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 protgs.
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.
The hard part was, there was very little left of this history, no photos were readily available of Judge. There were many transitions of leadership at the studio, which involved things being thrown away, or some things lost in several fires. So in order to make a documentary about someone where little info was available, was a huge undertaking.
I made it a matter of prayer, and asked Heavenly Father to help me be guided to figure out what to do. The Church had about 6-8 pictures of Judge left. A few small pictures, and not much else. I rummaged through their old file cabinets with old photos thrown loosely inside these old cabinets in the studio closet! I found quite a bit of news clippings and some other photos related to projects Judge worked on, took everything home, scanned everything in that I could for weeks, unearthing anything I could.
Finally, I contacted several very old filmmakers who knew and worked with Judge. Some of their stories had never been told before regarding Judge and his work. Judge’s youngest daughter Carol Lloyd, invited me to her home, and we talked for a very long time about her dad. After we talked, she said, that because of my efforts to tell her dad’s story and preserve his memory, and all that he gave up and did for his family, and for the Church, she brought out an old cardboard box. I was beside myself.
We spent the next few hours, looking through images that no one outside the family had ever seen before – pictures of Judge’s early childhood, his career at Disney, pictures of him working on “Peter Pan,” and of him working early on at the Church’s Film Studio and images of him with several prophets. I returned the next day with a laptop and a scanner, and spent about four hours, scanning in images, all of which are in the documentary. About 90% of the images were from her, 10% from the Church. It was a prayer answered, and we were able to make the film the ‘right’ way in his honor, and tell the complete story, visually.
One other note, because of the purpose of the documentary, many filmmakers came forward to give not only their story, but to give me their thanks for me making this film for Judge, and they all told me that if it had not been for Judge, they would not be filmmakers in the industry today, as Judge gave so many BYU film students, a chance to come and make movies with him. So many youngsters got their start working on Judge’s films in the early 1950’s – 1970’s, several of these filmmakers have gone on to very successful careers, including: Scott Swofford, TC Christensen, Reed Smoot, Peter Johnson, Pete Czerny, and many more, all trace their ‘lineage’ and ‘roots’ back to Judge, and his brother Scott, who also was a writer for most of Judge’s films. There are literally hundreds if not thousands of filmmakers in the Utah and California, who share roots linked back to Judge.
What other films have you been involved in (and LDS projects)?
I worked on several projects for the Church as a production assistant on “The First Vision 2005,” “Joseph Smith: Prophet of the Restoration 2007-2008.” As an editor, I’ve worked full-time as an editor for the LDS Church and have edited various award-winning training films, promotional clips, and some work on some of the Mormon Messages.
What inspired you to make this film?
The Lord inspired me to preserve this untold and long since forgotten and important part of church history. So, this is the problem, it’s not “church film history,” this is “church history,” as many have felt that this story is not linked to important histories we as a LDS culture talk about. It is a part of church history, so deserves its place within the mantles that we set our other pioneers on.
We often overlook many pioneers, as we gravitate towards our classic pioneers – who crossed the plains to come to Utah, as well as our early prophets, and their pioneer stories, but as a church, we have the largest social media and media force of any church in the U.S. We produced thousands of web videos, films, and commercials, radio, etc., and it all started with Judge Whitaker as a filmmaker. President Hinckley, made some early attempts with radio and film, but it wasn’t until Judge left Disney and came to Utah, that the Church officially started using film to help the members as a whole, first films were about and for the Church’s Welfare Program.