[Interview] Cinematographer Dean Cundey on the Art of Illusion in Film

Dean Cundey has been the eye through which we have watched some of the most iconic moments in movie history, from Halloween and Back to the Future to Roger Rabbit and Jurassic Park, films that take audiences to another place that doesn’t exist in real life but still feel like our world, and it is this illusion in film that first inspired Cundey to become a cinematographer.

He has worked with many of the most respected directors and distinctive filmmakers, from Carpenter and Spielberg to Zemeckis and Howard, and has quite literally captured the unforgettable images that colored the movie memories of more than a generation and solidified these filmmakers as masters of the craft.

A documentary about Cundey’s life and work is currently in pre-production and will likely one day be essential viewing for all aspiring filmmakers on what it is to use the camera in the storytelling.

I had pleasure of sitting down to talk to Dean about his career, which was born out of his fascination with film’s power to transport an audience, following the historic H40: Forty Years of Terror Halloween 40th anniversary convention in Pasadena, in October 2018.

Read on for our interview with Dean Cundey on the challenges of doing what no one has done before, creating classics, and the art of cinematography.

HDN's Matt Artz interviewing Dean Cundey (photo by Sue Artz for Halloween Daily News)
HDN’s Matt Artz interviewing Dean Cundey (photo by Sue Artz for Halloween Daily News)

For anyone who doesn’t know; what does a cinematographer do?

Film is all about an image. You sit and you watch it on a screen, you watch it on your TV at home, whatever. All of those images are captured – originally on film and now on digital – and what it takes to capture it is a lot of science, but also aesthetics and so forth, which is: Where does the camera go to tell the story for the audience? What is the lighting? Lighting is necessary for a film to see and so what is the lighting to create the mood, how bright, how dark. Is it contrasty? Is it sunny outside? Is it gloomy at night?

All of that stuff is the domain of the cinematographer, capturing the images according to what the director wants to do or say in order to portray the emotion, the story, the characters, and so forth. So any image that’s up on the screen has passed through the control and the mind of the cinematographer.

Did you go to film school?

Yes, I went to UCLA Film School. I had wanted to be a filmmaker, cinematographer since I was kid about nine or 10 years old. But you need some training, so I went to UCLA Film School. There are a lot of guys who just sort of moved up the ladder by getting a job without going to film school, but I felt it was important to get sort of the all-around education you get (at film school). They teach you also about story writing and editing and all kinds of things. So I went to film school.

Then I began to work, fortunately, right out of film school doing various jobs on little movies and little projects. So it was a long process for me, but it was all one of great joy and learning.

You said it was always something you wanted to do since you were a kid. What made you know that that’s what you wanted to do so young?

 When I was a kid, we would go to the movies quite a bit. And then when I was a little older, like 12 years old or so, my mother would drop us off at the kids matinee in Alhambra (Los Angeles), right nearby here (the Pasadena Convention Center). We would see 10 or 15 cartoons and then the main feature. Usually it was aimed at the young audience, so it would be like Snow White or something like that.  

I saw 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, the Disney version. And I was so enamored with the fact that these guys were filming this, but they were creating illusion. They were creating a world that didn’t exist, and they got us to believe it. And I was interested in illusion, so I said, ‘I want to be one of those guys to make people believe that they are somewhere they can’t go in real life.’

And you have definitely done that. With Halloween, it was such a landmark film, how did you come up with so many innovative new techniques to use? How much of that was figuring it out as you go versus (director) John Carpenter saying ‘This is what I need’ and you saying, ‘I know how to do that.’

It’s always a combination of good pre-visualization and knowing how to do it, but also finding those – what you might call happy accidents – or finding your way as you go. Sometimes it’s easy to visualize what the scene should be or how it should look. Other times you sort of discover as you go along. I think it’s always a combination.

What stands out the most to you now looking back on Halloween?

Halloween was a combination of good opportunities, good luck, and skill. We didn’t have much money, but John had a really good vision of what he wanted to do with the story he and Debra (Hill) wrote. And he was good at not only translating that to me, but also giving me the opportunity to collaborate, to offer suggestions on how to execute what it was that he wanted. So I think it was a combination of factors that allowed it to happen, and a combination of a really good crew that was also interested in executing better than it deserved for the budget.

It’s always a case of a lot of good people understanding what should be done, being given the opportunity to collaborate, to join in, to offer suggestions, and that’s what happened with Halloween.

I’ve heard John say in interviews that he would hire the best people and let them do their thing, whether it was actors or behind the camera, because he would hire the best person and then not have to tell them what to do the whole way.

You worked with John Carpenter five times (Halloween, The Fog, Escape from New York, The Thing, Big Trouble in Little China). Obviously you like working him.

When I first started with him on Halloween, I had worked on a lot of low budget movies, but he was the first director (I worked with) who I think really realized what visual storytelling was, how to use the camera to engage the audience and to tell the story. So I really appreciated that immediately. And you know, I think that continued, because we did five movies where that followed through.

It must have been a mutual thing, because obviously he wanted you back. You said in the panel earlier today how Debra Hill had stated at an early screening that everyone who worked on this film approached it as if it might be a classic one day. Was that the first time that it was suggested that it might be classic one day?

