By Dan Brownell
A new streaming television series about Jesus’ life is being produced by VidAngel. Surprisingly, this is the very first TV series ever made about the life of Christ. Many movies and miniseries have been created over the years, but no multiple-season show has been attempted before. The show’s 23-minute pilot, available to view for free at http://bit.ly/TheChosenPilot, has been viewed 15 million times in 10 languages. It’s even been seen on satellite TV in Iran.
Plans are for The Chosen to last seven seasons, with eight episodes each season. The first four episodes of The Chosen were shot in fall 2018, and the next four are currently in production. The complete, eight-episode first season will be on VidAngel in November 2019. There will be an early, pre-sale opportunity to purchase and watch the first four episodes this Easter.
Veteran filmmaker Dallas Jenkins, son of renowned writer Jerry Jenkins, is directing the series. He explained his inspiration on the show’s website: “My original idea in making The Chosen was simply to create a short film about the birth of Christ in a fresh way. As I shared it with friends, ministry leaders, and entertainment professionals, I kept getting the same response: ‘I want more.’ As a result, we’ve decided to make an entire TV show about the life of Christ through the eyes of those who encountered Him.”
Jenkins is passionate about getting the story about Jesus on the small screen. “The most important message in the world deserves the most influential medium in the world, so we’re going to tell the greatest story ever told in The Chosen.”
An Eye for Accuracy
Jenkins is working with VidAngel rather than Hollywood to preserve the show’s biblical integrity. “I’ve been making movies for some of the biggest studios in Hollywood for 20 years. But this shouldn’t be entrusted to Hollywood. It needs to be made by us,” he said.
Its trustworthiness is underscored by the fact it has been endorsed by noted Christians such as Ravi Zacharias, Alveda King, Anne Graham Lotz, Joni Eareckson Tada, Kirk Cameron, and Phil and Kay Robertson. The concern for biblical integrity is so foundational that the crew agonizes over every detail in the sets. “We sand the underside of the drawer,” Jenkins explained, using the metaphor in a short video that reveals the effort expended to get even the unseen details right. (See the video at http://bit.ly/SandingtheDrawer.) Executive Producer Matthew Faraci elaborated: “Our goal is to make this the most authentic series ever made about this time period. We’ve had hours of conversations back and forth about details such as the proper depiction of Jewish prayers, what the fringes on garments should look like, and how to correctly portray a first-century Shabbat meal. Dallas has worked hard to cast actors who make you forget where you are and make you believe you’re stepping right into Jewish culture in Israel thousands of years ago.”
Besides conducting extensive research, the show relies on a panel of advisers from the faith community, including Rabbi Jason Sobel, a popular figure with Christians and co-author of the best-selling book with Kathy Lee Gifford The Rock, the Road, and the Rabbi; New Testament scholar Doug Huffman from Biola University; and the highly respected Father David Guffey of Family Theater Productions.
The Heart of God Revealed Through Character Development
“The number one goal of the show — the reason that it exists — is to make Jesus known,” Jenkins shared. But The Chosen takes a nontraditional approach. It reveals Him through how He changed lives. “I think part of the thing that’s unique about this series,” said Rabbi Sobel “is that with so many of the traditional biblical Jesus films and content that’s created, the focus is on Jesus, but here a lot of the focus is about how the lives of the people who encounter Him are transformed. It really does a lot with character development. It makes the characters very real, very engaging.
“In one episode you see Jesus laughing with children, and there is something very powerful about that. Yes, He’s God made manifest in the flesh, but He’s also a real person who really cares and has real relationships and cares about those relationships with people. When you look at who He chose as His disciples, you have these individuals who are far from ideal, far from perfect, far from being saints, and we see in the early episodes how they have these real struggles.
“I think this series is going to be an incredible way to draw people and introduce people to Jesus, to the Bible, to the disciples, that is historically faithful and that is in the spirit of the Scriptures.”
A Peek Behind the Scenes
Because this is a crowdfunded show without Hollywood’s deep pockets, the production team has to be very frugal and creative. But they have the right director to pull it off. “Dallas has this incredible skill of squeezing every penny out of the budget,” Faraci said. “When Dallas sent the Christmas pilot to me, I asked him, ‘How much did you make that for?’ Then when he told me, I said, ‘No, you did not.’ I just didn’t believe him because I know production budgets. How does one do that? This is Dallas’ passion project. He feels this whole life has led up to this moment. This is his purpose on earth, and it’s why God put him here.”
Yet even with budget limitations, the team has gotten phenomenal results. “The footage that we’ve seen has been jaw dropping,” Jenkins said. “We’ve had people visit the set and cast and crew and they’re looking in the monitors and saying, ‘Oh, my goodness, this show so far is going way better than we deserve.’ And so we just hope that people check out the behind-the-scenes videos that we’re releasing, and of course, watch that pilot episode.”
