'A Reel Legacy' tells story of LDS Church's early film efforts

Published: Monday, Nov. 26 2012 5:00 a.m. MST

Wetzel "Judge" O. Whitaker was the founder of Brigham Young University's Motion Picture Studio.

"A Reel Legacy" Documentary

When you look closely between a photograph of the stepsisters from Disney's animated "Cinderella" and a photograph of Wetzel O. "Judge" Whitaker and his brother Scott, you may notice a striking resemblance.

The Whitaker brothers, who were former animators for Walt Disney, actually based the faces of the "ugly stepsisters" on their own, wanting them to be more masculine.

As chief animator for the beloved classics of "Cinderella" and "Peter Pan," among others, Wetzel O. Whitaker's future was filled with opportunity when The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints began showing interest in learning to use media.

The LDS Church's early efforts in film are a little-known history, one filled with sacrifice, dedication, hard work and successful results. This story has now been preserved by Thomas Laughlin, producer, director and editor behind the documentary "A Reel Legacy," a history of filmmaker Wetzel O. Whitaker and the Brigham Young University Motion Picture Studio.

"Latter-day Saints love pioneers across the plains, but there are other pioneers out there," Laughlin said. "We're all about media today … it all came from a guy that left a lucrative career with Walt Disney to come here."

The documentary

"A Reel Legacy" is a story of faith, toil, sacrifice and humility about Whitaker's mission as a father, husband, friend and filmmaker. The film features interviews with veteran filmmakers who knew and worked with Whitaker as well as dozens of rare and never-before-seen images released by family members and friends. They talk about Whitaker's life, trials and the challenges he faced in building up the BYU Motion Picture Studio.

"The purpose (of the documentary) is to raise awareness in that Judge Whitaker was a pioneer of Mormon media," Laughlin said.

Whitaker was responsible for founding the BYU studio, which would produce such films as the original "Johnny Lingo" and "Man's Search for Happiness." Whitaker also mentored Reed Smoot, who filmed all the aerials for "Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull" and worked on "Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom"; T.C. Christensen, cinematographer for "17 Miracles" and "Forever Strong"; Karl Wesson, hair stylist for "The Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest," "Thelma & Louise" and "How the Grinch Stole Christmas"; and George Griner, camera operator for "High School Musical" and "The World's Fastest Indian."

The documentary "A Reel Legacy" got its start when Laughlin saw a framed photo of Whitaker in the basement of the BYU Motion Picture Studio. Wondering who the man with the wavy white hair was, Laughlin inquired and was told several stories by veterans of the studio who had worked with Whitaker. Intrigued, Laughlin began the project independently and about 18 months later had produced the film, which was released in early October.

"There are a lot of people who've worked with Judge," Laughlin said. "I wanted to interview and hear from the horse's mouth from people who were actually there."

The story of Judge Whitaker

For Whitaker, one call from President David O. McKay, the prophet of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, changed everything.

The LDS Church's leaders wanted to use film to help people understand the church's programs, such as Mormon missionary work and welfare, and soon it was arranged to have a contingent of general authorities come down to see what the industry was doing, according to Pete Czerny, a film editor who was with the Motion Picture Studio from 1971-1983.

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