Cinematography - Dean Cundey, ASC
Among my earliest memories is going with my family to the movies. The first movie I ever saw in the cinema was The Little Mermaid when I was four or five years old. The first movie that I went to see once and then again, and again, was Jurassic Park when I was six years old. I couldn’t have known at the time that Jurassic Park was a herald of where Hollywood filmmaking would be heading; the seamless integration of live action and photorealistic computer generated imagery, the beginning of the end for traditional visual effects techniques such as stop motion animation and miniature photography.
As the years passed and I was exposed to new spectacles in the movies I came to recognize the faces that I had seen somewhere before. We first identify the actors who perform on screen, then the names of the studios that appear at the beginning of the picture, before turning our minds to the men and women behind the camera. The biggest name behind the camera is the director, and for many that is where the recognition ends.
That is where my recognition ended for a long time. I knew Steven Spielberg, Robert Zemeckis and John Carpenter, but what I didn’t know was who was the common link between these directors, these men who were the foundation of my love for film. One man had photographed my favourite movies from these three directors between 1978 and 1993. This man is Dean Cundey, ASC.
It was only after I had graduated from university that I really began to learn about cinematography and lighting for film. Rewatching the films that Dean Cundey shot after my personal education has given me a greater respect for the visual craft not only in the films of Carpenter, Zemeckis and Spielberg but in the art of filmmaking altogether.
From listening to feature commentaries and reading articles in American Cinematographer, it is evident that Dean Cundey has sought throughout his career to utilize the right tools and cinematic language to efficiently and meaningfully tell directors stories.
Dean Cundey has often been an early adopter of emerging technology to best tell stories. On John Carpenter’s 1978 film Halloween the director of photography was among the first to use the now standard Steadicam rig to shoot several lengthy and elaborate moving shots, most famously in the opening sequence where the viewer is seeing through the eyes of a young Michael Myers stalking and ultimately murdering his teen-aged sister. Specifically the rig was a variation of the Steadicam produced by Panavision called the Panaglide.
In 1981 Cundey would join Carpenter as director of photography for a third time on Escape From New York. The film would prove to have significant challenges to realize the movie’s depiction of Manhattan as a dystopian prison island, most notably shooting large night exteriors in the anamorphic format using 100 speed tungsten film (by modern standards a slow speed film). Thanks to the efforts of Panavision once again, Dean Cundey was able to use newly developed high-speed anamorphic lenses to capture the low light sequences in a movie largely set at nighttime. The fastest of these new anamorphic lenses was a 50mm T1.1, but because of lens distortion and a narrow depth of field DPs would avoid shooting them wide open. Even with these new high-speed lenses the film is still very dark, in some sequences struggling to capture enough information in the faces of actors while in the toe of the film stock, but aesthetically it matches the atmosphere and tone of the movie.
Working with Robert Zemeckis following Romancing the Stone (recommended by Kurt Russell after working alongside the cinematographer on Carpenter’s The Thing) Dean Cundey collaborated with the visual effects team at ILM to realize the time-travelling adventures of Doc Brown and Marty McFly in the Back to the Future trilogy. The production would use motion control technology and optical compositing to seamlessly blend the practical and visual effects photography together to achieve Zemeckis’ vision, most notably in Back to the Future Part II. To accomplish a shot of the flying DeLorean landing in the future Hill Valley a street lamp was used to divide the first part of the shot, using a visual effects model of the car that would transition to the live action car as it passed behind the metal pole. The result is a perfect marriage of live action and post production trickery.
After the first Back to the Future Dean Cundey would reteam with Zemeckis on Who Framed Roger Rabbit in 1988, designing the VistaFlex motion control cameras needed to blend the optically composited hand drawn animation with the toon-free practical footage.
During his long career Cundey has used traditional and novel lighting techniques to service the story in unison with the latest technology of the time. His knowledge of lighting helped to ground the often high concepts and fantastical creatures featured in many of his credits in a real and tangible way. An interview with Steven Spielberg about Cundey’s work on Jurassic Park exemplifies his approach:
“[Dean] had great ideas about how to light the dinosaurs to make us think we were seeing more than we actually were. He lit Stan Winston’s full-size animatronic creatures using edgier light to make them look larger and more ferocious.”
Some of my favourite lighting gags used by Cundey are also some of the simplest to accomplish, but serve the story with surprising and frightening reveals. In Halloween the final girl, Laurie Strode, discovers her friends dead through several startling reveals and cowers in the corner of the widescreen frame, next to a open door and pitch black inside. Slowly the viewer is drawn to a white face emerging from the blackness, fading into existence like an apparition ready to strike at a terrified Laurie. The camera reacts to the change in brightness the same as human vision compensates in reality to a dark space; the change isn’t instant but gradual, and serves as a frightening reveal to the audience of the Shape’s immediate proximity and intention.
