History of Church-Produced Mormon Films

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In the horse and buggy days of the 1890s, pioneering Mormon artist C.C.A. Christensen created detailed murals depicting events in the fledgling history of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, rolled the paintings on aspen poles and traveled from western settlement to settlement sharing his portable message and defining what some term the first moving picture in the Church.

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From that rudimentary effort to the contemporary and vast technological improvements in filmmaking, today’s message could appear in virtually every pocket via cell phone.

Films created in the last 100 years in the Church provide a visual vehicle to share core Christ-centered teachings of the faith and forward the family-centered focus of the Church.

Elder David A Bednar of the Quorum of the Twelve, in a recent address at Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah, explained how rapid advances in technology “have enabled and accelerated the work of salvation,” distributing information and doctrine about the Church in multiple formats and with the use of numerous devices.

Delivering that self-defined message of faith and doctrinal accuracy inspired Church leaders in 1913 to commission a major film production, One Hundred Years of Mormonism, chronicling events in the Church from the 1805 birth of Church leader Joseph Smith.

 

The project influenced Salt Lake City brothers Shirl and Chet Clawson to film current events and activities related to the Church and its leaders until a 1929 fire destroyed their studio and claimed the life of Shirl. Much of their documentary film work was also lost in the fire, but a portion of their effort was retained and provides a timely view of Church events, including the first filming of a general conference.

The years of the Great Depression slowed the progress of filmmaking in the Church. By 1935, future Church President Gordon B. Hinckley was invited to serve on the newly formed Radio, Publicity and Mission Literature Committee and was charged with the task of creating a series of filmstrips to be utilized in the missionary efforts of the Church. Each filmstrip was hand-tinted, as the color reproductions of the time were deemed unsatisfactory.

President Hinckley continued, with others, in media development to create a pair of instructional films describing the Church’s welfare program in 1948. Wetzel O. (Judge) Whitaker, then an employee of the Walt Disney Studios in California, produced the welfare films.

In the same time frame, two Utah filmmakers, Frank Wise and LaMar Williams, created Where the Saints Trod in honor of the Mormon pioneer trek centennial. Also in 1947, the first Church visitors’ center movie screened at the Bureau of Information on Temple Square in Salt Lake City. This initial effort led the way in establishing the media format for the 15 visitors’ centers operated at Church historic sites today.

The success of these productions eventually led to the 1953 establishment of the BYU Motion Picture Studio. Then Church President David O. McKay, working with university President Ernest L. Wilkinson and others collaborated to open the studio, and Judge Whitaker was called to head the organization.

Despite encouragement from the Walt Disney Studios to stay in California, Whitaker followed counsel of a Church leader given while he was filming the welfare movies. His leader advised, “The time would come when you will be called to an assignment which will literally revolutionize the teaching methods of the Church.”

During Whitaker’s 22-year term at the BYU facility, the studio produced numerous films, some privately funded and focused, but most created at the request of various departments of the Church.

“During Whitaker’s tenure, Church films became central to Mormon culture and created a universal, doctrinal, cultural and aesthetic touchstone for Latter-day Saints,” notes Gideon O. Burton, BYU professor of English, “to the point that today it is difficult to conceive of the Church without its films and videos.”

In 1956 President McKay observed that he was “so glad the Church is utilizing these marvelous inventions for communication. I believe,” he continued, “the Lord has provided these great inventions like the motion picture, television, radio and such things. This is one of the ways in which the gospel message will go to all the world.”

The movies produced in the 1960s defined that journey.

The 1963 production Windows of Heaven, a tale chronicling the trials of the early pioneers and teaching the principle of tithing, claimed a significant audience in the local units of the Church. The following year another gospel doctrine film, entitled Man’s Search for Happiness, debuted at the 1964 New York World’s Fair to viewership of over five million. That production, which has since been updated twice, provided solid evidence of the effectiveness and potential impact of filmmaking in the Church.

Other productions in the ’70s, including Johnny Lingo, a film using cultural customs to teach self-worth, and The Lost Manuscript, a story recounting an episode during Joseph Smith’s translation of the Book of Mormon, continued the flow of creative films. As the impact of Church-produced films expanded, independent producers developed additional projects.

Bonneville Communications, a Church entity, directed the 1980 holiday classic Mr. Krueger’s Christmas, featuring Hollywood leading man Jimmy Stewart. Stewart, a Presbyterian, agreed to the role and in it fulfilled a lifelong dream of leading the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, according to movie producer Michael McLean.

