Soon after graduating in 1983, Vilma was hired to work on her first
professional shoot. It was a feature film from India doing some location work
in Newport and Vilma worked as a camera assistant. "It was a wonderful
opportunity," she recalls. "I got to pull focus and load the cameras.
By the end of the shoot, I knew how to fully operate two different 35mm
cameras. It was great on the job training."
Vilma was definitely a pioneer as a woman working in cinematography in
Boston in the early and mid-1980s. "Bostons film community was
pretty small back then," recalls Vilma. "There were only a handful of
people working at all on a regular basis. And very few of them were
women." Unsure of where or when her next paying job would come from once
the Indian feature had wrapped, Vilma literally went through the Yellow Pages
one day and sent her resume to every film related listing she could find. It
took about six months, but she was eventually hired as a production assistant
for a company that quickly elevated her to the camera department once they
realized how much more knowledgeable she was than her male counterpart that
they had recently hired.
Vilmas early work experiences in Bostons then still-young film
community lead her to take a more aggressive role in helping to unionize her
fellow crew members. "Boston was pretty bad in those days," she says.
"Wed work for literally eighteen hours straight with no real breaks
and then wouldnt get paid for three, four, sometimes even five
months." By 1989, Vilma was elected President of the New England chapter
of N.A.B.E.T. She had become an in-demand cinematographer and was working on a
regular basis. But in 1991, Vilma left Boston and headed out West. Asked what
prompted such a move, Vilma laughs and says, "I was getting lost in this
pleasant technical world. I was making good money, and I loved Boston and the
New England way of life, but I didnt want it to be the only life I
Vilma wasnt exactly sure where shed end up as she packed up her
things. She had heard that Sante Fe had a busy film community that regularly
used women shooters, so she headed for New Mexico. She ended up in Gallup, NM.
A "tiny, border town," as Vilma describes it. She started working
almost as soon as she had unpacked. "There was a nice market for work
there ... lots of really skilled technicians. And the people I worked with were
really great. A number of them had ended up in New Mexico deliberately after
having left very stressful lives in New York and LA and were now quite laid
back. I really enjoyed my time there."
Vilma continued on her Western pilgrimage until she landed in LAnot
surprising since it still represents the mecca of filmmaking for so many
individuals working in the industry. But Vilmas feelings about her time
there are mixed. "On one hand, filmmakers are treated remarkably well out
there. Folks know you just might be the next Steven Spielberg. But on the other
hand, theres almost no escaping from a Hollywood kind of mentality.
Its both a beautiful place and a scary place" is how she describes
it. By now, Vilma was also the parent of a baby daughter, so when her father
suddenly got ill and she had to leave LA to come back East, she decided to stay
on in Connecticut. "Im glad I did it," she says. "I think
what people are doing in Boston is more interesting and exciting than
whats going on in LA. Out there movie making is considered show business.
Bostons a better place to be if you want to be the person creating
Recently, in addition to her director of photography work, Vilma has taken
on several new roles: those of co-writer and producer, of Zack Stratiss
celebrated feature, COULD BE WORSE! The film, which was screened at Sundance,
was shot entirely on digital video. The success of the film has put Vilma in
the forefront of local producers working in this new filmmaking technology.
When asked about the future of cinema and the role of digital video in the
filmmaking process, Vilmas strong feelings on the subject are made clear:
"I love film ... I love to see the light projected through the image
projector. Theres something magical about it. Theres certainly a
place for video in movie making, but its not quite the same thing as
working in film. COULD BE WORSE! was a well-made film and digital video was the
perfect format for that film. The essence of that story could not have been
told on film. Part of what made the film so humane was the interaction between
Zack and his mother and the other members of his family. I dont think we
would have captured the bickering and the humor going on if I had had to stop
shooting to reload the camera. It would have been simply too disruptive."
What Vilma would really like to see happen is to have somebody make use of
the qualities inherent in video and really use them. "Thats what art
is about," she says, "exploiting the medium. Pushing it for all
its worth. As a cinematographer I will use the format again, but instead
of people saying What can I do with this technology?, I wish they
would ask, What am I trying to say?"
Vilmas latest project, director Jane Gilloolys semi-silent
film, DRAGONFLIES, THE BABY CRIES has brought her back full-circle to her early
childhood cinematic influences and personal love for silent film. "For me,
silent film represents the pure essence of cinematic storytelling. Its
not about dialogue, its about the images one sees on the screen ... the
flickering of light and shadow." And, in a first for Vilma, one of her
daughters has an on-camera role in the film.
While women have made strides throughout the film industry in the last few
decades, the field of cinematography still remains largely male-dominated. How
does Vilma manage being the mother of two young children in such an
environment? Shes philosophical in her response. "I feel like things
happen for a reason. I didnt follow the same path as everyone else when I
started and Im not following it now. I might take projects or I might not
take projects because Im a mom. I worked when I was nine months pregnant,
but Im not so blindly pursuing a career that I would have given up having
a family for. Im happy. Im in a good place right now. I dont
feel quite so desperate to pull that brass ring anymore."