His face can be seen carefully illustrated in Disney’s “Cinderella,” and he also directed “Johnny Lingo,” as well as the earlier temple films. Chances are that you have seen his work. Or at the very least, you’ve seen a film or video strongly influenced by him. But you’ve probably never heard his name – until now.
Wetzel “Judge” Whitaker was a Disney character animator in the 1950s. But a call from prophet and president David O. McKay changed that. Whitaker answered the call and left behind his lucrative career at the Disney studios to move to Utah and start a film studio for the Church and head up a film program at BYU. His career faced many trials from no film crews or sufficient funding, to building a state-of-the-art Hollywood style studio in the 1950’s. But what he left behind was a lasting legacy in LDS cinema that continues today.
In the film, “A Reel Legacy,” Whitaker’s mission as a father, husband, friend, and filmmaker legacy is honored through interviews with seventeen filmmakers, family members, and friends. The journey from the Walt Disney Studios to Provo, Utah is a true tale of faith, toil, sacrifice, and humility that will inspire as well as educate.
“A Reel Legacy” contains hundreds of never before seen images of Whitaker at Disney, and LDS Film Studios. Many of the images were thought to be either lost or non-existent. For various reasons, (including a massive fire), many explained in the film, much of the experiences of that time were not well documented.
Veteran filmmakers, including T.C. Christenson (“17 Miracles”) and Scott Swofford (“The Work and the Glory”), provide the first true glimpse into the life of someone who left a profound mark on the LDS culture and films. Until now, this film information about Whitaker was very hard to come by. All the research, stories, and photos in “A Reel Legacy” came together as an answer to prayer in helping the filmmakers be guided to know where to look and how. The interviews in the film tell stories that have never been shared before on screen, some of which are remarkable in scale, a testimony that the Lord was watching over this group at that time.
The film, available on DVD, premiered at the 2012 BYU Mormon Media Symposium, and at the 2012 LDS Film Festival, and has gone on to win "Best of State 2013” in documentary, plus won three Aurora Awards.
For film buffs, or even just those interested in the cinematic history of the LDS church, this film offers an authentic, real glimpse into what ‘independent’ filmmaking was like back in the 1950’s. The story of the early years of LDS filmmaking has been largely untold – until now. This documentary offers insights into that unique filmmaking history from the filmmakers’ point of view through interviews with many of those original filmmakers and their protégés.
An Interview with Filmmaker Tom Laughlin
Question: What is your relationship to Judge Whitaker? What made you choose him as a film subject?
You know, it's actually a funny story, I moved out to Utah from Wichita, and came out here to be a filmmaker, and had no money, no friends, just flew out here in 2003 and started to meet the local filmmakers and get involved in the local film scene. I tried to get into BYU Film School back, but was turned down due to the amount of students also trying and spots were full. My apartment was right down the street from the LDS Motion Picture Studio, and I'd often walk on through security and get on little film shoots here and there. I did some Production Assistant work on a few small 2-3 day projects at the studio, one of them being the updated "First Vision" (2005). Though I was not able to spend a ton of time on projects, I was able to roam the studio lot, in my spare time, and also the studio's main office, where all the editing was happening.
How I discovered Judge was unusual. As you know, he passed away many years ago. One day I was asked by a producer while on a shoot, to go inside the main office to make some photo copies. I wondered around for a few minutes, and found myself curiously exploring a long dark hallway, with no lights on. I walked all the way down this long hallway, and stopped at the low light 'exit' sign of a back door. To my surprise, on the wall to my right, was a very small old wooden framed black and white picture of a man. His face looked so familiar to me though I'd never seen him before in my life. He seemed to be smiling at me.
I became curious, as I'd never heard of this man, Judge Whitaker. That photo remained on the wall for several more years. About 10 years later, I was back at the studio, went down the same hallway. The picture still hung and dusty. At that point, I not only remembered my first encounter with this picture about 10 years previous, but I also became more and more interested in him, as well as the untold and forgotten history of this studio, and who all helped build it, and where they came from, and how all this Church Media came to be.
No one knew!
I was able to visit with some people at the Church, who were supportive of my project, and turning this research into a documentary about Judge.