Mormon Media Symposium: A Reel Legacy

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Members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints the world over have seen films produced by the LDS Motion Picture Studio, but more than likely, only a handful know how the studio came into existence.

Filmmaker Tom Laughlin’s new documentary “A Reel Legacy” tells the epic story of one man’s effort to answer the call of the prophet, leaving a successful job at Walt Disney Studios to start up the Church’s very own motion picture studio.

“The number-one purpose of this film is a historical preservation project,” creator Tom Laughlin said. “It’s tailored to tell a story that’s beyond religion or Church, about the man and the legacy he left behind.”

The man is Wetzel “Judge” Whitaker.

Whitaker was an LDS animator for Walt Disney Studios from 1936 to 1953. He was one of the animators for the Donald Duck movie “The Three Caballeros” and the 1953 Disney classic “Peter Pan.”

President David O. McKay approached Whitaker about using media in the Church for educational and training purposes. Whitaker thought it was a good idea, and after he produced a test film on the Church welfare program, the prophet asked him to come to BYU and start a film program.

Laughlin said Whitaker prayed about the prophet’s request and took a leap of faith, leaving his successful job at Disney to establish a film program for the Church out of nothing.

“We have everyday important pioneers in our wards and stakes,” Laughlin said. “They’re not the ones crossing the plains … there are so many other wonderful people who have done things, and sacrificed a lot, and there’s still a place for them in Church history.”

Laughlin said he wanted to capture Whitaker’s qualities of faith and devotion in the film, as well as to show Whitaker’s pioneering efforts in Church media.

What began as the the small and unknown BYU film program grew into a state-of-the-art film studio that has produced hundreds of film projects, been seen by millions of people throughout the world, and has played an important role in missionary work.

John Linton, a film producer who worked with Whitaker and was interviewed for the documentary, said he hopes audiences will understand the importance of the film’s message.

“I would hope that they would appreciate the contribution that film made in those early years for the Church,” Linton said.

He said the films produced by Whitaker’s program broke through global language barriers and helped spread information quickly and successfully.

“I hope their hearts would be touched to realize that this was one of those many circumstances that played an important role in the Church, and that has done a great deal of good over the years,” Linton said.

Sarah Barber, a sophomore from Spanish Fork who recently watched the documentary, said the story was quite inspirational.

“I think it would take a lot of faith for somebody with so much talent to get a call from the Church and just up and leave their job,” Barber said.

Barber said people should watch the documentary because it is such a great example of true faith, as well as a great reminder that there is more to life than one’s reputation and monetary success.

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