Production Designer James Cunningham has the overall responsibility for all visual aspects of the show, including sets and costumes. “We really wanted to portray as close as possible how life was in the first century because I think so many people idealize life back then,” he said. “It was a pretty tough world in first-century Judea and Rome. So we wanted to portray that as much as we could because I think a lot of times films make things look too pretty and too nice in period films and we wanted that dirty, gritty look.”
Cunningham noted an example of a challenge with set lighting, He had to balance authenticity with the demands of filming effectively. “All the lighting has to come from fire sources, and so we researched a lot about that and we found that oil lamps were king in that day because they had lots of olive oil at the time, although there was some candle use in the first century. We found that we had to take some artistic liberty, because candles produce better light and more light.”
Cunningham also described how they determined Peter’s house would look. “Some biblical scholars and historians have quite a few articles about Capernaum,” he said. “They have the footprint of Peter’s house. He actually had a pretty big house, which was surprising. And we modeled a little part of his house for the main living area of the set for Peter’s home because in the next few episodes is where they’re going to be having church. So we wanted to make the house big enough so down the road we could fit a lot of people in there. So we modeled his house around the real house of Peter. People can look it up online. And they show the floor plan of it. All that’s left basically is the base of the house but it was all done in basalt rock.
“I think one of our biggest obstacles was just trying to acquire all that stuff with a small budget. We used a lot of stuff over and over again,” he explained. “Then there’s a lot of the miracles — like the miracle of the fish was a huge challenge. At first we going to use real fish, but then we found out we couldn’t because of restrictions with animals and then we ended up having to do CGI [Computer Generated Imagery] for it.
“And then coming up, we have the miracle of the loaves and fishes. The good thing is that we have a lot of the effects with CGI now, which can help us out with those, but some of them we have to do practically. There are more scenes coming up like Jesus walking on the water. That will be an interesting one to figure out. So there are a lot of definite challenges ahead. But it’s exciting at the same time.”
Cunningham hires experts to create the items they need for filming. They’re truly tops in their field. Costume designer Paméla Incardona, for example, has a master’s degree in costume design and has been working in the industry for 22 years. She spent weeks researching designs and fabrics, but found that there really isn’t as much certainty about clothing from that period as one might expect, simply because relatively little has survived the centuries. “Pottery can be verified. Bone. Things that lasted through time, but fabric doesn’t last,” she said.
Incardona has faced other challenges as well. Challenges that the average viewer wouldn’t even think about. To create an effective scene, for instance, there must be variety in the colors and textures of fabrics among the actors. So she had to carefully plan that by assigning different color palettes to each of the principal actors.
Incardona also had to take into consideration the various economic levels of the characters, so tunics had to be different lengths. The common people wore shorter tunics because more fabric cost more money. And the costume colors are limited by the dyes available at the time, such as pomegranate. To simulate wear, she washed cloth repeatedly, sanded it, and frayed it. Because of the tight production schedule and the fact that she was the only costume designer — and for most of the time, the only seamstress as well — she was under constant time pressure, often working 18 hours or more per day. “It was running and gunning throughout the entire show,” she said.
In spite of the incredible pressures and demands of shooting on a deadline, it’s a labor of love for the crew because they know the eternal purpose behind it. “If we can help the audience encounter Jesus through the eyes of those who actually met Him, the audience can perhaps be impacted in the same way that they were,” Jenkins said. “The light of the silver screen is one of the key ways to be a light to the world,” Rabbi Sobel commented.
Follow The Chosen on Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, and Instagram. Get behind-the-scenes information, interviews, and videos about the show’s production at http://bit.ly/TheChosenUpdates.
VidAngel’s Supporting Role
VidAngel (www.vidangel.com) is a subscription-based, $9.99 per month TV filtering service that allows users to mute or skip objectionable content from network-produced shows and movies distributed through streaming devices. In addition, a division of the company, VidAngel Studios, produces original content such as clean comedy. VidAngel was inspired by the vision behind The Chosen and enthusiastically took on the project. But without Hollywood’s huge budgets, it had to do fundraising to underwrite the enormous expenses involved in bringing a show to the air. The Chosen has seen tremendous success in finding support, becoming the No. 1 crowdfunded media project in history. “I think doing this as a crowdfunding enterprise by people who truly believe in it is the way to go. So we need finances, we need prayer,” Jenkins said. “We just hope that people will watch the pilot episode and spread it and share it to continue the impact.” The show is funded by everyday people investing in the production with a minimum $100 investment. Round 1 of fundraising brought in over $11 million from more than 15,000 people. For more information, visit the website and FAQ page.