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BYU Professor Brings Joseph F. Smith’s Vision of the Dead to Life in New Film

The film, which won second place at the LDS Film Festival, will play on BYUtv during General Conference weekend

The inspiration for School of Communications professor Kevin Kelly’s upcoming film “I Saw the Hosts of the Dead” came as he was reading an Ensign article about about Joseph F. Smith’s vision by former BYU professor George S. Tate. As he learned more about the revelation and the context in which it was received, the idea for a film was born.

Joesph F. Smith, I saw the Hosts of the Dead

Advertising professor Kevin Kelly holds the poster for “I Saw the Hosts of the Dead.” A shortened version of Kelly’s film will play on BYUtv during General Conference weekend. (Sydnee Gonzalez)

“I had no idea what was really going on at the time of the vision, it was such a startling thing to know,” said Kelly. “We read the scriptures, but putting it into context, it made a lot of sense why it was so significant and so important, especially at that time.”

A 30-minute version of Kelly’s film will premiere Sunday, April 7 at 9 a.m. on BYUtv before “Music and the Spoken Word.”

“I Saw the Hosts” of the dead is a documentary — mixed with a little live action — that explores Smith’s vision and the background behind it. Throughout his life, Smith had become closely acquainted with the reality of death from the murder of his father Hyrum Smith to the death of his son just months before the vision. Smith’s personal grief coincided with the unprecedented number of dead (between 70-120 million) as the result of World War I and an international epidemic of influenza, all setting the stage for Smith’s vision in 1918.

Last year marked a century since the historic vision. Kelly hopes the film helps individuals gain a better appreciation for the vision as church members celebrate its 100th anniversary.

“I think there will be some insights that people haven’t thought of before,” said Kelly.


Left to right: KC Sosa, President M. Russell Ballard, Barrett Burgin, Amy Hauck Wilson, Kevin Kelly and Matthew Taggart in Ballard’s office at Church Headquarters. Ballard, a great grandson of Joseph F. Smith, was instrumental in the film’s creation Kelly said. (Courtesy of Kevin Kelly)

The first interview that Kelly and his film crew were able to get for the film was with one of Smith’s great grandsons: President M. Russell Ballard.  

“He spent several hours with us, and his interview was so personal and touching,” said Kelly. “He really gave us his heart and set the tone for the rest of the filming.

One of the scenes that will be most eye-opening for viewers is the film’s live-action depiction of the vision. According to Kelly, it was one of the film’s hardest scenes to illustrate.

One of the film’s directors, BYU film student Barrett Burgin, proposed the idea of a live-action depiction. Kelly said that despite his initial trepidation, he fell in love with the idea after Burgin shared his vision for the scene.

“One of the most memorable experiences for me was filming our spirit world scene on Bonneville Salt Flats,” said Burgin. “The Flats flooded, giving the location a sort of sea of glass aesthetic. The visual was pretty stunning.”

The task of portraying the hosts of heaven proved to be difficult, however. The crew had to cast dozens of extras and find white costumes for all of them — including time- and region-specific costumes for many of the prophets who are mentioned in Smith’s revelation — and then edit the scene to appear like the individuals on film were in the hundreds and thousands.

Joseph F. Smith, I saw the hosts of the dead

Left to right: Elizabeth Elieson, one of the film’s actresses; Matthew Taggart, a cameraman and editor; Barrett Burgin; and William Knowles, the film’s director of photography. (Courtesy of Barrett Burgin)

Despite various obstacles to making the scene, everything came together in the end.

“There were so many tender mercies, so many little miracles that happened to get the film done,” said Kelly.

The vision scene features dozens of actors dressed in white of varying ages and time periods. They also incorporate Polynesian, Native American and traditional Latin American costumes from BYU’s Living Legends.

“We really wanted to make heaven really diverse as far as ethnicity, styles of wardrobe and age,” said Kevin.

Being able to use the Living Legends’ costumes was a tender mercy for the crew, Kelly said. Days before they were set to film, they were still short on costumes. Kelly said as he was walking with Burgin and trying to plan out how they would get the costumes, when Living Legends director Janielle Christensen was suddenly walking in front of them.

“I’ve seen maybe five times since I’ve been at BYU,” said Kelly. “Miracles like that were happening all the time.”

Kelly said that one of this biggest miracles was the amount of work the involved students put in.

“The film was a big ask for the students, but they just kept coming through,” said Kelly. “It’s my film, my name goes on it, but frankly, I couldn’t have done it without the students. It’s almost reverse mentoring for me — I learned so much from them.”

The students working on the film with Kelly have also had their own spiritual experiences creating the film.

I Saw the Hosts of the Dead

A scene from “I Saw the Hosts of the Dead.” (Courtesy of Kevin Kelly)

“I’m thankful for the time I’ve spent working on the film. It really has become a project that I’ve put my heart into,” said KC Sosa, the film’s lead editor. “The experiences I’ve had while working on the film have been sacred.  We’ve seen miracle after miracle.”

Both the students and Kelly hope the film will elicit spiritual experiences for viewers as well.

“I hope they can really place themselves in the shoes of President Smith and understand what he was going through and get a sense of that time a hundred years ago,” said Kelly. “With all that suffering and all that sadness, this beautiful vision of life and hope was given.

Amy Hauck Wilson, an advertising major and the film’s associate producer, said the film emphasizes the importance of the gospel even 100 years after the vision. “Seeing all those people dressed in white acting as if they were doing missionary work in the spirit world made me think of how grateful I am that God gives His children so many chances to get acquainted with Christ’s gospel.”

Joseph F. Smith

A scene from “I Saw the Hosts of the Dead.” (Courtesy of Kevin Kelly)

The premiere of the shortened version of the film during General Conference weekend will be the end of a long journey for the film’s crew.

“Every time I come up against a big problem, there’s an answer — not always immediately, but there have always been answers that come,” said Kelly. “There have been lots of moments where I thought ‘wow, someone is looking after us.’ I guess it’s supposed to get made.”