Brother fighting brother. Incredible miracles. Trials, faith, love, hate. Not only does the Book of Mormon have all the needed elements for an epic story but it also calls to our spirit and draws us closer to our Savior Jesus Christ as we read it. Now we can share those same messages of faith with our families in a new format with the release of a series of Church-produced Book of Mormon videos.
If it weren’t for the glimpses of tractors and old set items behind the structure representing King Lamoni’s palace, one would feel like they were truly visiting Nephite times, walking through a marketplace laden with tools and food and pots under thatched roofs. There’s a sense of energy and anticipation on the Church production sets in Provo that have become some of the Book of Mormon lands in the Church’s new video series.
The idea to film Book of Mormon scenes has been around since the Church’s Bible videos project began nearly 10 years ago. In fact, the Jerusalem set built for the Bible scenes was designed to be used later for the Book of Mormon videos as well. But why is this project so important?
Elder Curtis of the Seventy is part of the steering committee for the Book of Mormon videos.
Elder LeGrand R. Curtis, Jr. of the Seventy, who has been part of the steering committee in charge of all things related to the videos, explains,
“I think the purpose of the videos is the same as the Book of Mormon: to bring people to Christ. These videos don’t replace the Book of Mormon. I think one of the wonderful things about the videos is that they can help encourage people to read the Book of Mormon.”
John Munoa, an art director for the series, further explains, “The aim of it all is that bottom line of bringing people back to the Atonement. And we thought about those things in the props we created. Even the sword of Laban has symbolism that brings you back to the temple. It’s kind of cool to be able to think those things through.”
Beautifully complementing the Bible videos, the Book of Mormon videos are intended to benefit not only members but also those who are unfamiliar with the Book of Mormon or who live in areas with low literacy rates, allowing them to access these powerful scripture stories for the first time. Producer Aaron Merrell explains, “One thing that’s really exciting about the series is that we are able to give people context so that they understand more what’s going on in the story, then they can learn from those teachings even better.”
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Producer of the Book of Mormon videos, Aaron Merrell.
Because the Book of Mormon videos often need more background than the Bible videos did, they have been filmed in longer episodes, sometimes up to 20 minutes long. Each episode will then be broken into smaller segments. The goal is to make the videos more flexible—a Sunday School teacher might share a 2-minute piece of a story to illustrate a principle while a family with young children might opt to watch an entire 10-minute story. Additionally, Sister Reyna I. Aburto, second counselor in the general Relief Society presidency, says that these shorter segments will be ideal for sharing on social media and increasing positive search results of the Book of Mormon and will resonate with families in various situations. “The producers and the screenwriters and everybody have done a good job in portraying how the family is so central in every story,” she says.
Jackson VanDerwerken plays Nephi in the new Book of Mormon video series. Photo from Church Newsroom.
Jackson VanDerwerken, who filmed season one in 2017 before leaving on a mission to Brazil, was excited to be cast as one of his greatest role models: Nephi. He recalls working hard to put on 15 pounds of muscle in two months, training with acting experts in his area, and learning his lines. But he quickly realized one aspect of preparation he had been missing. “As we approached the shoot dates, I found myself wrapped up in the physical preparing. So, I went back to the basics; I studied the first book of Nephi harder than ever, prayed for [God’s] guidance, kept His commandments, and fulfilled all of my priesthood responsibilities.”
Liliana Corona Guerrero, who was cast as the wife of King Lamoni in the third season, had a similar experience preparing for her role. “I realized it’s not about impressing anyone or not feeling beautiful or talented or whatnot,” she says. “I’m here to help bear testimony of the Book of Mormon. It’s a powerful story about my people, and it’s empowering to finally be able to share that to the world through media.”
Liliana Guerrero talks about her role as King Lamoni's wife in the new Book of Mormon series.
Actors also prepared by studying the scriptures closer than ever and really trying to understand who these ancient people were. Actor Ryan Wood learned more about his character, Abinadi, by pondering about what the prophet was likely thinking and feeling. He says, “I try and find out not only why would the character himself pick those words but also why did the production choose those?”
Amber Weiss, cast as Abish in the third season, studied scholarly articles about her character in addition to reading the Book of Mormon and learned a lot about this remarkable woman. But, she adds, you won’t get Abish’s whole story from the video, so she hopes viewers will go back and read it in the Book of Mormon.
