Ralph C. Ellis (1924-2016)
Ellis, Ralph C. (1924- )
Ralph Ellis can truly be described as one of the 'founding fathers' of independent television production in Canada. In his 50-plus years in the industry, he produced over 200 hours of network programming, and he was creating such programming without government funding twenty years before the inception of the Telefilm Broadcast Fund. His productions and achievements earned him over 75 awards, and his specialization in the production and international distribution of wildlife documentaries deservedly earned him worldwide acclaim.
Ralph Ellis was born on July 11th 1924 in Milton, Queens County, Nova Scotia. After going to public school in Milton, he attended Liverpool Academy, and enlisted in the RCAF at the age of 17 1/2, where he took an electronics course at the RCAF Wireless School in Montreal. After the war ended, he was teaching electronics at the Nova Scotia Technical College in Halifax in 1946 when he heard that the National Film Board was looking for a field representative for Nova Scotia. On being hired he began three years of being what he describes as a 'travelling evangelist' for the NFB, criss-crossing the province screening NFB films for schools and community groups, He was then moved to Ottawa to co-ordinate the Canadian theatrical distribution of NFB material. In the course of this work, Ralph got to work closely with such creative people as Norman MacLaren and Sydney Newman.
After subsequent postings to Toronto and back to Ottawa, Ralph was sent to New York for three years as the NFB's commercial representative in the U.S. There he met many U.S. television and film executives, and it was two of these contacts, Paul Talbot of Fremantle International and Saul Turell of Sterling Films, who encouraged him to leave the NFB in 1955, and to return to Toronto to set up Fremantle of Canada.
This association continued very successfully until 1964, when Ralph decided to go out on his own, and, with partners Jerry Kedey and Dan Gibson, he launched KEG Productions; shortly thereafter, he opened his own distribution firm, Ralph C. Ellis Enterprises Ltd. One of his early distribution coups was the representation of Britain's Granada Television, for whom he made the first sales of Coronation Street in Canada. He also brought to Canada such prestige series as Upstairs Downstairs and Jewel in the Crown.
KEG'S first television production was Sports Miniatures, a series of 26 five-minute episodes on skiing, which was produced in 1964 for CFTO-TV in Toronto, and subsequently sold to ABC-TV in Australia, as well as to other countries.
KEG's first major production was Audubon Wildlife Theatre, a series of 78 half-hours that played on the CBC between 1968 and 1974; prior to the first broadcast the first episode, Land of the Loon, had won a Canadian Film Award in 1967. Ralph was also executive producer of the 26-half-hour series Adventures in Rainbow Country, a co-production with the CBC and ABC Australia, which played on the CBC in 1970-71, and had the distinction of earning the highest ratings for a Canadian drama series until the advent of Anne of Green Gables. Between 1972 and 1975 the CBC aired ten one-hour nature specials produced by KEG under the umbrella title To The Wild Country, with narration by Lorne Greene, some episodes of which were seen by as many as 2,500,000 viewers.
In 1973, media giant Maclean Hunter were sufficiently impressed by Ralph's successes in international production to invest in KEG Productions. This investment enabled KEG to move ahead with more Canadian production without needing bank or government financing. Ralph's first feature film as executive producer was the documentary Wings In The Wilderness: narrated by Lorne Greene, it was produced in 1975. It played the Rank circuit on a double bill with All Creatures Great and Small, a deal which recouped the entire investment, and it later played on the CBC in 1977.
Wings in the Wilderness offered just one example of the many groundbreaking filming techniques that made Ralph's productions so engaging and compelling. The filming of geese in flight, at 100 frames per second, and running these shots at normal speed in the film, produced a spectacular and riveting slow-motion effect, which often produced applause from audiences around the world.
In 1979, his second international co-production of a drama series was Matt and Jenny, with Global as his Canadian partner. In 1981, yet another Ellis-produced series of ten one-hour documentaries, Wild Canada, made its debut on the CBC. In October 1983, Ralph began production of the first of 104 episodes of a new half-hour series, Profiles of Nature, and followed up with 78 one-hour programs under the same umbrella title. All of these programs played in prime time on the U.S. Discovery Channel.
Productions with which Ralph was associated have been seen in over 100 countries. In 1984, the Canadian Film and Television Association honoured Ralph with the Jack Chisholm Award, for his outstanding contribution to the Canadian film and television industry. In 1986, he became Chairman of Ellis Enterprises, being succeeded as President by his son Stephen.
In 1996, Ralph and Stephen joined with Baton Broadcasting, Rogers Communications and OLN U.S. in a successful application for a license from the CRTC to launch a new Outdoor Life Network speciality cable channel. They sold their interest in OLN in 1998.
In June 1997, in recognition of his exceptional contributions to Canadian independent television production, Ralph was made a Member of the Order of Canada, and in the same year his efforts also earned him the Order of Ontario. In 2006, the Canadian Society of Cinematographers gave Ralph the Bill Hilson Award for outstanding service in the development of the motion picture industry.
Over the years he was active on the Boards of the Children's Broadcast Institute (now the Alliance for Children's Television) and the Broadcast Executives' Society. Ralph received Lifetime Achievement Awards from each of these organizations, in 1990 (ACT) and 2002 (BES). He was a member of the Explorers' Club, the Variety Club of Ontario, and the Canadian Picture Pioneers.
Ralph Ellis died on April 24th 2016.
Written by Pip Wedge - October, 2005