Rather than opening the aperture on the lens to achieve the ghostly reveal Cundey chose to rig a small light gelled blue and aimed at the Shape that was slowly dimmed up to capture the moment. It was simple and ingenious.
He would reuse this technique again but for differing intentions, such as in Escape From New York when Snake takes refuge inside an abandoned building to hide from ‘the crazies’ who have risen from the sewers. Snake discovers he’s not alone when a woman makes her presence known, just as the camera once again mimics adjusting to the light level inside (again achieved by a lighting cue). In The Fog, when the men of the Seagrass are the first killed by the vengeful spirits of sailors from a century ago, the dimming of the light on one of the victims acts as the visual metaphor of his life fading away into darkness. The same trick is repeated but the desired effect is never the same from one film to the next.
Another example of lighting as storytelling can be seen in The Thing. The technique is less apparent but acts a subliminal clue to the hidden, monstrous nature of the characters who have been overtaken by the titular creature. Cundey made the decision to give the ‘real’ human characters an eye light, the tiny reflective glint used by photographers to add depth to a persons eyes, as a symbol of their true identity. In contrast the characters who are later revealed to be alien impostors have no such glint in their eyes; their identity as human beings is gone — they are Things.
Dean Cundey’s attention to the small details of subconscious storytelling contribute greatly to the finished product’s layers of depth, both narratively and photographically.
The composition of the widescreen frame in the films of John Carpenter is a significant element in achieving suspense. In the same way a magician uses misdirection to perform a magic trick, Cundey uses misdirection within composition to deliver scares and tension. The often used tool to mislead the viewer is the choice of focus within the frame.
In Halloween the viewer is privy to a greater knowledge than the vulnerable characters who are being stalked by the Shape; as viewers we are complicit in the unfolding events. At three distinct points in the film the three friends, Laurie, Annie and Linda, each figuratively and literally have their backs turned to the danger within striking distance. Their naivety is what seals the fate of both Annie and Linda, and Laurie exposes herself to attack under the false belief that she has killed the inhuman Shape.
During the most suspenseful moment in The Thing, MacReady is testing the blood of the dwindling number of men who have been infiltrated. In a repeating close-up MacReady’s face, and his hand holding a petri dish of sample blood, the subject of focus changes throughout the shot (the hand with the petri dish is a prosthetic and is introduced early in the scene to sell the gag for later). The repetition of the close-up and the increasing paranoia in the dialogue between the men during the extended sequence numbs the viewer at the exact moment when the blood test suddenly and violently reveals the impostor among them.
The overriding visual theme delivered by Carpenter and Cundey is that our attention can be misplaced, our sense of safety misguided, and that the real danger is invisible — hidden, and ready to pounce.
The imprint of these films on my youth and my continued fascination with their inception, implementation and delivery has expanded further and into different fields of filmmaking. I have Steven Spielberg, Robert Zemeckis and John Carpenter to thank for my movie-watching childhood, and they in turn have Dean Cundey to thank for his part in making their films come to life on screen.
Halloween (dir. John Carpenter, 1978)
The Fog (dir. John Carpenter, 1980)
Escape From New York (dir. John Carpenter, 1981)
The Thing (dir. John Carpenter, 1982)
Back to the Future (dir. Robert Zemeckis, 1985)
Big Trouble in Little China (dir. John Carpenter, 1986)
Who Framed Roger Rabbit (dir. Robert Zemeckis, 1988)
Back to the Future Part II (dir. Robert Zemeckis, 1989)
Back to the Future Part III (dir. Robert Zemeckis, 1990)
Death Becomes Her (dir. Robert Zemeckis, 1992)
Jurassic Park (dir. Steven Spielberg, 1993)
Apollo 13 (dir. Ron Howard, 1995)
American Cinematographer — February 2014
Craft Truck on YouTube — Through the Lens Season 1 Episode 3
Halloween 35th Anniversary Blu-ray with feature commentary
Halloween: 25 Years of Terror documentary
The Fog Blu-ray with feature commentary
Escape From New York Blu-ray with feature commentary
The Thing Blu-ray with feature commentary
The Thing: Terror Takes Shape documentary
(note: this is only a partial list — additional information was obtained from further books, documentaries and articles but these details weren’t available at the time of writing)
Coming soon: Production Design — Carol Spier