The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has resumed production of its Book of Mormon videos after a yearlong hiatus because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
The project began back in 2017, with the first videos being released in the fall of 2019. Before the pandemic, the Church released three complete seasons of the series, depicting various stories from the books of 1 Nephi to mid-Alma.
Series producer Aaron Merrell, who has worked on the project since its beginning stages, said he and the other crew members feel the responsibility to take the stories from the Book of Mormon to the entire world.
“One of the key things we’re looking to do with (the videos) is make something consumable and understandable with all audiences, regardless of language or background,” Merrell said. “It’s great to open up the world to the Book of Mormon.”
The project is the most ambitious Book of Mormon adaptation to date. Merrell said the production team is looking to keep the onscreen focus as loyal to the text as possible.
“The inspiration and influence comes from the book itself,” Merrell said. “For every choice we make, whether that be wardrobe, building sets or casting, we look to what we can take from the text as much as we can.”
The series is currently filming the 3 Nephi account of Jesus Christ visiting the Nephite civilization in ancient America, arguably the pinnacle of the entire Book of Mormon. New Zealand actor Anthony Butters was tasked with portraying the Savior. He joined the cast before the pandemic and had more than a year to rehearse and work with the script.
“We’re not just looking for performance and look, but we pray and consult with each other to find who will spiritually embody the role (of Christ) as well,” Merrell said.
Despite relatively sparse past acting experience, Butters said he has avoided feeling the pressure tied to the magnitude of the role.
“I’m trying not to get in my head too much about it, I’m just trying to focus on doing the best job I can and not worry about the weight of it,” Butters said. “I’m just someone here doing a job like everyone else, and that’s how I’m thinking about it.”
Butters prepared for the part by memorizing lines, reworking dialogue, pondering gospel subject matter and seeking to reflect his own individual view of the Savior in his portrayal.
“I feel that over my life I’ve gained a personal relationship with the Savior, and I feel like I know Him personally,” Butters said. “I’m essentially mimicking the Savior that I know in my life; all I can do is mirror what I have experienced.”
Working alongside Butters is an army of more than a thousand additional actors and crew members on the remote film set near Springville. While days on set often last more than 12 hours in the sweltering summer heat, the sacrifices made to be part of the project are a small price to pay for what actors believe to be a valuable spiritual experience.
“They all put in so much work and energy because they actually believe in this, and they want to see this be the best that it can,” said BYU student Caitlynn Boyer, who works as a social media cohost on the set each day. “None of the extras are trained actors, so they’re really imagining what it would have been like to be there, and we’re capturing real feelings.”
Extras have come from all over the world, with some even driving all day and night to Utah County just to be in the background of one brief scene before heading home again. The days on set may be long, hot and grueling, but the mood is chipper as the extras beam with gratitude just to be there.
Stockton Black, a BYU advertising student who serves as assistant to the casting director, credits the dedication and desire from the extras for helping bring the spirit to the set.
“These extras have a testimony of Jesus Christ and really know that this did happen, and they’d love to be part of the replication knowing that this is the closest it will ever get,” Black said. “When people imagine what it would have been like to be there, the spirit becomes very strong.”
BYU media arts student Cheyanne Elton is one such extra, playing both a background character and a ministering angel in different videos. Elton feels that her experience in the project has helped her feel closer to God and her heritage.
“It helps me to understand that God loves us and is aware of us,” Elton said. “It’s helped me connect with the fact that these events did truly happen, and that as indigenous Americans we are descended from (the Nephite) people. It’s been very spiritual and emotional.”
The project is Elton’s first professional acting opportunity, having already been featured in several student productions at BYU. Elton said performing in the Book of Mormon videos has helped her to get more out of the book itself.
“To hear the scriptures spoken aloud by someone who’s representing the Savior really puts the Book of Mormon into a deeper perspective for me and helps me to better understand the doctrine,” Elton said.
Boyer agreed that the unique scriptural environment, despite being a reconstruction, still has a very genuine feel.
“There’s something special about being somewhere that you can feel immersed in the scriptures,” Boyer said. “You know it’s a recreation, but it’s made me think about what I would have felt if I had been there. It’s made the scriptures more real and it’s made me love the Savior more because this did happen.”
One aspect of the scriptural account that has been especially notable in filming the videos has been Christ’s interactions with young children, the actors of whom Butters called “the best ones on the set”.
“They’re so authentic, everything they do is real and every reaction is real,” Butters said. “Some of the best moments have been with the younger cast members.”
Boyer said the reactions from the younger extras have also been especially profound to her.
“They hold their chests and say ‘I feel good here.’ They may not understand how spiritual it really is, but they love being here,” Boyer said.
Filming will continue for the next three weeks before heading to post-production, with the videos slated for a fall 2022 release.
Following 3 Nephi, videos based on the books of Ether and Mormon will be produced along with additional stories from Alma and Helaman.