ELBERTA, Utah County — In searing triple-digit temperatures, four men walk up the crest of a parched-grass hill, wearing sandals and coarse fabrics, a heavy-laden camel in tow. Behind them are barren, distant mountains and billowing clouds set in a blue summer sky.
Later next year, that exact scene will be viewed worldwide as representing Nephi and his brothers crossing a wilderness area beyond Jerusalem — a recounting of the journey of four brothers mentioned early in the Book of Mormon, a historical record considered holy scripture for members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
But in reality, it’s midday Friday on a movie set south of the Utah County agricultural towns of Goshen and Elberta, with four actors — and the camel — being directed and filmed by a production crew as the LDS Church begins a six-year project to create a digital video library of Book of Mormon scenes and stories.
The effort is a sequel to a similar three-year project, the church-produced Life of Jesus Christ Bible Videos series that started in 2011. And for early Book of Mormon filming, production crews have returned to the same “Jerusalem Set” previously used on the LDS Motion Picture Studio lot known as “South Campus” or “Goshen Campus.”
Rick Macy, who plays Lehi, talks to media on the set of the Book of Mormon Visual Library at LDS Motion Picture Studios South Campus near Goshen on Friday, July 7, 2017. | Kristin Murphy, Deseret News
The massive, multi-level set — seemingly a maze of alleys, passageways, arches and rooms used to represent Jerusalem at the time of Christ — is being repurposed and reutilized to represent Jerusalem at 600 B.C., the time and place when the Book of Mormon speaks of Nephi, his father, Lehi, and their family as they fled that city en route to “the promised land,” believed to be in the Western Hemisphere.
Initial filming focuses on chapters 1-18 of the book of 1st Nephi, with production about 15 days into a projected 30-day effort. Videos from this production are expected to be released in the fall of 2018, with subsequent filming in the coming four or five years to portray other parts of the Book of Mormon.
Elder LeGrand R. Curtis Jr. of the LDS Church’s Quorums of the Seventy, who chairs the steering committee overseeing the project, said the successes of the previous Bible videos paved the way for a similar Book of Mormon effort.
“It was a great idea to do them, and it led to more enthusiasm to do the Book of Mormon videos as well,” he said.
However, the future videos are to be a supplement to one’s study and understanding of the Book of Mormon, he said, adding “it can’t be a substitute for reading the Book of Mormon.”
Church leaders and project producers expect about 60 percent of the Book of Mormon to be represented in what is being called the Book of Mormon Visual Library. The intent is to provide a series of videos — some 180 segments only three to five minutes in length focusing on specific anecdotes or teachings, with another 60 more between 10 and 20 minutes treating a sustained narrative — that can be made available for worldwide use in a number languages.
Sam Petersen as Lemuel, Jackson VanDerwerken as Nephi, Mace Sorensen as Laman, and Cooper Sutton as Sam, act in the Book of Mormon Visual Library at LDS Motion Picture Studios South Campus near Goshen on Friday, July 7, 2017. | Kristin Murphy, Deseret News
Also, digital videos will be used as a collection of images and clips for creating visual depictions to help illustrate messages of church leaders, or short clips used for a church lesson, a missionary discussion or family viewing.
The videos are expected to be available on a future Book of Mormon Videos YouTube channel as well as on existing LDS.org and Mormon Channel platforms and existing Book of Mormon and Gospel Library apps.
“We're trying to create a stock library of footage that we can go to and use for different videos and other projects in the next 20 to 30 years,” said executive producer Bill Elliott. “This is being shot digitally, so it'll look good on your phone, and it will look good if you put it up on a big-screen.”
The Jerusalem set already has been used to depict Book of Mormon scenes such as Lehi offering prophetic warnings to fellow Jerusalem residents to Nephi and his brothers being chased through the city by Laban.
New set pieces have been constructed nearby — such as the blockish, ancient-looking home that on one side is used as an entrance to depict Lehi’s family residence and on the opposite side the home of Ishmael, whose family was invited to join Lehi’s in the wilderness and whose daughters were wives to Lehi’s sons.
And while the ship-building segments of Nephi and his brothers will be shot later on the coast of Oregon, the crossing-the-ocean scenes will be done at the Jerusalem set, with a large backlot wall to be repainted as a blue screen. With actors atop a replica boat, the camera will be set on a rocking-back-and-forth gimbal to simulate the motion of waves.
Subsequent years will likely see other locations — such as LDS Church property in Florida — used when depictions require greener, lusher and more tropical surroundings.
Currently, the Goshen campus provides most of the backdrop and settings needed for the 1 Nephi 1-18 filming. Producer Aaron Merrell said a stretch of Goshen Canyon — with its arid, rolling hills and a beautiful stream — served as a great double for a Book of Mormon wilderness area outside of Jerusalem.
Production means full days, sometimes running 12 hours long and other times well into 3 or 4 in the morning. Cast numbers may be as few as two or three to a half dozen, while some scenes already shot have included an estimated 150 extras.
And that’s not counting the five camels, eight horses and 15 or so goat and sheep used in filming. Add in an estimated filming, production and service crew that averages as many as 60 to 80 daily.
Kymberly Mellen, who plays Sariah, talks to the media on the set of the Book of Mormon Visual Library at LDS Motion Picture Studios South Campus near Goshen on Friday, July 7, 2017. | Kristin Murphy, Deseret News
The cast was culled from a churchwide casting call last fall. Kymberly Mellen, a Chicago mother of four and acting instructor at DePaul University, said she relishes the opportunity to depict Lehi’s wife, Sariah, in the videos.
“There’s not a lot about the women in the scriptures,” said Mellen, who explained she’s trying to give multiple dimensions and humanity to a role that too often is seen as “the murmuring wife” by Mormons. “It’s a privilege to provide a mother’s viewpoint, a wife’s viewpoint and to portray a woman of faith.”
A convert to the LDS Church without the benefits of the Primary and seminary programs as a youth or teen, Elliott said that learning about the Book of Mormon was challenging for him.
“I think the opportunity for people to visually see this come to life will help them as visual learners, for as many people as there are around the world," he said. "We’re focusing on the key doctrines, and it’s the small and simple things I think that will be most powerful.”