Curtis Eriksmoen, Published April 06 2013
Eriksmoen: Man from North Dakota pioneered audio-visual technology
Bill Snyder was involved at the forefront of color motion pictures, 3-D movies and new developments with ham radios that enabled operators to transmit and receive signals from the most difficult regions of the world.
Snyder was also the first television director of film production in the Red River Valley and the second person to hold that position in North Dakota.
Snyder was born Oct. 5, 1916, in Dickinson, N.D., to Joseph and Elizabeth (Mozley) Snyder. Shortly after his birth, the Snyders moved to Fargo, where Joseph managed the Northern Pacific railroad telegraph office.
At Fargo High, Bill was active in vocal and theatrical productions. He also joined the Radio Club and learned to operate ham radios. After graduating in 1935, Snyder left for Hollywood “to study aeronautics but soon he was playing bit parts in movies.” He was later hired by the Technicolor Motion Picture Corporation.
In the late 1930s, Technicolor produced the best-quality color films. One project Snyder became involved with was Audioscopiks, an eight-minute short produced by MGM that demonstrated how movies could be viewed in 3-D using special glasses.
Snyder returned to Fargo in 1937 to attend the North Dakota Agricultural College, now North Dakota State University. He graduated in 1942 with a Bachelor of Science degree in business administration.
With the start of World War II, Snyder was commissioned a second lieutenant on July 4, 1942, with the U.S. Army Signal Corps because of his ROTC training in college. During the war, he “took part in the campaign in New Guinea, the invasion of the Philippines and later the occupation of Japan.” On March 24, 1946, he was discharged with the rank of captain, but remained in the Army Reserve.
Snyder returned to Fargo and established a film studio. Early in 1947, he learned that famed African explorer Attilio Gatti planned to lead an expedition into the Rift Valley of Eastern Africa. Gatti wanted a ham radio operator to accompany him to relay “the sounds of the jungle and descriptions of fantastic tribal rituals to thousands of radio hams and short wave listeners all over the world.”
Snyder was one of 9,000 people who applied for the ham radio operator position. The search was narrowed down to two competitors. On Sept. 2, 1947, Snyder and Bob Leo met at Gatti’s home in Vermont. Snyder conceived the idea of trying to convince Gatti that the “radio-workload was too much for a single person.”
On Sept. 23, Snyder received a telegram that he was chosen first. On Oct. 14, Leo was notified he was chosen second. On Nov. 23, the expedition left New York aboard the S.S. African Pilgrim. Snyder made his first radio transmission from the African interior on Jan. 25, 1948.
In Kenya, Snyder met Arch Obler, a radio director/producer. Obler had just gotten into movies and was scouting eastern Africa for an upcoming feature based on the novel “The Man-Eaters of Tsavo.” Because of Snyder’s earlier experience at Technicolor, he suggested making the movie in 3-D. Obler was intrigued.
Snyder was unhappy with the work he was doing on the Gatti project. After a disagreement Snyder left the expedition and began working with Obler.
Obler hired Snyder to shoot the African scenes, and veteran cinematographer Joe Biroc filmed the other portions of the movie. The movie was renamed “Bwana Devil,” and was the first 3-D movie shot in color. After finishing the movie, Obler employed Snyder to shoot documentaries.
In 1949, Snyder returned to Fargo to care for his father, who was terminally ill. He produced visual aids for Epko. Snyder wrote that, after action flared up in Korea, “I needed active duty credit in order to keep my reserve commission in the Army Signal Corps, so I volunteered for a short tour during the Korean War.”
Before Snyder left, he was contacted by radio station WDAY, which offered him a job as “film director, photo director, and part-time news-film cameraman.” Since WDAY was waiting for FCC approval of their television license, Snyder was able to put in his time with the military.
Snyder began at WDAY on June 1, 1952. He spent the summer working in radio and, in September, attended a television technician’s school. When Snyder returned from his classes, he worked on plans for the television studio. Snyder wrote, “On June 1, 1953, at 6:45 p.m., the fun began with real live programming at WDAY-TV.” It was the first TV station in Fargo and the second in North Dakota.
Snyder left WDAY in 1958 and founded Bill Snyder Films, which produced industrial films, television commercials, animation and documentaries.
In 1980, he purchased the company’s first video camera, and the name of the business was changed to Snyder Films & Video. Snyder retired in 1983 and sold the company the following year.
Snyder made more than 800 documentaries, commercial spots and educational and technical films. His company made more than 80 award-winning films.
In 1977, Snyder received the NDSU Alumni Achievement Award. He was a supporter and frequent special guest at the Fargo Film Festival and in 2001, the festival named the award for the best documentary the “Bill Snyder Award.”
Snyder died on Sept. 14, 2007. Two months later, the Fargo Theatre hosted an evening titled “A Tribute to Bill Snyder Films” to pay special recognition to a technological pioneer.
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“Did You Know That” is written by Curt Eriksmoen and edited by Jan Eriksmoen of Fargo. Send your suggestions for columns, comments or corrections to the Eriksmoens at firstname.lastname@example.org.