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Cinematography: ASC Awards – Dean Cundey


Dean Cundey ASC, won the Lifetime Achievement Award from the ASC in 2014.

An Interview with Dean Cundey

Dean Cundey

The American Society of Cinematographers (ASC) held its annual awards banquet on February 1, 2014 and the winner of the Lifetime Achievement Award was Dean Cundey, ASC. Acclaimed filmmaker John Carpenter presented the award to Cundey.

Cundey first attracted widespread attention when he teamed with Carpenter on Halloween (1978). The two filmmakers went on to collaborate on The Fog, Escape from New York, The Thing, Halloween II and III, and Big Trouble in Little China. Cundey’s work on Robert Zemeckis’ landmark, live-action film Who Framed Roger Rabbit (1988) garnered him both Oscar and BAFTA nominations. Cundey’s other credits include the Back to the Future trilogy, Romancing the Stone, Death Becomes Her, Hook, Apollo 13, Jurassic Park, What Women Want, Garfield, The Holiday, The Spy Next Door, Jack and Jill, Crazy Kind of Love, and the upcoming releases Walking with the Enemy and Carry Me Home.

We spoke with Cundey to find out how this success story developed. “I used to go to the theater – my parents would drop myself and two or three neighborhood friends off at the local theater for the kids’ matinee on Saturdays,” Cundey recalled. “It was like 10 cartoons and maybe a short film and a feature. They were kid-friendly features – Disney, action/adventure, and things like that. I got into film because I enjoyed the fact that a movie could create an illusion, could make you believe you were somewhere that you couldn’t be in real life. I think that’s what intrigued me at first, so at that point I decided that’s what I needed to do. I went through high school with those plans and then to UCLA Film School, so I’ve been fairly focused.”

He continued, “My first interest was in the production design, because as we’d watch a movie, what you were aware of was the set, the environment, all of that stuff. I even took architectural design courses in college, and things that were aimed at that, like drafting. I even worked as a draftsman. But it was in film school that I really decided that cinematography was the one that was dynamically involved with creating the story and illusion, how things were photographed, how they were lit, so I changed over in college to cinematography.”

Cundey passes his feelings along to others quite easily. “One of the things I always tell film students is that the cinematographer is the bridge between the science and the art of film. We have to be familiar with and utilize a lot of science – light and intensity and lenses, all the things that go with capturing an image. But it has to be in service of the art. When they go to a theater, people go to see the art, you might say, without specifically knowing or saying it. Nobody says, “Hey, let’s go see that film that uses all that soft light to create the mood.” They say, “Let’s go see that romantic movie.” So cinematographers are the bridge between the science and the art, we have this unique position of being technicians, craftsmen, and artists.”

Apollo 13 with Tom Hanks
Cundey’s work on Apollo 13 included Tom Hanks doing a moon walk as astronaut Jim Lovell.
Photo Courtesy of Universal Studios

In support of the art of the story, Cundey has moved the art of the camera many times. When asked what he considers his “signature,” what people, especially his peers, anticipate when they know he’s behind the camera, he says, “A lot of the films I’ve done involve illusion and fantasy, which implies visual effects and a kind of trickery. That’s what I really enjoy, and it’s one of the reasons I got into film. As far as a photographic style, in service to all of that, I try to give a film a certain style/class/elegance or whatever without the photography imposing. Some guys repeat their same style over and over. They become known for a particular look. But I’ve always felt that cinematography should complement the film, it should adapt, it should become ‘unobvious’ so that you’re really serving not only the script and the scene and the story, but each shot should tell you something without you being aware of it. I think I’m a little bit adaptable, you might say, within that philosophy.”

Being adaptable means being aware of the changes, the improvements in the technology, that come along at a rapid pace these days, We asked, “If there is one, what film would you like to re-shoot because now there is a different way you could do it?” And Cundey replied, “That’s a good question, because there’s probably a lot of my very early films that are relatively unseen that suffered from lack of budget and schedule. Most of those early films could be enhanced by what the computer can do now, relatively inexpensively. I think that a lot of the films that I look at with pride, we really found answers and solutions and techniques that worked pretty well, so I can’t think of any of the more recent ones that I would do differently. We were always ahead of the curve, anyway, so there’s not too many that I can think of that would benefit substantially from contemporary techniques.”

Because of the quick cut technique developed on music videos, the long, lingering shot just doesn’t seem to be there anymore. “Yeah, and it’s kind of sad, and I sometimes wonder if people notice that without realizing it,” muses Cundey. “I talk to people who go see an action movie, and they say, ‘Yeah, it was good, but it gave me a headache because it was so quick, quick, quick, quick.’ Sometimes filmmakers get carried away making movies for themselves.”

For example? “Michael Bay has been quoted as saying, ‘Any shot longer than two seconds is boring,’ which is not the case. A lot of times you want to watch two characters talk, or you want to see why the hero is running away from something, and not just two seconds of running. So I think that the unfortunate part is, although we as filmmakers think that we’re creating style by doing that, we are also distracting the audience. You need to think of each shot and what it can mean to the audience. It’s as if not knowing how to create the action in front of the camera that’s arresting or intriguing has to be fixed it in editing with quick, short cuts and speeding up the pace. If you think about how to tell the story in longer shots, I think it’s a lot more rewarding for an audience.”

March 14, 2014