Hair isn’t the biggest problem. But it is a problem when you’re trying to animate Jesus and the 12 disciples plus the Pharisees, Sadducees, Zealots, and all the people in the crowds in the gospel story.
“Maybe we could make them all bald!” joked Dominic Carola, director of forthcoming animated remake of the iconic 1979 Cru film, Jesus.
“It’d be so much easier if these were clean-shaven people,” he said. “But we can’t do it! That’s not how it was, and we’re leaning into historical accuracy.”
Carola and his team at Premise Entertainment have, in fact, spent so much time on the historical details of the biblical story that their animation studio in Orlando, Florida, has sometimes looked like the world’s nerdiest Bible study.
They’ve done research on the difference between the second floors of first-century homes in Jerusalem and Capernaum. They’ve looked at the exact hue of the colors of the noonday shadows in the Holy Land, the ethnic diversity in the area at the time, and the way the layers of period-accurate clothing would fall on a person’s body.
Not to mention beards and mustaches.
And, of course, getting the look right is just the start for an animated film production.
“We could be on the phone for a week if I were to go through all the challenges this movie presents,” Carola said in an interview with CT. “You’re telling the greatest story ever told. And you have 90 minutes to tell it in.”
Plans for the new film were announced Thursday night at the Museum of the Bible in Washington, DC, and at two simultaneous events in Seoul, South Korea, and Kampala, Uganda. The animated Jesus is scheduled for release in time for Christmas 2025. It will be initially shown in 31 countries and then translated into thousands of languages. The 1979 film currently holds the Guinness World Record for most-translated movie and has been seen by millions.
“Even in 2023, we’re sharing the gospel in new languages and new ways,” said Josh Newell, executive director of the Jesus Film Project, a Cru ministry. “The telling of the story of Jesus has evolved throughout history, from the ‘Romans Road’ to the Gutenberg press and right up to the present day through the medium of animated film.”
John Eshleman, the son of the late evangelism strategist behind the promotion of the original film, said on Thursday that the animated version is “building on that desire that so many share that people would know Christ … and that perhaps there are some new and creative ways that we communicate the good news of his life.”
The 1979 film was conceived by Cru founder Bill Bright. He had a vision for a movie of the life of Jesus based strictly on scriptural text—no added dialogue—that could show in theaters in America and to people around the world who’d never even seen a screen. The campus ministry partnered with the Hollywood studio Warner Bros. and produced Jesus, starring Brian Deacon, a little-known British actor.
After a short theatrical run in 1980, Cru took over distribution and Paul Eshleman started translating the movie in dozens of different languages—then hundreds, and then hundreds more. Today, the film has been translated 2,100 times. The most recent is into Waorani, a language spoken by about 3,000 people indigenous to the Amazon.
Jesus has been shown at evangelistic events around the world. There is no reliable count of how many people have converted to Christianity after watching the film. The Jesus Film Project’s website says, simply, “millions.”
On Thursday, Southern Baptist pastor and former International Mission Board president David Platt urged Christians to sieze every opportunity for global evangelism.
“Do you realize that there are more people in the world today who have little to no knowledge of Jesus than ever before in history? That’s happening on our watch,” he said. “What an opportunity we have to use a medium that God has ordained to reach … the next generation with the gospel.”
The animated film aims to further extend the reach of the message—and update the movie.
The 2025 Jesus will use some of the audio from the existing translations but will not be a shot-for-shot remake. In a scene where Jesus raises a girl from the dead, for example, he will still say, “She is not dead but asleep,” as recorded in Luke 8:52. In the animation, however, viewers will see the girl’s toes wiggle and then see the screen linger on the reactions of those witnessing the resurrection.
“Animation allows you to tell the story between the words with greater effectiveness,” Newell said.
Those involved in the remake are also thinking very carefully about how to depict Jesus, according to Newell. Cru leaders have sought feedback from Christians around the globe about Jesus’ skin color, the shape of his nose, and the texture of his hair.
The animation team has gone deep into historical research and brought in biblical scholars and archaeological consultants to help. They’ve also looked at different Christian artistic traditions.
Newell, who has been with Cru since 2005, said there have been discussions about an animated film for about 20 years. The art form is exciting and adaptable, appeals to younger generations, and is easily viewed on a big screen or an iPad.
But he was persuaded by the research on the art history of Jesus.
“There was this packet they put together that sold me on the initiative,” he told CT. “It was about all the art depicting Jesus around the globe going back generations: Ethiopian art to Renaissance art, Nestorian art in India to Persian art to modern film. It’s always contextualized. Jesus is relevant to every culture, every time period, and you can see that lived out in the art.”
Carola, the director, said this is more intense and more involved than the typical process for the major studio projects he’s worked on, including The Lion King, Mulan, Pocahontas, and Lilo & Stitch. But for him, that challenge promises great reward.
“The goal of our studio was always to embrace projects that are maybe off the beaten path but really have impact on people’s lives,” he said. “The return on investment really attracts me, because it’s not about the money it makes. It’s about the people it reaches.”
The people involved in the film are also talking about how the animated Jesus could be a preparatory step toward potential developments in entertainment. The work animators are doing now could serve as the basis for a virtual reality retelling of the gospel. Or perhaps interactive augmented-reality encounters with Jesus in the metaverse. The way people consume entertainment and the technology used is changing rapidly.
But for now, they have to think about things like animating clothes and hair.
“We’re climbing Mount Hermon,” Carola said.
In the ongoing research and Bible study at his studio, Carola learned that Mount Hermon is the highest peak in Israel and probably the site of Jesus’ transfiguration. Now it is also a metaphor for all the work they have to do to produce Jesus in the next two years.
“For us, Mount Hermon is technology. Mount Hermon is show complexity. It’s deadlines, for sure, and staying focused on his agenda—no personal agendas, his agenda.”