The Den Of Geek interview: Dean Cundey

From The Thing to Who Framed Roger Rabbit, Dean Cundey is one of the most respected and in-demand cinematographers in Hollywood...

DEan Cundey and a few of the films that established him in the vanguard of cinematography

Dean Cundey is one of Hollywood’s finest cinematographers, having shot films such as Jurassic Park, Who Framed Roger Rabbit?, The Thing and Back To The Future. Boasting collaborations with the likes of Steven Spielberg, Robert Zemeckis and John Carpenter, he spared us some time in his busy schedule for a chat… Can we begin at the very start of your career? You shot a number of low-budget horror films with some insanely brilliant titles and presumably that was a much less pressured environment to make your films in.

Yeah, it’s one of those things. Without the crutch of just being able to fix it in post-production so easily now, you really had to be thoughtful about the effect you were going to do, and the moment you were going to try to create. I think that one of the things that happened in those early films was that because you had to rely on real life and physics and everything, that what the audience saw were things that were in fact plausible. And now, with the computer, you’re simply unlimited as far as what you can do, as it’s so easy to create things that are impossible.

And as a result it sort of destroys the sense of reality as far as the audience watching a moment or an event. It’s very easy to get so involved in the effect that I think as a film-maker, you don’t stop to think that what you’re really doing is taking the audience somewhere that they know is completely impossible, and therefore there goes some of the fun and credibility of watching. And it’s not to say that those moments aren’t fun, or those kinds of films aren’t fun, but at the same time, that doesn’t apply to all films. Would you say that your career came just within the perfect timeframe? Because one thing that underpins much of your work is the amount of pathfinding you seem to have done, just solving problems that haven’t been solved before. I wonder for people coming into your profession now, if those problems just aren’t there.

I think there’s a lot of truth to that. I remember about maybe four or five years ago, I was at one of the laboratories here, looking at a print of some film, and the guy who was the colour timer was telling me that so many of the young guys coming into cinematography now are used to electronic colour-timing and telecine and so forth because they work in commercials. And then when they got into colour timing at the laboratory, which was just photochemical, they were a little lost but overly expectant as far as what could be done. They were used to relying on fixing little things in the frame – that wall back there was too bright, they wanted to change the colours and things, and so they came up in an era where they could rely on the electronic process without the thought that went into it as you were shooting it. And I think that’s becoming more evident even now, when for special effects stuff, that it’s so easy to rely on the fact that so many things can be fixed or created in the computer. I’d say what defines your work is your expert use of light. It seems so carefully chosen, the amount of light that you put on a scene.

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Yeah, I think that’s important too. If you get used to thinking about creating the images in front of the lens, with the lighting and your careful choices, and you’re not dependent on fixing them later, then it makes you a lot more thoughtful as far as creating the original images that you’re doing. On the work you’re doing now, do you ever find yourself allowing you to go back and fix something later, or do you insist it must be done in front of the lens?

I try as much as possible, still, to do things in front of the lens. There are a lot of times now where you can rely on the fixing that can be done after the fact. Because there are times when you know it’s just going to take you half-an-hour to take some of light off the wall back there, and you can say, “Well, let’s do that in the DI, or in the electronic transfer. But of course that also means that you have to be involved in that process later, or things like that can slip through the cracks, so as much as possible I like to deliver the image that is as complete as possible so that something doesn’t get left out. You’ve come to one of the questions I was going to ask later – when’s your job done on the movie? When’s the point where you can walk away from the project, do you follow it right the way through the editing suite, or is it once it’s shot, it’s shot?

I try to follow it through…and it used to be that as soon as you were done shooting, the next step was just the final timing of the colour and so forth, which was literally the last step after all of the music and the editing was done.

But now, more and more, there are fixes the occur sort of during the editing process where the director will often say, “You know what? Let’s replace that sky”. Or, “let’s add a window over there”, or whatever. And so there’s the risk that the work that you do is going to be handled by other people. If they are, in fact, qualified people you’re fine, but it can get out of hand if the work that’s done is just sort of capriciously done and not with an educated eye. Reading around about you, some of your work that’s clearly got such a huge fanbase are the films that you did with John Carpenter, particularly Halloween. Would you say that’s been one of your fondest collaborations?

I think so. It was one of my very earliest steps into working with a director who knew the importance of the camera, of the visual image as far as storytelling, and was willing to take the time to elaborate and embellish a moment using the camera.

