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The story behind the The Piano Guys' Christmas Mormon Channel video

Published: Tuesday, July 28 2015 12:15 a.m. MDT

A screenshot of the new Bible Video on the Mormon Channel, A screenshot of the new Bible Video on the Mormon Channel, "O Come, Emmanuel," featuring The Piano Guys. (Mormon Channel)

For each video The Piano Guys have produced, a spectacularly beautiful location is selected. But one location they remember as "incredible, spiritual, powerful."

On Tuesday, the Mormon Channel released to YouTube “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel — Christmas Version,” a unique collaboration between the popular performing group and The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

For this videotaping, The Piano Guys were allowed to film on the church’s three-acre Goshen, Utah, New Testament movie set, a recreation of ancient Jerusalem built for LDS Church productions.

“It was incredible. All of us were just blown away,” said Paul Anderson, one of the five Piano Guys and the group’s videographer. “Filming on the set was literally the highlight of my career. It was the coolest thing. I felt like I was in Jerusalem, in the Holy Land.”

The Piano Guys' website. (thepianoguys.com) The Piano Guys' website. (thepianoguys.com)

Viewers of “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel — Christmas Version” share the enthusiasm. In only a few days the video has been highly viewed and mention of the performance has been blazing through social media networks.

“Love this!” wrote one admirer. “Thank you for the incredible music and for telling the story in such a beautiful way ... brought tears to my eyes.”

From another fan: “I am nearly speechless at the beauty of this video. I hope it becomes a Christmas classic among all who believe in the mission of Jesus.”

“Espetacular, divino, extraordinário, celestial,” commented another viewer.

A back wall at the Jerusalem Motion Picture Set near Goshen, Utah. (Intellectual Reserve, Inc.) A back wall at the Jerusalem Motion Picture Set near Goshen, Utah. (Intellectual Reserve, Inc.)

LDS Church officials have welcomed the public response, as The Piano Guys have used their success as music performers to become ambassadors for the church and its mission.

“It has been rewarding to read the comments posted on YouTube,” said Scott Trotter, LDS Church spokesperson. “Many people are very appreciative of the video and the message of Christ that it shares. It seems to be well-received by a broad audience.”

Acknowledging the uniqueness of the joint endeavor, Trotter explained, “On occasion the church will collaborate on projects with other artists in one way or another. We felt this was a good opportunity to share a memorable message of Jesus Christ through use of existing church resources.” He then added, “The church may undertake similar projects in the future.”

A screenshot of the new Bible Video on the Mormon Channel, A screenshot of the new Bible Video on the Mormon Channel, "O Come, Emmanuel," featuring The Piano Guys. (Mormon Channel)

Anderson was reached by phone for an interview with the Deseret News while the group was traveling for TV and radio appearances in New York City. The Piano Guys had completed taping a segment of “CBS This Morning” and an appearance on Fox News’ “Fox & Friends” was scheduled for the following day.

“We heard about the church’s Jerusalem set, and we all thought it would be so cool to film out there,” Anderson said, explaining the development process of the video.

Piano Guys members began making phone calls and contacting any church representative who they believed might be able to help arrange the location for the shoot.

“Everyone was telling us that it’s impossible,” he explained. “They all said, ‘The church doesn’t allow anyone to film there.' ... We were discouraged and didn’t think it would happen. But we continued. We just felt so strongly about it.”

After weeks of work, they received a phone call they had been waiting for.

Beyond the rare location made available, what makes the video even more unique is that LDS Church officials provided videotape footage from its “The Life of Jesus Christ Bible Videos” productions, which were filmed at the same location.

“Our concept was to duplicate as much as we possibly could the locations that were used in the church’s videos while videotaping Jon and Steve performing ‘O Come, O Come, Emmanuel,’” Anderson said, referring to pianist Jon Schmidt and cellist Steven Sharp Nelson.

“From a videographer standpoint, I could just film any which way possible and get incredible shots. It’s so authentic-looking. For each of us, it was incredible, spiritual, powerful — each moment of the whole day. We had miracles happen throughout the entire day.”

Among those was the weather.

“The biggest thing that we worried about was we knew it would take a long time to do it, and we only had a day to do this. And direct sunlight is the worst to film in, right in the middle of the day.

“We thought we would only be able to shoot in the morning and in the evening,” Anderson continued. “Of course, we always pray before every shoot, during the shoot and after the shoot. We ended up with the perfect cloud cover and the sunlight was exactly what we needed. It was perfect all day long. We had the perfect lighting.”

The original plan was to use the group’s own lighting equipment to film evening scenes, a portion of the filming necessary to duplicate the church’s videotaped recreation of the Savior’s birth.

“But church representatives ended up sending out their lighting guys, the same technicians who lit the Bible videos on the movie set,” he said. “Our lighting was perfect, both for our daytime scenes and the shoot into the evening.”

The Piano Guys’ arrangement of the hauntingly beautiful “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel,” one of the oldest Christian hymns, was written by Steven Sharp Nelson and a friend of the group, Marshall McDonald.

“The arrangement just made me cry the first time I heard it,” Anderson said. “I could imagine the Savior in Jerusalem. I could imagine these shots in my head while listening to the music. And I just bawled. I’ve never cried at instrumental music before.”

The Piano Guys also recently released a video based on music from "The Lord of the Rings." The introduction on the group's website states: "Since the beginning of The Piano Guys, 'Lord of the Rings' has been our most requested work." The first prequel to the "Lord of the Rings" film trilogy, "The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey," premieres Dec. 14.

Anderson said he felt some of the same "miracles" when shooting that production, as well.

The Piano Guys' PBS special, filmed earlier this year, will debut locally on KUED on Dec. 6 at 8:30 p.m. and nationally in 2013.

To explain the group’s experience as The Piano Guys have become more and more successful with each new CD release and video production, Anderson said, “It has been really fun for us, but we’re still balancing our work and our family. And it’s all a big blur. Only rarely are we able to sit back and review what we’ve done, and then we realize and say, ‘Hey, we were just on Jay Leno. We were just on the church’s Jerusalem set.’ Only then do we realize how incredibly blessed we are.”

Copyright 2015, Deseret News Publishing Company