By Aaron Wilson
On May 22, 2011, while many American churchgoers were hustling to get into their vehicles following Sunday service, the congregation at one country church remained glued to their seats.
They were busy getting into character—as movie extras.
The director, a then 17-year-old named Justus McCranie, had recruited the 75-member congregation of the Church Without Walls in Gastonia, North Carolina, for a pivotal scene in a short film he was working on.
“My local church has always supported my film journey,” says McCranie, who’s now 24 with a wife and young son. “Over the years, they’ve prayed over my projects. Some have even supported me financially.”
And that support has paid off. In less than a decade, McCranie transitioned from being an elementary-aged kid enthralled with his family’s home video recorder to a self-taught videographer filming for national audiences.
When he was only teenager, McCranie was already seeing his videos featured on sites like The Discovery Channel and Proverbs 31 Ministries. It wasn’t uncommon for him to get pitched offers worth thousands of dollars to shoot videos.
But while McCranie was enjoying success as a young cinematographer, he was also burdened by a need he sensed in the church.
“I was regularly having Christians say to me, ‘Hey, I want to be where you’re at. How do I get into filmmaking?’” McCranie recalls. “So, I prayed, ‘Lord, you need to raise up someone to teach the next generation of Christian filmmakers.’”
McCranie says he felt an immediate response from the Lord that said, “I have. And it’s you!”
After tossing and turning for several weeks, McCranie decided to submit to what he felt was a clear calling from the Lord to teach cinematography to Christians.
He moved his successful videography business to the side and threw himself into creating something he wished had existed when he was growing up—an online film academy founded on a Christian worldview.
In 2014, McCranie launched Tomorrow’s Filmmakers with 60 students.
“Today, we have more than 700 students enrolled across the country,” McCranie says. “And we’re on track to double that by the end of this year.”
McCranie runs Tomorrow’s Filmmakers with his wife, Stephanie. He does the creative work—filming weekly teaching videos and responding to students’ questions—while she runs the website and handles administrative duties.
While McCranie stars in most of the teaching episodes, he also hires other Christian movie professionals such as actors, makeup artists, and stuntmen to teach classes through the site.
“We’re growing this site to be a one-stop location for anyone who wants to get into Christian filmmaking,” McCranie says.
Last month, McCranie was on set with Alex and Stephen Kendrick, creators of the movies Courageous and War Room, as they worked on production for their sixth film, Overcomer.
In addition to serving as a crewmember for the Kendrick brothers’ upcoming movie, McCranie also shot behind-the-scenes footage of the film to use for future teaching episodes of Tomorrow’s Filmmakers.
To McCranie’s knowledge, Tomorrow’s Filmmakers is the only online Christian film academy offered in the world today.
“I think one of the biggest problems Christian film is facing is that there’s not a source where young talent can be nurtured, developed, and trained,” says Jon Erwin, director of the films Woodlawn and I Can Only Imagine.
“It’s amazing and encouraging to see Tomorrow’s Filmmakers tackling that problem head-on.”
Filmmaking as a Gospel Tool
One of the reasons McCranie says he feels called to raise up the next generation of Christian filmmakers is because he believes in the power of video to change people’s lives.
“When a person watches a movie, they drop their guard and soak in a message,” he says. “We don’t like to think we do that, but when watching a film, we basically tell the director, ‘I’m all yours for two hours; tell me whatever you want.’”
In that sense, McCranie says movies aren’t just forms of entertainment. They’re powerful tools that can and should be used to share the gospel.
“I’ve seen first-hand the impact film can have on people,” McCranie says as he recounts one teenage experience that happened when we was working as a stock-boy in a retail store.
“One of our delivery drivers hated God and always tried to debate me when he’d show up with a package,” McCranie remembers. “But then one day, he shared with me that his marriage was struggling.”
Even though the driver didn’t want anything to do with church, McCranie gave him a copy of the movie Fireproof to watch.
“He was so moved by that film, he entered into marriage counseling with his wife,” McCranie says. “During the counseling, he professed repentance and faith in Christ.”
Churches Should Encourage Creative Talent
McCranie believes more churches should embrace video if they want to reach the population around them—especially younger generations.
“The world is going video; it’s not a trend,” he says. “YouTube is huge. Video is a tool that can be used to reach the culture right now.”
McCranie also believes churches should look to ways to support creative talent in their congregations, just like his local church did for him.
“Encourage them, be excited about their work, and help them out as best you can,” McCranie says. “If my church had treated my interest in video as just a stage I was going through, it would have crushed me. I’d have never made another film again.
“But the fact they were so supportive and encouraging—even during times when I still had a lot to learn—it led me to continue to pursue this calling,” he says.
Now McCranie is watching his students go through those same learning stages. He says it’s always encouraging to watch what God does when someone is faithful to pursue a God-given dream over the long-haul.
“My favorite thing about the creative process is to sense God telling you to make something and then only afterwards discover how He intends to use it,” he says.
Learn more about how God is using McCranie’s online film academy to train cinematography students at TomorrowsFilmmakers.com.
AARON WILSON (@AaronBWilson26) is associate editor of Facts & Trends.