by Glen Trew
It was the summer of 1976 when I was sent to rent a Nagra III recorder from a Nashville film production studio. I walked in, looked around, and thought, “What the heck is all this stuff?” (It was different from the television studio and the other studios on Music Row.) Then a man emerged, carefully holding a fairly new Nagra III and said in an unfamiliar accent, “Do you know vhat you are doing vith Nagra III? You need crystal generator if you are using batteries, let’s say that vay.”
I had no idea at the time, but this was a very big day for me,. I had just seen my first film sound mixing studio, had my first encounter with a man who would eventually influence the way I practiced my profession, and was holding the very Nagra III recorder I would display in a glass cabinet 25 years later.
As I left with the Nagra III (wondering what in the world a crystal generator was), I kept wondering, “Who was that guy?”
Just a few weeks ago I asked Vilmars Zile to recall what first inspired the beginning of his career in film and television sound. After a long pause, an index finger on a hand that has shaped the sound of more film and video productions than can be easily imagined, makes a point in the air as he says in near-perfect English, “My father brought home a toy projector when I was ten years old. It had a short loop of film and a crank to make it move, let’s say that way. It did not have an electric lamp, but a petroleum lamp! If you stopped cranking before blowing out the light, the film would catch on fire!” The year was 1926, in the Baltic state of Latvia, and this toy was a hint of an amazing future that would even impact my own.
Born in 1916, Vilmars is now 85 years old.
Names like “Gone With the Wind”, ‘The Wizard of Oz”, “Psycho”, and even “Titanic” and “Pearl Harbor” are just a few of the films that Vilmars has never worked on. But even those who did, along with everyone else in the recording business, can be proud that they share their profession with Vilmars Zile.
When I returned to the television station with the rented Nagra III, my supervisor, (Larry Sullivan, recently retired from Complete Post in Hollywood) asked, “Well, did you meet Vilmars?” “Is that who that was?” I asked. Larry said, “That man knows more about our jobs than you and I ever will”.
Vilmars is formally educated in electricity, the manufacture of audio equipment, and sound recording for film production, all of which were melded by large daily doses of experience over the course of 50 years.
At an early age Vilmars showed an interest in electronics and sound: “In high school my friends and I would make radio receivers. We would combine certain chemicals that would eventually leave behind a black crusty residue. It didn’t look much like a crystal, but when you put a needle on it the damn thing would resonate!”
They would also experiment with designs for the receiver tuning apparatus, and make those too. This ability to create the needed equipment from scratch would mature into a respected trademark of Vilmars’ that would follow him to the many places in the world his career has taken him.
In 1937, as part of Vilmars’ study of electricity at the University of Riga in Latvia, he began as an intern in the “Riga State Electric Factory” (sort of the General Electric of Latvia). He studied all facets of electricity including power, distribution, audio circuitry and radio communication.
The factory made everything from electric motors and transformers, to the famous Minox “Spy” camera. They also manufactured their own film production equipment, including recorders, editors, projectors, and mixers. Vilmars was assigned to designing and building speaker enclosures.
One day Vilmars wandered into the factory’s film studio by accident, was intrigued with what he saw, and asked permission to concentrate his work in the studio’s sound department. The management, happy to have someone with an interest in sound for film production, allowed him to work in the Riga Film Studio.
While some things may never change (as evidenced by the photograph of the vintage boom operator a the Riga Studio), probably the most significant difference in recording technology then was that sound was recorded directly to optical film, not magnetic media. Plus, if they wanted a sound recorder, they had to build it themselves, at their factory in Riga.
“We built an optical recorder that worked quite nicely, but it didn’t sound very good, let’s say that way. At first we didn’t know what was wrong, but then we figured out that we were exposing the film linearly when it needed to be a more logarithmic curve. So, we developed [what came to be known as] “variable density” optical recording curve.”
