarasota]. Northeast Florida (Jacksonville and St Augustine) looks completely different to Southwest Florida (Naples and Fort Myers). And Northwest Florida (Tallahassee, Panama City, Destin and Pensacola) looks completely different to Southeast Florida (Palm Beach, Fort Lauderdale, Miami and Keys).”
“Our biggest asset - warm weather - means creating snow is a challenge, but if you want beach, countryside, desert, Neighbourhood, rainforest or swampland, Florida can double for just about anywhere in the world.” - John Lux
With warm weather all year round and a wide choice of neighbourhoods and landscapes, Florida has long been considered the perfect location for ‘Anywhere USA’. “While some states boast of 20, 30 or 100 miles of beaches, Florida is home to 600-plus miles,” Lux says. “That makes beaches our calling card, but they are far from our only location for filming.”
Florida, he adds, is much more adaptable than outsiders might imagine: “Our biggest asset — warm weather — means creating snow is a challenge, but if you want beach, countryside, desert, a specific or generic neighbourhood, rainforest, swampland or anything in between, Florida can double for just about any state in America or country in the world. Florida has locations, experienced crew, in-depth infrastructure, and a desire to do excellent work, as well as a willingness to work with budgets. All of those elements make it the perfect location for film and television.”
“The independent film and commercial parts of the industry are doing very well in Florida,” Lux adds. “High-profile independent films like Moonlight , The Florida Project  and Life and Nothing More  show the quality of work that Florida produces.”
Palm Beach is, of course, one of the best-known shoot locations in Florida. Michelle Hillery, deputy film commissioner and director of finance at the Palm Beach County Film and Television Commission (FTC),outlines just how popular her region is:“We regularly host major brand commercials, fashion photoshoots, popular reality TV series, large-scale live sporting events and independent films. But one of the more challenging genres regularly drawn to our area is nature documentaries. Some of the most fascinating nature events in the world occur here, due to Palm Beach County being on the Gulf Stream.” Recent examples include the BBC’s Blue Planet Live (2019) and Seven Worlds, One Planet (2019-); National Geographic’s Hostile Planet (2019-) and Cannibal Sharks (2019); and PBS’ Jack Hannah’s Into The Wild (2007) and Battleground Everglades (2018).
Given how unpredictable nature can be, this embarrassment of natural riches brings with it challenges: “As the largest county in the state of Florida, with over 2,000 sq miles of diverse locations and 47 miles of coastline, there is an abundance of land, air and sea to cover in the Palm Beaches,” Hillery says. “This vast area, coupled with the unpredictability of some of our celebrated annual natural events — the Goliath grouper spawning, the mullet run, the blacktip shark migration, the sea-turtle nesting season — means that production teams need to plan ahead in order to seize the opportunity to film these unique natural wonders in the only place they occur.”
The FTC facilitates this by offering free one-stop permitting for more than 50 municipalities, taxing districts, county departments and other community entities. “This makes it far simpler for visiting productions to obtain the approvals needed for this type of coverage,” Hillery adds.
While shooting in an area with special environmental considerations — including the sea turtle nesting season and airspace restrictions — might seem like obstacles, the state’s various agencies
work together to make filming as easy as possible for productions. The ERM (Palm Beach County’s Department of Environmental Resources Management), the DEP (Department of Environmental Protection) and the FAA (Federal Aviation Administration) co-operate closely to ensure that production teams can capture extraordinary, rare footage. Hillery cites the BBC’s Seven Worlds, One Planet, which was issued
with 10 permits for the annual mullet run: “The permits spanned 40 days and required co-ordination from each coastal municipality for land coverage, the FAA for helicopter and drone coverage, the Coast Guard for filming from a boat and the FWC [Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission] for special activity licenses to ensure marine-life protection. The FTC’s streamlined permitting process, expertise on regional regulations and strong relationships with film- friendly municipal partners enabled this.”