Bonneville garnered further attention with the widely recognized, award-winning Homefront series. Produced as radio and television spots, the series of family-centered, thought-provoking public service announcements became popular as an integral part of station licensure requirements, according to Stephen B. Allen, managing director of the Missionary Department and then executive producer of the series.

Stations are required by law to operate in the public interest and necessity, to demonstrate they donate advertising time to local concerns. That requirement gave us a window to develop a PSA focused on families. With over 100 productions, the Homefront series became the longest standing PSA campaign in the history of this world. It won over 400 different awards, changed the template of PSAs to come, but more importantly to us, it broke down some of the barriers and the misunderstandings about the Church. And it had an impact on individual lives and changed the ways people parent.

As the Church membership grew, so did the quantity and the screen size of the films produced.

Lyle Shamo, longtime leader in Church audiovisual productions who began his career by making filmstrips and filmed “news reports” in his basement darkroom, recognized early on the visual impact films made in teaching. “The power of the media has a dramatic effect on people — it condenses learning,” Shamo said.

In 1984, the veteran administrator was assigned by President Hinckley (then counselor to President Spencer W. Kimball) to begin consolidation into one group all media production resources within Church departments. By 1991, the consolidated group officially became the Audio Visual Department of the Church. At that same time the BYU Motion Picture Studio joined the newly formed AV department with a new name, the LDS Motion Picture Studio.

And if anyone should be given credit for the development of an overall media strategy, according to Shamo, “It should be Church Presidents Hinckley and Thomas S. Monson. They were both central in making decisions and had a vision of what should happen. They were always out ahead of us.”

“The collaborative process of the various Church departments and the motion picture studio consolidated not only the efficiency of the production, but broadened the reach as well,” explained William A. Schaefermeyer a 25-year veteran of the audiovisual operation. “It was a nuts and bolts process of approvals and production, sometimes long in coming, sometimes not coming at all, but it eventually worked out.”

Schaefermeyer cited the Book of Mormon production How Rare a Possession as an example of the process. “More than 150 people worked on this film. We wanted to make a movie that would make a difference in the lives of people.”

The impact of filmmaking continued with the 1993 feature The Mountain of the Lord, a movie commemorating the centennial of the Salt Lake Temple, while, in that same year, the epic pioneer history of the Church took to the large screen in Legacy. This saga debuted in the newly refurbished Joseph Smith Memorial Building and was directed by Kieth Merrill and produced by Scott Swofford.  

The two collaborated again with the 2000 film The Testaments of One Fold and One Shepherd. A third film for the theater, Joseph Smith: The Prophet of the Restoration, which shares the story of the founding leader of the Church, opened in 2005. The film was directed by Gary Cook and T. C. Christensen and produced by Ron Munns.

Film production, much of it for instructional and leadership training purposes, continued in the Church during this decade, but a notable public campaign, “I’m a Mormon,” featuring biographical sketches of Church members throughout the world debuted in 2010.

In 2012, a series of free-to-the-public Bible videos, “The Life of Christ,” were filmed in a specially constructed Goshen, Utah, set. “The series was perfectly timed,” explained producer John Uibel, “with the use of the Internet to speak to the rising generation, to share with them and others the stories of the Savior’s life.”

For over 100 years, film production has been “not an incidental aspect of Mormonism,” suggested BYU professor Burton, “but has been central to how The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints instructs its members and presents itself to the world and how people both inside and outside of the faith understand and come to terms with Mormon history, belief and culture.”

Sharing the messages of Church teachings take a different approach with the upcoming October 10 release of the newly produced, full-length film Meet the Mormons. Not only is the movie the first in Church history to play in a “theatrical release,” but it was also created without a formal, written script, according to director Blair Treu.

“We wanted to tell our own stories, to get to know families from the rank and file of the Church and observe the impact of the gospel in their lives,” Treu said. “We created free-flowing stories, keeping it authentic, to show who we are as a result of living our beliefs.”

Rather than limiting film viewership to Church visitors’ centers, the new movie will go out on a national, then international, release, with all proceeds of the project donated to the American Red Cross.

For Treu, this expanded step in the history of Church filmmaking is “monumental! It’s a whole new direction we never thought would happen, and here it is.”

“Technology today — television, Internet, social media and mobile devices — help distribute the content much faster and broader than thought possible in years past,” said David Nielsen, managing director of the Church’s Publishing Services Department, which oversees today’s media production. “Technology gives us the ability to share the message of the gospel of Jesus Christ with the world.”

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