I had been working previously with directors who used the camera to record actors talking. John was one of the first directors to say, “No”. As we look at these old movies done by great old directors – you know he was very fond of Howard Hawks – he realised how you showed the audience the moment was as important as what the actors were saying. So Halloween really became my first gratifying steps into that area. Would you say that was your ‘break’, if you like?I think so. The films I had done before, while some of them were kind of interesting, they were in fact just sort of drive-in movie films. And Halloween was the first one that became a big enough success that everybody said, “Oh, those people are obviously skilled”. In Halloween you pretty much helped pioneer the Steadicam technique, but I’m guessing on a film like that you were more looking for a solution to a problem than trying to overtly break new ground.

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Well, yes and no. Actually John was very aware of the fact that the Steadicam was a new way to move the camera in a style where the audience may not have been absolutely aware of the fact that they were not just watching a hand-held camera, or a camera on a dolly, but a new kind of camera movement. So John was very aware of that, and as a result I was able to participate in creating a new subconscious feeling in the audience about how the camera moves and where it goes. That’s another area where you were ahead of the game, making the camera a character in a film. Was that always the ethos you were striving for?

I would say so, and I think that you if you look at early, old films from the 30s and 40s there were particular films that, as I look back at them now – you know, watching them on television or whatever – you can see that there were some directors who had pretty sophisticated ideas about how to use the camera. And as a result you were sort of drawn into moments in the story telling.

So I think that part of it was instinctual on our part, having watched old movies and you sort of sense the fact that there are ways to draw the audience into it, but I think a lot of it was also consciously trying to say, “How can we apply the camera? How can we make the visuals tell the story as much as the dialogue and the action?” I re-watched Jurassic Park recently, while we’re talking about camera movements, and what’s particularly unsettling about it is a lot of the really small camera nudges, not the big overt sweeps or anything like that. It’s almost as if the camera’s not grounded for much of that film at all.

Yeah. One of the aspects of the film ‘language’ or ‘grammar’ that the audience has sort of been taught over a period of time is that certain little camera movements or compositions or things like that all have a particular kind of meaning or potential meaning, as far as visual storytelling. It’s really a lot of fun to examine that vocabulary of film, you might say, and say, “Okay, how can I apply just a little bit of a dolly move here to accentuate it, or keep the audience a little bit unsettled?”, or whatever you’re trying to do. And that’s an experience thing, I would guess, rather than anything they can teach you.

Yes, I think so.Also, you used lens flares in your John Carpenter films, and this was a technique that was once considered a ‘mistake’, but over time has just become more desirable and you’re seeing lots and lots of people do it. What was your thinking there?

It’s interesting, and I think that some of it is just, as I say, kind of instinctual. You know, you realise that a mistake in film is sometimes an important way of telling the audience that they’re watching reality. I was always struck by the fact that in old films, especially the early colour ones, you could always tell when they were shooting an ‘exterior’ scene on a stage and when they were really outdoors. Because on the stage, it was possible to make the lighting very even and almost too perfect. And that perfection always said to me at least, and I think subconsciously to the audience, that we weren’t watching a real situation, that it was a set that was constructed on a stage, a moment that was not real. And I think that more and more now, they deliberately add, and sometimes too much, they add the imperfection to a film – you know, the shaky camera, and so forth, that is trying to create the illusion of reality.You moved on to some very big films, but what would you say are the practical differences between the cinematography of a low-budget film and its higher-budget counterpart. Particularly, is it a myth that you get more time on a bigger-budget film?

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Well you do get more time, but usually it’s been allocated to bigger things. So it isn’t that I would, as a cinematographer, get more time necessarily to create something, but a lot of times it’s taken up with the fact that you’re working on a larger set so your time is taken up with moving equipment to a location, and constructing larger sets and so forth. And while you do get more time and more equipment, sometimes it’s not always a good thing. It’s eaten up by guys rigging up little bits of wire, and things like that, that are not obvious to the audience, and sometimes you just wonder of they are really necessary.

There are two superlatives that have come up time and time again aimed in your direction. One I thought was really interesting was ‘The Master of Widescreen’. Digging into your work, you don’t steadfastly stick with 1.85:1 or 2.35:1, you do vary between productions.

Yes. And sometimes that’s quite true, sometimes it’s fear on the part of the studio, and shooting widescreen. There was a whole period where because they immediately started thinking that the film was going to be shown on television, they didn’t want to waste the frame. And of course it’s never really a waste of frame. And now, the fact that they’re starting to letterbox films so that you can see that whole thing gives you a little more choice to do widescreen and to do things with an aspect ratio that is more complementary to the story. Do you have a preferred aspect ratio to shoot in?

