“Diverse” describes the films shot by Dean Cundey, A.S.C., who received the 28th Annual American Society of Cinematographers’ Lifetime Achievement Award on February 1. From John Carpenter’s classic Halloween and the landmark Who Framed Roger Rabbit, to the iconic Back to the Future series, the breakthrough Jurassic Park and the gripping Apollo 13, Cundey has captured the history of modern American cinema through his lens.
Cundey says the honor came as “a great surprise and delight,” since a lifetime achievement award means “people have noticed and appreciated what you’ve done. To be given that award by an organization with the heritage of the A.S.C. — it’s the oldest professional organization in Hollywood — is a great honor.”
A native Californian, Cundey dreamed about making movies as a child. He had a darkroom and was knowledgeable about still photography, but it was production design that initially intrigued him. He built miniature sets and studied architecture and cinema at UCLA in the hope of preparing himself for a career in production design.
It was the Academy Award-winning cinematographer, James Wong Howe, A.S.C., who opened his eyes to moviemaking and led Cundey down a different career path. “Each week in class, he set a lighting or camera problem, all very practical challenges, and made us be the crew,” Cundey recalls. “He taught us the practical aspects of lighting, diffusion, shadows. It was probably the best introduction to the feature world and solidified my interest in pursuing cinematography.”
Cundey considers himself “fortunate” to have not worked his way up “a very specific chain” of jobs in the camera department following his graduation from UCLA. This was the era, he reminds us, “when they needed low-budget movies for distribution to drive-ins and small theaters. I took any job I could get and learned something about that skill: understanding the process of filmmaking is really important. I worked on films entirely put together on the fly by people who were learning to make movies. Making mistakes in the learning process wasn’t such a high-stakes thing. You weren’t going to be fired by a studio.”
His breakout film as a cinematographer was John Carpenter’s Halloween (1978), a film that “took a lot of people by surprise. Horror films had sort of disappeared for a while, and it opened to a tepid response. But week after week the audience grew. It found its audience and still has one today.” Carpenter presented Cundey with his Lifetime Achievement Award.
After Halloween, Cundey’s career snowballed, encompassing films from every genre. “I think what they all have in common is that no matter the characters, the time or the circumstances, they all take audiences on a ride they can’t take in real life. They get people to believe what Disney called, ‘the plausible impossible.’ It’s all about developing storytelling techniques and touchstones to reality, and doing something different and innovative.”
Cundey became adept at visual and special effects. “Making them look transparent, blending them in so they didn’t look obvious was a challenge,” he says, whether it was the cutting-edge Who Framed Roger Rabbit, the Back to the Future franchise, the huge sets of Hook or the claustrophobic weightless environment of Apollo 13.
“I have a great fondness for Roger Rabbit,” he says. “Combining live action and animation was a technique that was done before, but we took a great leap forward in terms of its interactivity. We did a lot of challenging problem-solving. There was a great creative energy around the film with [director] Bob [Zemeckis] and [executive producer] Steven [Spielberg], and I enjoyed working in London for the better part of a year.”
Cundey’s migration from film to digital came slowly then rapidly achieved critical mass, he reports. “My last five projects were digital, all on Arri Alexa, and they’ve been very satisfying. I had shot some video early on, then almost overnight, as video cameras got into the range to compete with film, everyone gravitated to them. Alexa seems to be the all-around favorite for features, and the material you capture works well with VFX.”
He likes the ability to “control color and apply looks on-set” with Alexa and other digital cameras, but says the downside is that the process can “split the attention” of the working cinematographer. But “gaining control on-set” doesn’t mean you can’t “still lose that control unless there’s a really good understanding with the director, producers and post people that all you did visually to create a scene and produce a reaction with the audience won’t be altered later on.”
Still a fan of tungsten lighting, which “produces wonderful quality light and smooth color transitions,” Cundey is waiting for LEDs to improve their color fidelity. He concedes that LEDs’ low-power consumption and cool operation are advantageous, but questions whether LEDs “will force us to change the aesthetics of film and what the audience sees and reacts to. As someone who enjoys innovation, I work a lot with new tools, but I’m clinging to my old-fashioned tungsten lights.”
He recalls James Wong Howe’s advice to UCLA students to “simplify” the once-extensive lighting packages found on sound stages. “I started off simplifying because I worked on low-budget films and had very limited equipment. But I always remembered his words, even on big pictures, and tried to adhere to them,” he says. “There’s a great temptation of resources and a great temptation to complicate things unnecessarily.”
Cundey recently finished a trio of features: the World War II story, Walking with the Enemy, shot in Romania; the slavery-themed Carry Me Home; and the kids’ direct-to-Warner Home Video Sophia Grace and Rosie’s Royal Adventure, shot in South Africa.
“Very few people get to do what I have done, meet the people I’ve met, go to the places I’ve gone,” says Cundey. “I’ve had a very privileged career and try never to take it for granted.”