 I don’t think we really had any aspirations that the film was going to be a classic. It was just one we made for the times. But I think her point was that we approached it as if we were going to dedicate ourselves to that idea, to approach it with dignity, as far as telling the story.

I think that is something that sets Halloween apart from so many other horror films. It has a certain seriousness and elegance to it. You just feel that you’re watching something that’s so much more elevated even than what’s happening on screen sometimes.

Exactly. Like I said, I worked on films before that had action and adventure, gunfights and beautiful girls, all kinds of things that were there to attract an audience, but nobody really understood how to engage the audience in all of that. With John it was a case of realizing that to tell the story with the camera you have to follow certain rules you might say, as far as how people see and react and interpret.

And he never wastes a frame. There’s never wasted space. Obviously that’s something that he worked out with you every step of the way it sounds like.

Exactly.

I’ve heard stories of how he wanted the film to get more and more claustrophobic to by the time you’re in that closet with Laurie (Jamie Lee Curtis) at the end. Can you talk a little about how you achieved that?

I think some of it is just a sense that you have when you’re making it, the sensibility to say, ‘This scene appears later, so it’s got to be darker or spookier. You don’t really sit and plan exactly every shot. You can do that. There is storyboarding where directors will sit and plan exactly every single shot.

We just sort of had an idea of how the film should be. As a result, we, I guess you might say, reacted instinctually to the storytelling and how we had to put it together.

Dean Cundey at H40: Forty Years of Terror on October 14, 2018. (photo: Halloween Daily News)

And did you find that Halloween helped you find more work on bigger films right away or did it still take a while after?

It took a little while, but it certainly elevated the playing field. And those people who had projects that required a little more sophistication recognized the fact that Halloween had that and those people (who made Halloween) could provide it. So it was an important step to get the attention of bigger projects.

After its success, everybody said, ‘Oh, horror films! Yeah!’ So I got immediate calls for doing everybody’s horror film, but I didn’t want to get typed. You have to be careful of that, so I was careful to choose different things. I did a little low budget musical, various things like that. It was something I had to be careful of. You do something well, an actor does a character well, they immediately think of him as (that type of character) even though he can play something else.

I didn’t want to get typed as the guy who could make it scary. As a result, I’ve been able to shift from one type of film to another.

I always looked for the opportunity to do something new and unusual, to create the illusion that interested me as kid. So a lot of the films (that I worked on) are ones that take the audience on a journey where they can’t go in real life.

With stuff like Back to the Future, Who Framed Roger Rabbit, Hook, Jurassic Park, all of those films create that same kind of escapism that inspired you in the beginning.

Definitely.

Working with Carpenter and then later working with somebody like Steven Spielberg (on Hook and Jurassic Park), did you like working with the big budget stuff more or less than the lower budget stuff?

It’s interesting, because as the budget gets bigger, so does the film and so does everything that you have to accomplish, so it isn’t as if you really have a lot of extra money. It’s always being spent on the movie – bigger locations, bigger sets, more expensive actors, all of that – so bigger films, even though it seems like they’re luxurious for time, aren’t necessarily, but they give you bigger canvas on which to paint.

Your sets are bigger, your scenes are more dramatic. Big films have their advantages. Recently they’ve gotten to the point where so much of it is digital and fantasy and fantastic stuff that you don’t really get to be completely a part of that, because a lot of the sequence is given to the visual effects people and the second unit shoots stuff. You’re only a piece of the puzzle.

So I like smaller indie films, because you get to be completely creative. And because of the challenge of the budget, you have to be creative on that level.    

And so much of it is not CGI but all done there in camera.

Exactly right. You have to understand how you want to tell the story and you have to do it without the tremendous advantage, sometimes, of digital.

Something like Roger Rabbit was so cutting edge for its time. (Dean received an Oscar nomination for Best Cinematography for 1988’s Who Framed Roger Rabbit.) That must have been a whole other realm of challenging for you.

It was. It’s one of the last films I think where the animation was done with pencil on paper and painting cells, so each frame was hand painted. It wasn’t digital anything at that point. They didn’t have digital anything. It was really a dip into very old school animation techniques and taking those techniques past what had been done before. It was very rewarding to have been part of that.

In most of the films, it’s taking a storytelling technique and taking it the next step, embellishing it, adding to it, finding new ways, and being aware of the technology that’s available to allow you to do that, but in a great, interesting way.

Do you have a personal favorite genre to work in?

I think if I said I liked any particular genre, it doesn’t really exist as one, but anything in real life that’s impossible – creating the illusion, once again, of something that doesn’t exist. I can’t say I like any particular genre, I just like storytelling that uses imagination.

Looking at your filmography, you can definitely see that. Even with Halloween, I love that they created their own town of Haddonfield, a place that doesn’t exist in reality.

A lot of that is accessible to an audience. They have to be able to believe that, unless it’s a complete science fiction or fantasy film, if you want them to associate it with what can happen in their lives or an area around them. Then you want to create something that is accessible to an audience, but still has your own imagination imprinted on it.

What are your thoughts on the digital age that we’re now in, having come from the world of film?