Um, well I’ve always kind of favoured the 2.35:1, the wide, anamorphic frame, or whatever we would try to call it generically. Because I think it gives you a lot of creative possibilities, you know. The first objection to that a lot of the time comes from sometimes directors but often producers who say, “You can’t frame a close-up with that”. And well, yes you can, but what you’re saying is that you look at a film as only valuable in the close-ups of the actors. There is a great deal more that you can put in the frame that tells the story and enthrals the audience. And I’m a believer in finding ways to fill the frame with the storytelling. There’s a story going around that when you came to Apollo 13 you didn’t shoot it anamorphically simply because you couldn’t get the lenses.

It was kind of like that. We didn’t shoot it anamorphically because the depth of field, how close you can focus a lens, is limited. And Ron [Howard, director] and I talked about being very aware of not putting the camera outside the capsule, not breaking the ‘fourth wall’. We didn’t want the audience to ever feel the camera was in a place that it couldn’t be in real-life in the capsule. So we consciously made a choice to go to Super 35, although we could use spherical lenses that would allow us to put the camera, the lens plane, inside the wall of the capsule. Going back to the two superlatives, the other one was that you’re ‘a genius at shooting in the dark’. And you do seem to be able to wring all sorts of tension and great moments from all sorts of dimly-lit scenes.

To me that was always the challenge, because there’s a conflict when you’re shooting in the dark that it has to be light enough for the audience to be able to see, and to be able to see what it is, and yet it has to look like it’s dark enough that the character, the actor, can’t see. So it’s a very, very careful case of lighting just the things that seem logical and yet hiding, all of the suspense and so forth. To me that’s always one of the greatest challenges, that we, cinematographers, are faced with is creating the illusion of dark. Was it the Halloween films and the Psycho sequel that really allowed you to fine-tune that?

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Yeah, I think so. Certainly that and The Thing, was another example of a lot of action and storytelling that took place in the dark. And that’s where I became the most thoughtful, but also had the most flexibility. I mean – in the case of John, he was not afraid of having dark areas in the frame because he understood the importance. Compared to other directors, who would say, “Well, it’s dark, I can’t see the wall in the corner back there”, and so it was a case of being allowed the flexibility to experiment. Some of your favourite work of mine is in the Back to the Future movies, of which I’m an enormous fan and I suspect a lot of people you meet are. What strikes me about the first one, in fact the first sequel as well, is the balancing act of it. There are very distinguishable 50s and 80s elements in the film, and I’m wondering do you differ much in the way you shoot those?

Yes, as a matter of fact we’ve just had a screening here, and I went to it and we had a little question-answer period with the audience, and I was able to watch it again on a big screen that I hadn’t for a while, and it reminded me of the fact that we made such very conscious choices in shooting the film. The 50s we deliberately used warmer light, a little bit softer light to kind of create that nostalgic look back, consciously with the audience. And the 80s were sharper, more contrasty and a little cooler as far as the colour of the light. And you carried that through to the second film as well? There’s an on-screen contrast between the two different versions of the 80s that were shown.

Yeah, we deliberately did that also, what we called the ‘Biff-Horrific’ period, the 80s has been changed quite a bit. That was a style that was even more contrasty and darker, and cooler light, and then we tended to use other elements. There was smoke whenever we could, and so forth, and then when we went to the 50s, or the pleasant 80s, we tended to use, again, slightly warmer colours and softened the image by putting a little bit of atmosphere, a little bit of smoke or whatever in the set so there was a little bit of a glow around the windows, and a softening of the background.

Again, we’re back to much of the distinction in front of the lens?

Yes.

You came to Back to the Future off Romancing The Stone, again with Robert Zemeckis directing. And Romancing The Stone, from what you’ve said about it, has sounded like an exhausting job.

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Yes, actually, it was probably the hardest job physically and as far as working on locations and stuff that I had done up until that point. It was one of those things that I think we had to overcome certain aspects of that, but also it allowed us to embrace certain parts of it too. You know, we had a lot of rain and so forth and so we were always working in mud. But at the same time it created a great illusion of hardship for the characters, and also, because the rain was constantly washing the bushes and the trees and everything, the colours were a little more vivid when they needed to be. It was one of those things that we were conscious of while we were working and tried to use. Did the two projects in any way overlap? Because there didn’t seem to be much turn-around time between them.

