GOSHEN, Utah County — The LDS Church has begun an extensive film production of the Book of Mormon, with resulting videos to serve both as stand-alone narratives and stock footage for visual depictions in all sorts of social messaging and presentations, as announced last week.
Conversely, it’s important to know what the multi-year “Book of Mormon Visual Library” project is not.
If you’re hoping for something along the lines of “Book of Mormon: The Movie,” a complete book-to-screen retelling of prophets and peoples comprising the historical record considered holy scripture for members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, prepare to be disappointed.
If you’re expecting large battle scenes portraying Book of Mormon wars to the scale of Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy, they shall not come to pass.
If you think Nephi and the rest of the cast will be boasting biceps and muscle mass a la the well-known Arnold Friberg paintings of Book of Mormon scenes — uh, nope.
And if you’re wondering if the videos will give a nod to any one of several highly contested theories of Book of Mormon geography and locations — well, that’s not going to happen, either.
Location, location, location
There’s no dearth of theories of just where the Book of Mormon’s “New World” is located — from the Great Lakes to the Heartlands in North America, from various sites in Central America or South America and on to a geography theory consisting of the entire Western Hemisphere.
But don’t expect the Book of Mormon videos to shed any light on locations or subtly suggest a preference of one specific geography over another.
“Our official stance is that once we get to the New World, it will be a location-neutral look and feel,” said producer Aaron Merrell, adding, “what we’re going to focus on is the doctrines, teachings and stories.”
Executive producer Bill Elliott said on the location-neutral tactic: “If the Lord hasn’t shown it and the brethren haven’t brought it forward, then there’s no reason for us to speculate."
While design and production efforts try to adhere as closely as possible to the Book of Mormon text, it doesn’t mean the different location theories have been completely ignored, said Elder Anthony D. Perkins, a General Authority Seventy of the LDS Church. He’s also executive director of the Communications Services Committee, which oversees the church’s web, mobile and social media resources, where the Book of Mormon videos will play prominent roles.
“We have sent our production designers to visit the major proponents of the Mesoamerica theory, the upstate New York theory, the Baja California theory — to understand what those structures, clothing and such looked like, and we’ll try to pick something more that is more neutral in terms of the way we portray it,” Elder Perkins said.
“We want to focus people on the text and what it says about the Savior than about the history and geography per se,” he added. “But we’re trying to be as close as we can to what we know.”
Geography isn’t much of an issue in this first year of filming, since this first year’s production focuses on 1 Nephi 1-18, which take place mostly in and around Jerusalem, in the Old World wildernesses and Lehi’s and Ishmael’s families sailing to the New World.
That has allowed much of the initial filming to be done at the LDS Motion Picture Studio’s Goshen campus in southern Utah County, taking advantage of the Jerusalem set constructed for a similar three-year project beginning in 2011, the church-produced Life of Jesus Christ Bible Videos.
Production for filming — which is being done annually and patterned after the Book of Mormon’s chronological order of chapters and books — began last fall, with scripts approved this spring before set designers and costume specials went to work.
“I was amazed with what they came back with,” said Elder Perkins, citing the depicting of Nephi’s boat and its “curious workmanship” as an example. “They did a lot of research on what Phoenicians' boats looked like, they looked at Korean ocean-going vessels that weren’t discovered until a few hundred years later, and they ended up choosing something that was a little bit of everything.”
Designers did the same with other prominent items from the early chapters of the Book of Mormon, such as the brass plates and the ball-like compass called the Liahona.
“They looked at what the scriptures exactly said, they looked at historic relics of brass balls from the Middle East around 600 B.C. and said, ‘OK, here’s our best guess between history and scripture of what this thing might look like.’”
Besides the Jerusalem set surrounding areas doubling as the Holy Land’s central city and wilderness, ship-building scenes will be shot on location along the Oregon coast. And ocean-sailing scenes will be filmed on a backlot wall painted as a bluescreen with cameras mounted on gimbals to simulate the motion of waves and CGI sea-like backgrounds to be added.
The hardest scenes for this first year is 1 Nephi chapters 11 through 14 — the dream or vision sequences of Nephi.
“With the entire dream, you have to have some computer-aided graphics,” Elder Perkins said. “When you’re showing multitudes pressing toward the tree of life and you have Nephi seeing a history of the earth — Columbus, the founding of the United States — that will be a tough one.”
In the future, filming that depicts subsequent chapters and books of the Book of Mormon — with various different locations, civilizations, conflicts and accomplishments — may be done at different locations and at yet-to-be-created sets.
“We may end up producing or building another set — not of this magnitude,” said Elder Perkins, pointing to the Jerusalem set at the Goshen site, “but probably something on one of the church ranches in Florida. Whether you believe the Book of Mormon lands were in the tropics of Guatemala or in upstate New York, we just need more green than what Goshen has.”
Starting the project
“In preparing for this, we looked at 50 years worth of general conferences and what Book of Mormon scriptures were quoted the most, to try and understand what the brethren are talking about,” Elliott said.
“We went to six different departments of the church — such as the Missionary Department and Seminaries and Institutes of Religion — and asked them that out of 1 Nephi 1 through 18, what are the key elements you’d like to see represented in these videos, to make sure we have it covered,” Elliott added. “So, we refined it down to not doing everything but what will be utilized the most.”
It’s anticipated that filming and production over four to six years will result in a total of 180 video segments of 3 to 5 minutes each, focusing on a specific story or teaching. Another 60 longer video segments — from 10 to 20 minutes — will provide longer narratives.
The result will be a video library that covers an estimated 60 to 65 percent of the Book of Mormon. Some parts of the featured LDS tome of scripture — such as Nephi’s extensive quoting of the Book of Isaiah from the Bible — don’t translate well into video depictions. Other parts — the massive wars and battles — are prohibitive because of financial, location and personnel limitations.
“We’re not going to do the big battles and things like that — it costs so much,” Elliott said. “So we’re focusing on the doctrine and the stories that will bring the Book of Mormon to life.”
No Friberg physicality
For many members of the LDS Church, their visual imaginations of certain Book of Mormon scenes are likely shaped in part by the works of artists, the most prominent being LDS painter Arnold Friberg.
Friberg was commissioned to produce a dozen Book of Mormon paintings in the early 1950s — sandwiched around his work as chief artist-designer for Cecil B. DeMille’s film “The Ten Commandments” — that were used as covers for the church’s The Friend magazine for children. Beginning in the early 1960s, the Friberg paintings served as illustrations published in copies of the Book of Mormon, primarily the low-cost softbound editions.
Friberg’s paintings are known in part for exaggerated depictions of muscle and physical power, which he used to portray inner strength and spiritual power.
“When you meet the cast, you’re going to see they didn’t mimic Arnold Friberg,” said Elder Perkins with a laugh. “The cast don’t have 18-inch biceps.”
So whether it be geography locations, set pieces, character appearances and portrayals, Elliott acknowledges that everyone has their own impressions and it’s all simply speculation.
“We’re not saying that this is what Lehi looked like or this is what the Liahona looked like, we’re just saying this is one interpretation of it,” he said.
And don’t expect an all-inclusive, all-interpretative, everything-explained product.
“These videos are not to be a 'Book of Mormon: The Movie,’” Elliott said. “These are scenes from the Book of Mormon, and my whole thought is, ‘If you like the video, go read the book.’”