5. “Judge” Wetzel Whitaker, who is known today as the founding father of LDS film, began his career as a Disney animator.Photo from Brigham Young University Lee Library University Archives
Whitaker worked as an animator on several well-known Disney films, including Cinderella, Alice in Wonderland, and Peter Pan. In fact, he based the look of the two mean stepsisters in Cinderella on himself and his brother in an effort to make them look less feminine and less attractive.
Whitaker went on to help the Church establish its own motion picture studio at Brigham Young University. He produced the first temple films, as well as Church classics like The Windows of Heaven, Man’s Search for Happiness, Johnny Lingo, and Cipher in the Snow.
He met apostles Harold B. Lee, Mark E. Petersen, and Matthew Cowley while they were touring Walt Disney Studios. Whitaker suggested that he and other Latter-day Saints in the film industry might be able to create a film to help the Church promote the new welfare program.During the process, Whitaker felt the weight of the responsibility and sought a special blessing from his stake patriarch. In this blessing, he was told, “The time will come when you will be called to an assignment which will literally revolutionize the teaching methods of the Church. Thousands of people throughout the Church will know of the work you will do and will bless you and those associated with you.”
Five years later, in 1953, he left Walt Disney Studios to establish the Department of Motion Picture Production at BYU, which would serve as the center for LDS films.
More than 150 films were produced during Whitaker’s 22 years as director and producer at the studio. He received an honorary doctorate of fine arts from BYU in 1971 and retired in 1974. He died in 1985.
To learn more about the history of filmmaker “Judge” Wetzel Whitaker and the BYU Motion Picture Studio, don’t miss the award-winning documentary A Reel Legacy. Available on DVD at Deseret Book.