Only to a certain extent that there was very little time in between the two, that with the success of Romancing The Stone, Bob was very quickly able to get the next project going, which was Back To The Future. So…we were off and running very quickly. Just one last question on Back To The Future – when it came to do the sequels, we’ve seen films done back-to-back now, but back then it just wasn’t common at all. I’d imagine the challenge for you is that in many ways they were two very different films, not least one seemed very light, the other very dark.

Yeah. And I think that was one of the things that was most intriguing about both of them. We had literally two weeks off between them and the decision had been made – because originally it was one script – that it was going to be one sequel. And the script was too long, but as they tried trimming it and cutting, and rearranging, but it always meddled with the story and the various points it had to link.

So it was a very clever decision to say, “Fine, well we’ll just make two films out of it”. It was fun because was could think of them as one, long, continuous story, and we were able to relate to what we had he done in one period to one scene to another scene and so forth, and it was easier to remember exactly how we had done it. So I think it really made them a great, enjoyable project, and in many ways paved the way, I think, for other people to say, “Wow, we should think of this film as a trilogy, or whatever, we’ll do the same as we did on Back To The Future, we’ll shoot the two sequels together”. There was also Who Framed Roger Rabbit?, which just seemed to rip up the rule book. I read one interview with you where you got told by Disney animators what you should do, and you just went and ignored a lot of it. You must have made a hell of a job for yourself?

Yeah, as Bob Zemeckis said, Roger Rabbit was about all of the right people being at the right place at the right time. We were all off on this journey together, it wasn’t like one person directing and dragging a lot of people along, we all really embraced the project as ground-breaking and understood that we were going to be doing things that hadn’t been done before, that we were going to be finding ways to do them. And that we had, for the most part, the blessing of Disney after we had shot our little 30-second test and they saw what was possible and what we were going to attempt to do, they said, “Oh, we get it, okay. So, good luck”. So we were all off on this journey with a positive attitude, together. Do you ever have a moment where you sit and you think “You’ve made a rod for your own back here”?

Film is all about creativity, and if you look of the history of film and you look at the old movies and go, “Oh, look what those people did”, and you’ll look at a film like The Wizard of Oz, where people were out in areas that had never been done before, and you say, “Well, it’s certainly possible!”.

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There’s a tradition of film being able to go new places and try new things, so that there’s always a way to do it. And I was always inspired by the fact that our visual effects supervisor, Ken Ralston, from ILM, Industrial Light and Magic, he was never one to say no. I would work with other visual effects people who says, “Oh no, we’ve never done, we can’t do that!” as they were afraid of failure, or afraid that they were going to look bad at the company or something. Ken Ralston was one of these guys who said, we’ve never done that before, let’s see if we can do it, maybe we’ll find a way to do it – let’s shoot one version that’s really safe, but then go ahead and go out on a limb, and I would say probably 95 percent of the time, (Ken) and the guys at ILM would find a way to solve the visual effects difficulty. With that kind of camaraderie, we all had that attitude that, “Let’s just try it, let’s see if we can invent some way to do it”.

In 1992 and 1993, you had two films come out that, in different ways – and I don’t think that one of the films gets the credit it deserves – redesigned the way we look at integrating special effects into action. Jurassic Park I want to come to in a second, but Death Becomes Her – was a comedy where special effects are just part-and-parcel of so many shots in the film.

Again, the effects always took the backseat to the storytelling. They were just ways to draw the audience in to the moment, or the character, or the story point, as opposed to being a flashy moment. It really was integral, wasn’t it, you couldn’t imagine the film without it as well. Jurassic Park, for an assortment of reasons, must have been a phenomenally difficult film. The one scene that I always pick out is the raptors running around the kitchen with all those reflective surfaces. I dread to think how long that took.

That was actually one of the most complex and thoughtful sequences, and it’s always been one of my favourites in the film. Partly because when we walked into the set as it was being built, and I looked and saw that everywhere there was steel. But also it’s brushed stainless steel, which is particularly difficult because it reflects light and things in all directions. So we were constantly devising ways to hide the things that shouldn’t be seen, like lights and so forth, and yet create surfaces that the animators and compositors could put reflections in so that the illusion of reality was followed through with. Would you say that was the most taxing bit of the film?