“Today when you make a recording you can just play it back immediately. But when we made an optical recording, we sometimes had to wait several days before we could hear what it sounded like! First we recorded the scene optically to film. Then the negative was developed. Then a positive print was made. Only then could we play it back to hear if it was any good. The quality of the sound not only depended on how well I had recorded, but it also depended on how well the film was processed and the making of the print. Film was very expensive and hard to come by back then and it could not be reused. There was a lot of pressure not to make mistake, let’s say that way.”
“Do it fast, do it wrong, do it over”
Soon after I began working with Vilmars at a place called TRAFCO in 1980, he had me testing all of the tubes from a considerable number of Ampex AG-350 recorders. I quickly pushed the tubes into the tester, quickly wrote down the readings, and quickly put most of them into either the “good” pile or the “bad” pile. I couldn’t tell if Vilmars was impressed or annoyed at how fast I was proceeding.
After most of the tubes seemed to be going into the “bad” pile, Vilmars checked my readings and said, “It can not be! It is impossible for this tube to give this reading, let’s say that way!”
Vilmars is an engineer driven to understand. He went silent for a solid hour, reading the test instrument’s schematics, and studying electronic symbols for vacuum tubes that I had long forgotten as soon as I passed the FCC 1st Class Radio Telephone License test.
Vilmars finally said, “It could only be one thing! Glen, wipe the meter lens with a damp paper cloth!” And, as if waving a magic wand over the tube tester, the readings were, once again, correct. Vilmars then announced, “Ah ha! Static buildup on the meter lens!”. Then, as he put the tubes back in front of the line for me to test again, he gave a nine word sermon that has since served me very well: “Do it fast, do it wrong, do it over”. Amen.
Like everything else at the Riga Film Studio, the mixing console also had to be made, from scratch. Vilmars’ four-channel hand-made console (shown in one of the photos) boasted vertical faders (a rarity for that time), and even the faders had to be made by hand. The housing, wiper arm assembly, and contacts were machined from raw stock. The faders were made from multitudes of individual resistors making and breaking contact as the slider was moved up and down.
In 1939 Vilmars was promoted to full time Sound Engineer at Riga Film Studios. While the equipment was understandably very different and even cumbersome by today’s comparisons, some was impressively ahead of its time. For instance, they were using flat bed editing tables of their own manufacture, which is particularly interesting since flat bed tables such as the Steenbeck and KEM were not seen until much later.
One of the early films Vilmars recalls mixing was about a Russian defeat in 1914 during WWI. The camaraderie he describes between everyone on the production crew still sounds familiar today. “We worked so hard on that film,” he says, “We had a big premier and party, and everyone was so happy with the way it turned out even though I kept wishing I had mixed some things differently. Like, why didn’t I bring this down a little more and maybe bring something up a little sooner”. (Sound familiar?)
After a while of working with Vilmars at TRAFCO, it became apparent that what Larry Sullivan had told me was quite true: Vilmars was a man of immense ability and experience, and obviously far more capable than his position required. How, then, could he be content to live such a quiet life, practicing a career in show business in relative obscurity? It took me a few more years of knowing Vilmars before finally understanding why he valued his peaceful life so much.
Later in 1939 Latvia was overtaken by Russia, which quickly nationalized everything, including Riga Film Studios. “They didn’t exactly like our film about their defeat in 1914, let’s say that way, so they destroyed our film. All of that work we did for so long, and, pffttt, out of the blue sky, it was gone!” Vilmars then grins, looks around to make sure the coast is clear, and confides, “Actually, they destroyed all of the film except for one roll, let’s say that way!” I was afraid to ask where that roll of film was, but I had a feeling we could be watching it with just a moments notice.
So, Vilmars and crew were now reluctantly using their studio to produce propaganda films the Russians, and making dubs in the Baltic languages. But this new management was to be short lived.
One day I told Vilmars I had learned that the siren from German Stuka dive-bombers was intended to create panic and chaos among the people on the ground. This thought took him to a distant past and after a somber pause he said, “Yes, that was the scariest sound I’ve ever heard.”
