Celebrating the art of Fritz Spiess

To most commercial dops, the main concern after wrapping one project is starting the next. Ads may enjoy a healthy run on television, and possibly even yield an award or two, but they ultimately end up in the ash can of history. Luckily for us, however, Fritz Spiess, the late ‘dean of Canadian cinematographers,’ took it upon himself to keep tv advertising’s heritage alive, maintaining extensive files on all the spots he lensed and directed throughout his illustrious 38-year career.

This treasure trove of information was unveiled on Dec. 16 with the opening of the Fritz Spiess Archive.

Spiess’ love affair with the moving image began in 1941, when, at age 16, he shot a silent documentary about the St. Thomas Choir School, which he attended in Leipzig, Germany. He later ran his own still photography studio in Heidelberg before he and wife Gunild emigrated to Canada in 1951.

Three years later, Spiess volunteered to make a film about children with cerebral palsy, effectively launching a shooting career that spanned several production houses and lasted until his retirement in 1991.

He is credited with having lensed 3,000 commercials and – by choice – not one feature film. He believed commercials are to the moving image what the sonnet is to poetry, and relished the challenge of visual storytelling in the restrictive 30- and 60-second time frames.

One of Spiess’ highest-profile accomplishments was the ’360-degree movie’ for Disney that screened at the Telephone Pavilion at Expo ’67 in Montreal. This large-format precursor to imax drew constant lineups and thrilled audiences with panoramic images shot from coast to coast.

While the cinematographer won numerous awards for his tv spots, including two Bronze Lions at the Cannes Film Festival, he was also heavily involved behind the scenes, serving as a founding member of the Canadian Society of Cinematographers. He held camera workshops and was a teacher on the set as well, gladly imparting his technical expertise to his younger colleagues.

Those who worked with him will recall the index cards he always had in his shirt pocket, on which he kept notes about such precise details as the photographic qualities of ice cubes.

The industry’s profound respect for Spiess has manifested itself in the dedication of two awards to his name – the Fritz Spiess Award for Commercial Cinematography, presented annually by the Canadian Society of Cinematographers, and the Fritz Spiess Award for ‘continuing, consistent dedication to excellence in the art of the television commercial,’ created in 1979 by the Canadian Television Commercials Awards – the ‘Bessies’ – and of which Spiess was the first recipient.

On March 12, 1998, Spiess passed away. At the memorial service, son Carl wondered aloud if anyone in the industry would be interested in providing a permanent home for Spiess’ production-related documents, awards, and commercial reels.

Two days later, his mother, Gunild, received a fax from producer Harve Sherman, an old collaborator of Spiess’, who recommended the Toronto office of film and video equipment supplier William F. White. Gunild brought the idea to company president Bill White, also a family friend, and the latter’s enthusiasm was immediate.

A committee was soon assembled that included Kodak’s Colin Davis, the csc’s Don Angus, William F. White’s Bob Lynn, and Daphne McAfee, post supervisor for the soundtrack to the St. Thomas Choir School documentary, which was added to the film shortly after Spiess’ death.

Gunild recalls the first committee meeting: ‘I asked, ‘Do you really want this stuff?’ and [the William F. White people] said, ‘We can have a truck there tomorrow morning.’ ‘

Gunild then hired archival collections manager Theresa Rowat to assess and organize the voluminous material. Rowat has since come to regard the cameraman as an archivist in his own right. ‘It’s not just a pile of paper and a bunch of scraps and outtake frames sitting around,’ she says. ‘He meticulously kept a record of what he’d done. He kept 1,500 of his commercials made on 16mm.’

Rowat, who recently completed the archival processing of a collection donated to Toronto’s Film Reference Library by Atom Egoyan, sees the Fritz Spiess Archive as unique, noting, ‘Usually we think in terms of auteur directors and feature filmmaking, but I think it’s time we brought this kind of material into the canon of moving image studies, because it’s just as important.’

The lobby of William F. White features a permanent display dedicated to Spiess. The archive committee sought a phrase from Spiess himself as a title for the exhibit, but for a man who made a living shooting 30-second films, his quotes were quite verbose, so they instead settled simply on ‘Celebrating the Art of Cinematography.’

A series of glass-enclosed shelves showcase Spiess’ old movie cameras, awards, and some of the many photographs he collected, which show him in his workshops, in the studio, or on location with his crews. Also, a horizontal display case has been specially constructed to highlight news clippings and production stills from the ’360-degree movie.’

The Dec. 16 opening was part of William F. White’s annual client Christmas party, to which Gunild invited colleagues of her husband in the hope they could help identify some of the many projects and people appearing in the photos. The office client lounge houses Spiess’ substantial library of film-related books, periodicals and csc newsletters, while another room has been set aside for storing his production folders, film gear, and the commercial reels and videotapes onto which he started transferring his work in 1980.

The Fritz Spiess Archive is open by appointment through William F. White, which will endeavor to make employees available to help locate materials. Rowat and film student Andrew Barnsley are involved in the ongoing process of cataloging all of Spiess’ work, and with enough sponsorship help, the committee hopes to be able to post that information on the Internet, as well as clean up the 16mm reels and transfer them to a convenient viewing format.

If industry response proves favorable, the committee hopes to eventually expand the archive to the point where they can distribute Spiess’ work to film schools, thereby educating new generations on a man whose career encompassed the very development of commercial production and television advertising in this country.

(For more information, contact: Gunild Spiess at: (416) 225-5970, fax (416) 585-9377, or spiess@ inforamp.net or www.inforamp. net/~spiess/archives/)