HISTORY OF THE FILMED ENDOWMENT
For the first one hundred years of its history, the ritual drama of the endowment was presented by live actors (temple workers), with initiates moving from room to room to represent their progress toward the presence of God. We know that in the Nauvoo Temple, potted plants were used to simulate the garden of Eden; later, beginning with the Utah temples, the Creation, Garden, and World Rooms were painted with thematically appropriate murals, while the Terrestrial and Celestial Rooms were ornately decorated to suggest the elegance of God's abode.
The live endowment, while visually impressive, did not represent a very efficient use of space, and adorning the various rooms was doubtless costly and time-consuming. As corporate models came to dominate Church administration in the twentieth century, it was natural that Church officials should look for ways to reduce the expenses of building new temples and to more efficiently administer temple ordinances for the living and the dead. The filmed endowment, originally developed in the 1950s for use in the Swiss and New Zealand temples, fit the bill: it required only two rooms instead of five, allowed for simpler interior decoration, and obviated the need for temple workers to commit the lengthy ceremony to memory.
The first filmed versions of the endowment were literally that: temple workers performing the live ceremony before a camera in the upper room of the Salt Lake Temple. There was no scenery or costuming, though shots of nature scenes and clips from the Rite of Spring sequence in Disney's Fantasia were used to represent the Creation. Different casts performed the ceremony in different languages. In the 1960s, filmed versions of the endowment began to take on a theatrical quality, with costumes, sets, music, and special effects. For obvious financial reasons, these theatrical films were made in English and then dubbed into other languages (as opposed to making a different film for each language, as had been done in the 1950s).
Film quickly became the preferred medium for administering the endowment. All new temples are designed with the filmed endowment in mind, and older temples, originally designed for the live endowment, have been remodelled to accommodate the filmed endowment. Of the 100-plus temples operated by the LDS Church, only two still administer the live endowment: Salt Lake and Manti. Even the recently rebuilt temple in Nauvoo, birthplace of the live endowment, administers the ordinance via film.
The filmed endowment is actually a combination of film and audio recording. The portions shown on film are the Creation, much of the Garden sequence, and the World Room sequence up until Adam encourages initiates to heed the counsel of the messengers. The rest of the ceremony is presented on audio tape. This combination of film and audio recording plays out as follows:
As the ceremony begins, initiates are ushered into an ordinance room resembling a small movie theater. At the front of the room is an altar, on either side of which sit a male and female temple worker. The male temple worker stands behind the altar as a tape recording of the welcome and introduction is played; initiates are to understand that the temple worker stands in for the lecturers who would deliver the welcome and introduction in a live endowment. When it comes time for the Creation sequence, the temple worker takes his seat, and the film begins. Periodically the film stops. For example, the portion of the Garden sequence when Elohim administers the first covenant and token is presented on tape, not film, with the male temple worker standing at the altar to represent Elohim. (Later, in like fashion, the temple worker will represent Peter at the altar.) A witness couple participate at the altar as required by the rite; with them, the temple worker models the signs and tokens in sync with Elohim's recorded explanations. The recording can be paused to allow time for temple workers to administer the tokens to each initiate in the room. The film resumes to show Adam and Eve leaving the garden of Eden to enter the lone and dreary world.
The transitions into the garden of Eden and the lone and dreary world are readily representable on film. The transition to the terrestrial world poses a problem, since the film has ended by that point; in current practice, the transition is represented by turning on additional lighting in the ordinance room. When it comes time to teach the order of prayer, the recording plays all of James's part, except for the prayer itself, which is offered by a live temple worker. During Peter's demonstration of the dialogue at the veil, temple workers mime the required actions while the recording plays. The tape recording ends when Peter announces that it is time to introduce initiates at the veil. Live temple workers then bring initiates through the veil into the celestial room. Contemporary temples are designed so that the filmed endowment can be administered on a staggered schedule to different companies of initiates in different ordinance rooms, all of which feed into a single celestial room.
One drawback to the filmed endowment, as opposed to the live endowment, is that there is less variety: where the endowment is performed live, a temple-goer may experience a different cast's interpretation of the ritual drama with every visit. One way that the Church tries to add a little variety to the filmed endowment experience is by having more than one film in use at once. Currently, a Latter-day Saint might experience one of two films during a temple visit. The first was made in 1990 to introduce the revised endowment; the second was made in 1991. Both use the same script but have different casts. (I prefer the 1991 film for its higher production values and for the way it tries to give Eve a more visually prominent role.)
In either a live or filmed incarnation, the endowment can be a spiritually moving experience. (Indeed, the emergence of a sacred experience mediated by film is a fascinating religious phenomenon that cries out for further study.) I regret, though, that most Saints today will never experience a live endowment. The live endowment is closer to the rite's historical origins and thus conveys a stronger sense of tradition, as well as, I think, a stronger appreciation for the rite's structure as a symbolic progression from sphere to sphere. It is also unfortunate that the shift to theatrical film has meant an end to using casts of different nationalities or ethnicities; I hope that a day will come when, for example, Latino Saints can watch a filmed endowment performed in Spanish by actors of Latino descent. Finally, it's worth asking whether the increased efficiency yielded by the filmed endowment may not also carry certain spiritual liabilities--e.g., promoting an assembly-line mentality in the performance of gospel ordinances.