In 1940 the Germans fought the Russians out of Latvia and, once again, Riga Film Studios was under new management. Not much changed for Vilmars except that he went from making Russian propaganda films to making German propaganda films. “But, the Germans had some fantastic film and sound equipment for that time”, Vilmars recalls.
Vilmars remembers his amazement at one such piece of equipment during a dubbing session. “Like always, I was recording to optical film track, and, as always, I could not hear back the recording until the film had been processed and a positive print made. But this time a German engineer brought in machine to record along side of our optical recorder. As soon as the take was finished he rewound these small reels and, out of the blue sky, played it back immediately! And it sounded pretty darned good, I remember! Geesh, what a difference this was!
This was no doubt one of the early German Magnetaphones; now recognized as being the first viable tape recorder. Vilmars’ sighting of a magnetic tape recorder in 1940 is actually very interesting, especially since it was not until 1948 that Ampex introduced the first magnetic tape recorder built in the US, often proclaimed at the time to be the first ever.
During the next four years, Vilmars was recording and mixing sound for the production of countless newsreels, re-recording German films into the Latvian language, and even war-time instructional films such as how to defuse a dud bomb.
In 1943 the Allies were driving back Germany, and Russia managed to re-take Latvia. Most Latvians knew that their association with the Germans, involuntary as it was, would likely qualify them for re-education work camps in Siberia. So, Vilmars and the Rigas Film crew decided to leave ahead of the Russians.
Vilmars recalls, “We figured that we only had three days to leave before the Russians came back. So, in three days we dismantled all of our sound equipment, the cameras, and projectors, and finished loading them into railroad boxcars just as the Russians were arriving. We even loaded ourselves into crates so we wouldn’t be detected at the Russian checkpoints, and covered the mouths of the children so they would not be heard. We made it through safely, and assumed we would return in just a few weeks”.
Now 60 years later, Vilmars has still never been able to return home. “It happened so quickly that I couldn’t even say goodbye to my family and friends.”
The Germans who helped the Latvian film crew escape found a suitable building for their equipment in an abandoned hotel in a town called Dresden. They reassembled the equipment and setup a postproduction facility. The same crew, with the same equipment, was back in operation in a different country.
When it became clear that Germany was going to loose the war, they eventually abandoned Vilmars and the rest of the Latvian crew. So, once again, they loaded up their equipment and left. Just three days later, Dresden was bombed off the face of the earth, leaving their most recent building completely destroyed.
Eventually the Latvian crew met up with the British who gave them refuge in what were known as “Displaced Persons Camps” for people who couldn’t return home.
Vilmars was starting to see a pattern and realized that all politicians know the value of the media, and made sure that the British knew of their profession. So, after making Russian propaganda films, and then German propaganda films, Vilmars found himself working for the British on their propaganda films! The British found them yet another building, and, once again, they were back in business with the same equipment they had built in Latvia.
“Our main job was to view German films and then edit them to be “suitable” for viewing by Germans. If there was a picture of Hitler we cut it out”. If there was any reference to Nazi Germany, we cut it out”. In all, Vilmars and his crew edited over 2000 such films.
During the weekends, Vilmars and crew would go back to the displaced persons camp to be with their families. But even on the weekends they were recruited into filmmaking, documenting the life at the camps. With all of this access to film equipment and engineering know-how, they managed to convert a meeting hall into a movie theater. Vilmars recalls, “We did something pretty sneaky, let’s say that way. Every weekend when we came back to the camp we hid one of the movies we were editing so we could show it at the theater we made to give the people some entertainment”.
After a couple of years at the camp, Vilmars left for America. He made his way to New York and worked as a janitor, until….
“One day I saw a large building with the words “Metro Goldwyn Mayer” on the front. “I must have been out of my mind, let’s say that way. I just walked in, told someone that I was experienced in film production, and wanted a job. The person asked one question, “Can you edit film?”. I said, “Yes! I have edited many, many films.” So, they took me to an editing table and told me to make a splice, and I did.”
