Dean Cundey — the latest recipient the ASC’s highest honor, its Lifetime Achievement Award — might have started out in low-budget genre films, but his career trajectory has led him to the summit of envelope-bursting technology on such films as the “Back to the Future” trilogy, “Who Framed Roger Rabbit” and “Jurassic Park.”
The first two were directed by Robert Zemeckis, who made six films with Cundey. “He doesn’t try to create a magnificent piece of cinematography if it doesn’t serve the story first and foremost,” Zemeckis says. “It’s all about story with Dean.”
What the two created was magnificent and had hardly been seen previously. Discussing “Roger Rabbit” (1988), Cundey, 67, says while earlier movies had combined live-action and animation, the results tended to look “uneven and a bit like comicbooks, whereas we went for a very realistic look.” He shot the film with a VistaVision camera using Eastman 5247 stock, “the finest grain film available back then,” and more than 1,000 composite shots — “a huge amount for the time” — were used to produce a seamless blend of live action and animation.
For the second “Back to the Future” installment (1989), Cundey and Zemeckis also made extensive use of the relatively new motion-control technology. “It was initially a very cumbersome camera-computer rig and a very elaborate process, and we wanted to make it faster and easier,” he recalls. “So along with ILM we developed a very lightweight, user-friendly motion control system, and that enabled us to shoot some very complex scenes with Michael J. Fox playing multiple characters, and to be more spontaneous.” The third in the series was “more straightforward, but we used the rig for the scenes where Michael talks to himself as his own ancestor.”
Those Amblin Entertainment productions put the lenser in close proximity with company co-founder Steven Spielberg, who commissioned Cundey to shoot “Jurassic Park” and “Hook.”
“Jurassic Park” grew directly out of Cundey’s work on “Roger Rabbit,” wherein the d.p. “got very used to shooting and creating shots with characters that aren’t there. But the technology had changed to using CGI instead of the hand-drawn animation of ‘Roger Rabbit,’ and no one had ever done something like this before.”
Cundey says the techniques developed on the film “for matching lighting and shadows and all the interaction between the live action and CGI are still state-of-the-art. You can watch it today and it’s not dated, even though the technology has advanced so much since then.”
The L.A. native grew up “loving movies and the sense of illusion they create,” he says. “I used to make model sets and then became my family’s documentarian as a kid, with my dad’s 8mm camera.”
While studying at UCLA, Cundey attended a course taught by James Wong Howe, “probably the most useful practical class I ever took. He was preparing to shoot ‘The Molly Maguires’ and really taught me about the magic of lighting. He was my earliest inspiration and made me want to become a cinematographer.”
Cundey got his break when John Carpenter hired him to shoot “Halloween” (1978). “It was the first opportunity I got to really use the camera to help tell the story, and the first time I’d worked with a director who felt the same way.”
The seminal horror film also marks one of the early uses of the Steadicam, “which heightened the audience’s sense of dread,” Cundey says.
Adds Carpenter: “I think (Cundey’s) work (on ‘Halloween’) is some of his best ever. The way he moved the camera was groundbreaking.”
With a career that’s spanned five decades and more than 80 films, the d.p. has witnessed major changes in both Hollywood and his craft.
“I’ve always embraced new technology, and although early digital camera systems were nowhere as good as film — at least in terms of capturing the image, they’ve really developed now,” he says. “Film is still the greatest archiving medium, but the digital revolution is here to stay.”