I think it probably was, because we were combining puppetry with visual effects, creatures…and again, doing Jurassic Park, nobody had photorealistic creatures in the computer before, so none of us knew anything about what they were going to look like when they were in, composited, any of the techniques we were just inventing them as we went along. Every shot required a great deal of thought. I think that a lot of the credit goes to the fact that Steven [Spielberg] was willing to find ways to accommodate all of the unknown, and as I would think of a potential difficulty on a particular shot and explain it to him, he would say, “Oh, okay, well how do we fix it?” and he was willing to listen to it rather than dismissing it and saying “Don’t worry about it”, and finding out later that it was less rewarding than you had hoped. Steven Spielberg is one of several key collaborations you seem to have enjoyed through your career – John Carpenter, Robert Zemeckis, instantly spring to mind. Is there something that unites the way that they work that particularly appeals to you?

It all goes back to a director who understands the importance of using the camera to tell the story. That is what makes the great collaboration. Sometimes there are directors who may not understand exactly themselves how to do it, but they’re willing to listen. They collaborate, they’re willing to say, “Show me or tell me what you think should be done here”. That’s what makes for a great collaboration. And are you keen to work with any of them again?

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Oh yeah, I would work with any of them. I love working with all of them and the fact that they are visual storytellers is one of the key things I look for. You’re directing films yourself now, as well, I read the story about how you had seven million to film a forty million film, basically, with Honey We Shrunk Ourselves. Again, number one, was there always a thirsting to direct, and number two, were you attracted there just to the challenge of trying to cram so much out of so little?

I think it was a case of a film that was going to rely on the visuals, and how I could apply my experience and sensibilities. I’m actually hoping to do a little more directing, to go further into that. You were attached to Dark Horse for a while – is that still going?

Yes, we’re still in the midst of doing a re-write, so hopefully that’ll happen.One thing that strikes me about your career is how you’ve constantly beaten stereotypes. In your early career you could have just been bracketed in horror, as it went on there was science fiction and effects films, and the films that you’re doing now – Garfield, The Holiday, things like that – you’re just an incredibly tricky man to pin down.

The thing that I find interesting is the new challenge, so that you don’t always fall back on something you’ve done before – it’s like how to challenge yourself to think about something new, or how to use a particular genre in a way that might be a little more refreshing. So that’s one of the reasons I like to do different things. If you’re moving onto something like The Holiday, do you find that a more relaxed project in any way, or is it just presenting different challenges you’ve not met before?

It was presenting different challenges. You’re now faced with creating fun and comedy, and there was a little bit of different style. There was the English portion, there was Beverly Hills, so looking for subtle ways to take the audience into different worlds. I’m curious what your thoughts are on the digital revolution that’s going through now, and by that I mean the digital video cameras that more and more directors seem to be using. Do you think this is progress or do you think this is a move towards a slightly lazier kind of filmmaking?

Well, it’s sort of progress as far as just a technical development. Right now, the problem with digital capture is that there’s not as much dynamic range, as far as being able to capture from light to shadow as there is in film. There are certain issues – you know, the archiving issue… film is the best way to preserve, and keep things upwardly mobile for the future kind of transmission and display and everything.

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Right now, in some cases we’re taking a little step back when we go into digital. And people have to stay aware of that. You know, it’s very easy for the producers to say, “Oh well, we don’t need film, we don’t need the dailies…”. And part of that is the fact that there’s this illusion that because everybody has a camcorder at home that does everything for them, focus and exposure, that digital’s going to be easier.

The reality is that filmmaking is very, very careful decisions about what you show the audience and how you show it to them, and if it’s structured with the lighting, it’s structured with the focus, it’s structured with all of the technical things that are becoming automated with our consumer digital stuff. So there’s this illusion created for producers that “Well maybe we’re not gonna need to take time to do all this stuff any more”.

And the reality is that no, that’s all part of the language of filmmaking that’s important – how you light a scene, and what lens you use and where the focus is and all, is all part of visual storytelling. It needs to be a continued part of the vocabulary. And the fact that you might be able to shortcut a few of the post-production steps in-between, you can’t lose sight of the fact that you really want to be sure that you don’t do any decision-making that’s going to prevent you from keeping or archiving the film for future purposes. What are you up to now and what we can look forward from you next?

Well, at the moment I’m reading a couple of scripts, and I’m kind of waiting a go-ahead with my friend, we’ve got a documentary that we’ve been doing. And also I’m doing commercials in-between, because I find them kind of fun to do, it’s a different kind of filmmaking. So you’re almost doing that in reverse, really. A lot of the new people coming in are cutting their teeth on commercials and you’re almost relaxing a little bit with them. Relaxing’s probably the wrong word, but I think you know what I mean?

There are guys who learn on commercials looking for a chance to do a big feature, and while I’m looking for the next big feature challenge, I’m enjoying doing some commercials. Dean Cundey, thank you very much!

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