(While talking, Vilmars goes through all of the motions for me, in the air, on an imaginary editing table. Even at 85, his movements are as familiar, fluid, and precise as someone who has done it a million times.)
“They said: “Very good. You have the job as MGM Film Inspector, night shift”. I couldn’t believe it! Film Inspector! So, I show up to work the first night, and I am given huge cans of film that had been returned from theaters. My job was to load them up, turn them from one reel to the other, feeling for sharp corners with my hand. When I felt a damaged frame, I would cut out that frame and make a splice. Film Inspector.”
Vilmars continued working as a film inspector for MGM for two years, where he obtained his IATSE Union card. It wasn’t working with sound, but it was a job he knew.
Meanwhile, one of Vilmars’ friends from the original Riga Film Studios who had also come to America, found success with a company called Alexander Film Productions, located in Colorado Springs. Alexander Films was a sprawling complex, self contained with camera and processing equipment, studios and back lots, all with one thing in mind: Producing commercials to be shown in movie theaters. On his friend’s recommendation, Vilmars was hired and left New York for Colorado, and amazingly, once again, was back in film production as a sound mixer and audio engineer.
Alexander Films was a huge operation, both physically and in the amount of production done. From Vilmars’ description, it ran with the precise scheduling of an factory assembly line, which would be required for them to produce their average of 600 commercials per week (no misprint: six hundred per week). It was a thriving operation in an industry that Vilmars was very familiar and it allowed him to finally have some peace, own a home with his wife and daughter, and to become an American citizen.
Alexander Films had all of the best equipment of the day. Vilmars explains, “Basically, most of the recording equipment and microphones were RCA, and had been installed by RCA.” Vilmars recalls the new RCA 44 microphone and even remembers the Latvian nick-name he gave it: “Oxen Tongue”. “RCA was the best, but it was also the most expensive because we had to pay them royalties for every foot of film recorded on those machines. So, for the economy productions, Reeves, and Westrex magnetic film recorders were used because there were no royalties to be paid”.
The first synchronous magnetic tape recorder ever used by Vilmars was made by Fairchild. “The pilot reference frequency was 13kHz. This would not work today, of course, but nobody cared about the 13kHz pilot because then the audio was cut off at 12kHz.”
When the Alexander studio equipment was installed, the standard was to electrically shield everything and connect all grounds at the closest possible point. So, all of the wiring harnesses were completely shielded by being wrapped in metal foil.
Vilmars says, “This made sense and worked at the time, but we began having noise problems. We determined that ground-loops would not allow the noise to drain away. We figured that ground loop noise was caused by FM radio stations because we never had the problem until the FM stations started to pop up. The answer was to connect the grounds to only one common point. Oh boy! Getting to all those grounds was a real problem because of the foil shields that RCA had put on everything. But changing to the one-point grounding method fixed the problem”.
Vilmars’ quiet, thoughtful, methodical ways brought him recognition once again. While at the Alexander Company, he received a bonus check of $35 for developing a device to synchronize dialog with the moving mouths of animated characters.
It was during his time with Alexander Film Company that Vilmars earned his US Citizenship. “The company really encouraged me to become US Citizen because we did some work for the government that required special clearance. For example, I worked with an Alexander film crew at the Cheyenne Mountain headquarters of NORAD to document the construction and for public relations.” (NORAD is the underground command center built into solid granite in the Rocky Mountains in case of nuclear war).
I find it interesting that this completes a circle of four countries (Russia, Germany, Britain, and the United States) of which Vilmars received a unique first-hand insight because of his profession as a Sound Mixer. The NORAD filming I find particularly interesting because it was built primarily as a defense against the very country that Vilmars had fled from, and he was there to record it for the world to see, and hear.
Since Nashville probably has the most Music Videos produced per capita in the world, it is only fitting that its most experienced sound mixer was involved in what must be one of the first Music Videos ever, in 1951 (see accompanying photo). The “artist” was the Air Force Academy Choir. The production was part of an advertising campaign shot by the Alexander Film Company. Vilmars operated the sound from a remote truck, and nothing less than a good size truck would have handled the size of equipment required: He recorded live to 35mm magnetic stock, then played back the track through speakers for the choir to lip sync, re-recording onto mag stock for editing.
