Bringing the Savior’s appearance in the Ancient Americas to life in the Book of Mormon Videos

SPRINGVILLE, Utah — “This is the central part of the Book of Mormon — the appearance of the Savior,” Elder LeGrand R. Curtis Jr. said, as the film crew was preparing for a day of working on the Book of Mormon Videos on Monday, July 26. “This is a really important season of filming.”

Elder Curtis, a General Authority Seventy and Church Historian, visited the private and secluded set, located near Springville, Utah, during the production of the fourth season of the Book of Mormon Videos.

The cast and crew began filming two weeks ago and hope to have everything they need by the end of August to begin post production.

Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the team had a year to work on refining the scripts prior to getting the green light to get back on the set.

Elder Curtis was joined by Sister Reyna I. Aburto, second counselor in the Relief Society general presidency, on the set. Both are members of the Book of Mormon Videos steering committee.

“We are so excited that the First Presidency approved us filming again,” Sister Aburto said.

“We all feel this is the central part of the Book of Mormon because it contains the words that Jesus told those people,” she said. “It contains His teachings and His doctrine. The sole purpose of this project is to testify of Him and to increase faith in Him.”

At the same time, the production team knows it may face an uphill battle to get viewers back in the habit of watching the fourth season of the Book of Mormon Videos, Elder Curtis said.

Elder LeGrand R. Curtis Jr., a General Authority Seventy, speaks to media as The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints’ production of the fourth season of Book of Mormon Videos is filmed near Springville, Utah, on Monday, July 26, 2021.
Elder LeGrand R. Curtis Jr., a General Authority Seventy, speaks to media as The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints’ production of the fourth season of Book of Mormon Videos is filmed near Springville, Utah, on Monday, July 26, 2021. Credit: Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

“We were just so pleased with the start we had with the other videos that we released and the momentum that we had going,” he said. “People got so that they knew we released the videos on Fridays, and so we would have ‘Book of Mormon Videos Friday Nights’ with members of the Church. … To have this long of a time [without new videos] was painful because we had such a good thing going.”

But there were also unexpected benefits from the pause in production. Immediately prior to the pandemic-caused shutdown, the actor was chosen who would portray the Savior in this season of the videos.

Anthony Butters, a native of New Zealand, received the script more than a year ago and used that time to memorize his lines and study the words of the Savior.

Sister Aburto said this has helped the production go smoothly.

“He has memorized all his lines,” she said. “He has not needed any cues because he had more time to prepare.”

Reciting the words of the Savior is only one part of the role for Butters. Actually acting like the Savior is something potentially more daunting.

“All I can do is portray the Savior that I know. I am not trying to be totally accurate to the actual Savior because I’ve never met Him in person,” Butters said.

But who is the Savior that Butters knows?

“The Savior I know is full of love, is not intimidating, is probably formal in the right circumstances, but when [He] is with you, [He] is not formal, [He] is personal,” he said. “The Savior I know gets it, has a sense of humor, has been through what you have been through, is not scary to talk to.”

As Butters spoke, some of the children who are acting as extras stopped to watch him answer questions. They pointed. They giggled quietly. They whispered to each other. Butters isn’t Jesus, but the children immediately knew who he was portraying.

Anthony Butters, who plays Jesus, prays during a scene as The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints’ production of the fourth season of Book of Mormon Videos is filmed near Springville, Utah, on Monday, July 26, 2021.
Anthony Butters, who plays Jesus, prays during a scene as The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints’ production of the fourth season of Book of Mormon Videos is filmed near Springville, Utah, on Monday, July 26, 2021. Credit: Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

He recognizes the important role of the children’s authenticity in the videos, as well.

“They are so authentic. Everything they do is real. Every reaction they have is real,” Butters said. “I feel like some of the best moments have been with some of the younger cast members.”

Getting to know the Savior and His role in the lives of each individual is a part of the purpose of the Book of Mormon Videos, Sister Aburto said.

“We want families to be learning about Him. We want children and youth and people of all ages to be focusing on Him because this is The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints,” she said. “We know that He is at the head of this Church, and our hope is that people will just get closer to Him.”

The process of creating videos that will help the Holy Ghost touch people’s hearts isn’t always easy and requires a lot of prayer and revelation among the cast and crew.

From the beginning of the project, Jacqui Newell has been the costume designer for the Book of Mormon Videos.

“When we started this project in 2017, we were given an Apostolic blessing that we would have the help that we would need, and it has definitely come to pass,” she said. “We have actually had the help we needed, when we needed it, where we needed it. And not just for the project, but in my personal life.”

Unlike set designers who have many ancient buildings to pull inspiration from around the Americas, Newell and her team needed special guidance in creating costumes for a people who didn’t leave many clothing remnants behind.

“Whenever I’m faced with a problem or can’t figure out how to solve something, it comes to me. And it is definitely no question where it comes from.”

“Whenever I’m faced with a problem or can’t figure out how to solve something, it comes to me. And it is definitely no question where it comes from.”

Newell also credits Rory Scanlon, a professor at Brigham Young University who has researched for the last 40 years what the fabrics and garment designs of this time period may have been.

“He had done a lot of sketches from carvings. I looked at a lot of photos of carvings from the temples and things that were in Central and South America,” Newell said. “Everything that was available, we looked at. Then we tried to remove elements that would tie it to one culture or people.”

John Munoa, art director for the Book of Mormon Videos, echoed Newell.

“We try really hard no to do any cultural appropriation. We are always trying to take styles rather than discrete elements.”

Munoa has been on both sides of the camera. While he has been the art director, he was also the actor who portrayed Moroni in the second season of the videos. Each of his roles has given him unique perspectives on the project and on the gospel.

“I think being in front of the camera is a lot tougher because you are trying to recreate the life of somebody who was real — who was in the scriptures,” he said. “It’s kind of daunting.”

Neither the actors nor those who watch the videos get a pass on reading the Book of Mormon. Elder Curtis said the videos are meant to be an aid.

“By no means is this intended to replace reading the Book of Mormon,” he said. “There are some real basic things that, for somebody who is new to it or struggles with reading, it is really helpful to have that visual aspect to it.”

Sister Aburto said she hopes the videos encourage people to learn about the Savior and read the book after they watch the videos.

“We are hoping that the result of this project is that more people will turn to Christ and that more people will also have the desire to read the Book of Mormon,” she said.

There is a lot to learn from the Savior’s ministry in 3 Nephi, but Elder Curtis said he is looking forward to one part, in particular.

Sister Reyna Aburto, right, second counselor in the Relief Society general presidency of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, speaks to extra Wendy Onnen from Kansas City, Missouri, as the Church’s production of the fourth season of Book of Mormon Videos is filmed near Springville, Utah, on Monday, July 26, 2021.
Sister Reyna Aburto, right, second counselor in the Relief Society general presidency of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, speaks to extra Wendy Onnen from Kansas City, Missouri, as the Church’s production of the fourth season of Book of Mormon Videos is filmed near Springville, Utah, on Monday, July 26, 2021. Credit: Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

Third Nephi 17,” Elder Curtis said without hesitation. And with a tearful emotion, he explained: “The experience of Christ changing His schedule to stay and be with the people. And to heal them. And to bless the children. And the angels coming and ministering to the children. To me, that’s as spiritually powerful as anything.”

Watching that scene and the others being recorded this month will take some time. The fourth season of the Book of Mormon Videos isn’t expected to be released until after the middle of 2022.

The first three seasons can be watched any time at BookofMormonVideos.org.