Amber Weiss plays Abish in the third season of the Book of Mormon videos.
A Different Study of the Book of Mormon
“People with the knowledge, like historians and scholars of the scriptures and Church leaders, were counseled [with],” Sister Aburto says about the process of representing the Book of Mormon through film. That research, combined with the knowledge of the cast and crew members and heavenly guidance, has allowed many aspects of this beloved book of scripture to come to life.
Munoa brought over 30 years of experience as a production designer, creative director, and art director to the project. “It’s been a really cool exercise for me, as an art director and somebody who’s grown up loving the Book of Mormon, to reimagine all this stuff for not only a film but something that will kind of be what people think of for the next few years. So, it’s an exciting thing, and it’s daunting at the same time.”
With limited descriptions of objects such as the Liahona in the scriptures, prototypes of different props can vary vastly in design as the creative teams think through possibilities. Ultimately, the prototypes are narrowed down before being presented to the steering committee for feedback and approval. In the case of the Liahona, three models of the approved design were made: a beautiful one for use in visual shots, one with remote-controlled spindles, and a more durable plastic one for use by the actors.
Art directors aren’t the only ones researching, creating, and revising. “I like to say I’ve rewritten the Book of Mormon,” lead writer Elizabeth Hansen says with a laugh. Hansen, who has worked on the videos since the beginning, explains the process of writing the video scripts. “The Brethren and the producers decide what scriptures are going to be dramatized and then they send me a treatment that says, ‘Okay, focus on these particular chapters, and then these are the key messages that we want to focus on, and these are the key scriptures that we want to focus on. Go for it!’” Sometimes Hansen gives the set designers a draft to help them design a model, then she will tweak the script to match the setting they have created.
Lead writer of the Book of Mormon videos, Elizabeth Hansen.
But what about stories or scenes with long speeches that can be visually boring? Hansen explains that for these scenes, such as one of her favorites, the King Benjamin sermon, they try to focus on the reactions and experiences of those who would have been listening to these speeches, perhaps helping the viewer picture themselves at the feet of these great ancient prophets.
Another aspect of making the videos interesting and accurate scriptural portrayals is the costumes. As assistant costume designer Iffer Mitchell explains, not a single detail is overlooked. The costume team does their best to make all the clothing look as handmade as possible, either hand-stitching the costumes with a needle and thread or using a special stitch on the sewing machine that looks handmade.
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King Benjamin and Mosiah teaching their people from a tower. Photo by Church Newsroom.
For instance, Mitchell hand-sewed the beading on King Benjamin’s costume and a volunteer hand-sewed the fringe on the same costume. Mitchell, who helps design hundreds of costumes with the guidance and concept sketches of the head designer, says that even clothing pieces that will never see a camera lens are carefully and lovingly finished. “You won’t even see this part, but we know it’s there,” she says, lifting back the cape of the King Benjamin costume to reveal two more hidden but still beautifully beaded layers. This immaculate work is no small feat, especially considering that some of the actors require multiple costumes as their character ages. But the team takes pride in their work and has seen the hand of the Lord inspiring ideas and guiding decisions when they are stuck on a design. Often, Mitchell says, when they pray for inspiration, “The fabrics tell us what they will be.”
Costumes from various seasons and figures in the Book of Mormon videos.
No matter the detail or design work, Elder Curtis says, “The Lord’s been really kind in helping us.”
A Testimony of the Book of Mormon
“My testimony of Jesus Christ has been strengthened because I realize how much He loves us and that He allowed for this record to be kept and that we have it in our hands to choose to get to know Him better,” Sister Aburto testifies.
Sister Reyna I. Aburto, second counselor in the Relief Society general presidency and member of the Book of Mormon videos steering committee, shares her thoughts, testimony, and excitement about the new videos.
Elder Curtis adds, “For me, every time I open it, it’s like turning on a fan. The Spirit just flows out of that book, and over and over again I get taught and retaught every time I open its pages.”
The videos, which have all been viewed and approved by the First Presidency, will be powerful tools, and those who helped make them know that they were inspired. “You feel this sacredness here and these stories that are so powerful that will inspire,” Guerrero says. “They are real and true and will inspire so many. That’s what we all came together to do, and it was beautiful.”