If you’ve been in this business any time at all, you know that the only thing certain is change. And, once again, things were about to change for Vilmars. An invention that has given most of us more work is the very thing that quickly put Alexander Films out of business: Television.
Television commercials were often produced on-site at the television studios (a luxury that movie theaters did not have), so the market for the Alexander Film Company went away quickly.
“I saw the writing on the wall, let’s say that way, so I started looking for other work. Everything was very tight with the union in Hollywood at that time, and since Alexander Films was a non-union shop, the IATSE union asked me to return my card when I started there. There was no steady work for me in California.”
Feeling discourage, Vilmars returned to Colorado, only to find a letter waiting from a company called TRAFCO (Television Radio And Film Commission). He recalls, “Here is this letter asking me to come to Nashville for an interview to be the Sound Engineer for a show called “Break-Through”. I thought, Geesh… someone is making a bad joke!”. But he went for the interview, was hired on the spot, and stayed for the next 25 years until retirement.
TRAFCO was soon to become a full-fledged, full service, film production and music recording facility. But first, Vilmars had a lot of work to do. He installed a transfer and dubbing room complete with 16mm and 35mm sync recorders and six 16mm dubbers and huge sync motor. He built a mixing and screening studio with a mixing console and isolated projector booth. The sound stage had an acoustical resonance problem near the center, which Vilmars solved with his “cloud” (very large absorbing panel) hung from the ceiling. He had the entire structure treated with acoustical panels and then sprayed on sound dampening treatment. There was a second control room where he built an eight track mixing console. Much of this console Vilmars built himself because he couldn’t find anything commercially that suited him.
Synchronous recording for the studio film production was done with an Ampex 350 recorder with a “Ranger Tone” sync modification. The Ranger Tone head’s azimuth was on a slant so that the 60Hz sync tone would not interfere with the audio. Vilmars explains, “In theory this seemed good, but really it wasn’t so great. We still had to cut of too much of the low frequencies to remove the hum entirely.”
Soon TRAFCO needed that ability to go portable. The first portable synchronous recorder purchased by Vilmars was the Swiss made “Perfectone”. Curiously identical in size to the Nagra, the Perfectone was a respectable piece of engineering for its day. It was outfitted with the Ranger Tone system, which may have been its downfall.
Synchronous dubbing was done with Ranger Tone by amplifying the 60Hz sync tone with a huge amplifier that generated enough 120 Volt current to power the dubbers. As Vilmars remembers, “One day the amplifier just got tired and caught fire, let’s say that way, and that was the end of Rangertone for us at TRAFCO.”
The Perfectone was replaced with the newly introduced Nagra III, and eventually the facility saw every Nagra model up through to the Nagra T-Audio and Nagra D, and Vilmars was there to supervise every step along the way, right up until the sad day that his dubber room was dismantled and converted into a videotape machine room.
Finally, I asked Vilmars what we would recommend for people starting out in this business. The advice of someone who has succeeded at this profession longer than anyone else I know is worth heeding: “Build experience patiently. Each step I made was based on the step before. Also, know your equipment and understand how it works! If something breaks you can fix it or at least get by without feeling helpless, let’s say that way.”
I interviewed Vilmars for this article in June of 2001, which is when the photograph was taken of us at the Trew Audio shop. I called him back to go over a few details on June 29 before I left for a month-long film production.
When I returned I was told that Vilmars passed away on August 7, 2001.
As I thought back to our last conversation, I had to smile when remembering his last words to me: “Have a good shoot”.
Just a few days ago a young soundman came into my shop to pick up rental Nagra IV-STC. I had to grin as he looked around and asked, “What the heck is all this stuff?” For some reason his eyes were drawn to the old Nagra III displayed in a glass case. “Wow”, he said, “I bet there’s a story behind that.”
A few — let’s say that way.
– Glen Trew