Fritz Spiess: Canada’s `dean of cinematography’ remembered

Fritz Spiess csc, the ‘Dean of Cinematography’ in Canada, died March 12 at Princess Margaret Hospital in Toronto.

Born in 1925 in Germany, Spiess emigrated to Canada in 1951. A charter member and early president of the Canadian Society of Cinematographers, Spiess shot more than 3,000 commercials and other projects during his career, winning numerous awards along the way including two Bronze Lions at Cannes.

In 1979, The Bessies recognized his 25 years in the industry with the creation of the Fritz Spiess Award, presented annually to a member of the commercial business in recognition of lifetime achievement and excellence in their field.

A memorial service and celebration of Spiess’ life will be held Sunday, April 19, beginning at 4 p.m., at McRann and Malone Studios, 388 Carlaw Ave., Suite 205.

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- George Morita: ‘Fritz loved the challenges of filmmaking’

In the late fifties Batten Films sold their Queensway studios to the S.W. Caldwell organization. I was employed at the studio as an animation artist. We would often do our own ‘flimsies’ test shooting and the subsequent processing of the footage with a reel-to-reel Morse tank.

The new management had sent a gentleman to our facility who had decreed that the multiplicity of photographic chemicals in the darkroom should be simplified and that only one developing mixture, D-76, would be maintained in stock.

The animators were aghast at this arbitrary decision by someone who obviously did not have the experience to understand that a high-contrast solution, Dektol, should be used for processing our tests. However, after a few moments of earnest discussion, despite the fact I was still in my teens and therefore knew everything, I realized I was way over my head in attempting to debate this technical issue with this quiet-spoken but very firm-minded man.

Back in the sanctuary of the art department, I confessed my failure in reversing the change, and alerted them to the possibility of more supervision in our photographic ventures; we would now be answering to a ‘Fritz Spiess,’ who, I allowed, seemed to know a little bit about photography.

That was my first encounter with Fritz and the beginning of a professional and personal relationship that enriched my life and made me proud – the pride that comes from being associated with the dignity and professionalism that Fritz brought to the Art of Cinematography.

Fritz loved the challenges of filmmaking, the pure mathematics of resolving a special effect, and most of all, the soul-restoring esthetics of a beautifully photographed scene. He would speak about the work of other dops and, with a touch of wonder in his voice, marvel at the artistry of the craftsmanship.

I worked for Fritz as his assistant for about seven years, and possibly only realized the depth of his status and creative soundness when I started working as a cameraman. By applying procedures I’d taken for granted, working with the basics of sound photography as practiced by him, my own transition to dop was made easier.

Over the years since then, we would get together for lunch annually, to compare notes, to digest the technical trends, and to talk about the turns in our lives so far.

After his retirement our occasions were relegated to telephone conversations, often pertaining to the business of the Canadian Society of Cinematographers.

The last time I was with Fritz it was on a visit to his and Gunild’s home in Willowdale to pick up a transfer of a commercial he’d shot some 30 years ago. It was then that I realized I had not visited their home in the same time span. We had kept in touch over the telephone, met at industry functions, had lunched together, exchanged seasonal greetings, etc., but I’d never been back inside their house.

The solid steadiness of their lifestyle over the decades was brought back to me as Fritz proudly showed me through the home in which he and Gunild had raised their three children, while also caring for Fritz’s mother.

I admired the custom-made shelves and bedrooms for offspring, long gone with their own families, and the immense filing cabinets with every aspect of his life and profession recorded and remembered. The files won’t be recording this final entry, this tribute to a gentleman who made a real difference in my life, and the lives of so many others.

- Nicholas Allen-Woolfe: ‘His pictures will live forever’

In 1968, when I first arrived in Toronto, Fritz Spiess was the undisputed king of cinematographers. His position and authority within the field of commercial film production was unchallenged. But in spite of his awesome image, he was a man who could find the time to help others.

Fritz was instrumental in helping younger cameramen join the IATSE Local 644, as well as the Canadian Society of Cinematographers, and in giving many of them further opportunities. I was one of those fortunate people.

Fritz was always willing to share technical information with anyone who cared to listen, and much could be learnt by just listening to him. His technical knowledge was second to none, his practice of cinematography was exacting in detail and illumination, his images often touched the very heart and soul. Not only was he a brilliant cameraman, but he had enormous sensitivity and depth within himself and a great willingness to help others.

Fritz’s talent has been well recorded over the years. Even today, many of his images remain in one’s memory, years after his lens has recorded the scene, the visuals of a great master and an extraordinary man.

The King may be gone, but his pictures will live on forever.

Fritz, thanks for those memories.