I think that digital visual effects, the way we can alter an image with color and light and contrast, are all a great tool, but like any tool, you have to use it properly. A lot of times it’s possible for digital to go over the top to create stuff that is obviously not possible, and so those become types of films that are obviously fantasy and you have to accept them on those terms.

But I like when digital visual effects create a little twist on reality, so that an audience is being led down a path of how it could actually be in real life, and then you surprise them and do something that again creates illusion so that it’s a world that they can relate to as an audience.

[Tommy Lee Wallace interrupts politely to say goodbye to Dean.]

 All of you guys seem like you truly get along and enjoy each other’s company, and that’s so awesome to see.

I think we like the shared experience that we went through, the shared experience that we do, relating to each other’s careers, lives, accomplishments, and I think Halloween was a case of we all got along in the first place and then the film was a big success so we could all share in the sense of accomplishment. So for that reason, we really enjoy seeing each other, participating in conventions and panel discussions and all kinds of things.

Dean Cundey at H40: Forty Years of Terror on October 13, 2018. (photo: Halloween Daily News)

We’re here at the 40th anniversary of Halloween. What do you think is the lasting appeal of that film?

Horror as a genre is possible because it allows you to experience an event, an emotion, something that you really don’t want to go through in real life, a guy chasing you with a knife, and they’re chasing you because you identify with the character, if the movie is good. So I prefer that kind of horror over the fantastical stuff with zombies and monsters, supernatural and stuff like that. I know that couldn’t happen. To me there’s kind of a separation.

Now obviously a lot of people like that, because fantasy is a very popular thing, but I think the real horrors, and blending into thrillers and suspense, are all about situations that are possible in real life. That’s what creates in you the emotion of fear or apprehension.

And, as Carpenter has said in the past, we’re all basically scared of the same things.

Exactly. That’s what’s important to understand, because I think it’s easy to just say, ‘Okay, well we’ll put a zombie in this movie and everyone will be scared.’ No, not if you don’t like the main characters or the situation is so fantastical that people say, ‘Oh, that couldn’t have happened.’

I know you can’t pick a favorite, but is there any one of the films you worked on that sticks out to you above any others.

I always point to three films: Roger Rabbit because of the animation and storytelling we did with that, Jurassic Park because it made people believe that dinosaurs existed again, and then the Back to the Future trilogy because it touches all of us – Who wouldn’t want to go back in time to fix something? – and it’s done by a charming character who everyone identified with positively.

Jurassic Park is another one like Roger Rabbit that was a landmark moment as far as the technology in that film. And the effects hold up 100% today.

Absolutely. Nobody had made a photo-realistic creature in a computer prior to that. It’s easy to forget that, because you see them on commercials every day. At the time it was brand new and we were inventing the techniques.

And what it did I think is it told a story where the awe and wonder of seeing dinosaurs come to life again, in a way that nobody had ever seen because the technology didn’t exist, and I just think that that’s something that can be missed when they make sequels. The sequels become monster movies, as opposed to ones about dinosaurs coming back to life. I think it’s tough to do a sequel like that. It would be nice if they could figure out a new twist on it, but that’s up to the writers.

Obviously there were all kinds of challenges as you were inventing those techniques. I imagine you were right there in the middle of all of that, offering your input.

And I think the fact that I had done the same kind of thing with Roger Rabbit, including things on the screen that didn’t exist, it was something I could bring to it, that kind of sensibility and thought process, but with a different kind of character.

So you’ve got this documentary going on now. Are you still shooting and do you have other projects you’re working on?

I came back from doing some commercials in South Dakota just before the convention. I really enjoy shooting small films. It’s a way to keep your creativity going and your thought processes, rather than saying, ‘Okay, I retire. I guess I’ll go watch some TV.’

Anything we can look forward to outside of the documentary coming up?

Everybody’s always got a project. They’re trying to raise money, and nowadays it’s tough to. Even though horror films are always popular, guys trying to make a new one that will interest somebody with money so they can actually make it is always tricky. I have friends who have been trying to raise money for years, always hopeful, always optimistic, but there’s always something that happens.

If you could give any advice to kids today thinking of trying to get into film, maybe like you they’re seeing some of these films and saying ‘I want to create imaginary worlds and transport the audience through cinematography’, what would you tell them?

 It’s always about experience. It’s about doing and learning, and then making mistakes. It’s about never giving up on your dream if that’s something you really want to do. That’s the big test. It’s sort of like you start and you dream, and there are a couple of failures or somebody doesn’t hire you, and you say, ‘Oh, I guess I’ll go into that insurance company after all and shuffle papers.’

To me, it’s always keep the dream alive, always be looking for the opportunities where you can prove yourself and you can network with people. That’s how a lot of it is, you do a good job for somebody, you give 110%, and they remember you and say ‘Let’s get that guy.’ That’s a lot of it, the mindset of not giving up.

And don’t listen to those people when they say ‘No’.

HDN's Matt Artz with Dean Cundey at H40: Forty Years of Terror. (photo by Sue Artz for Halloween Daily News)
HDN’s Matt Artz with Dean Cundey at H40: Forty Years of Terror. (photo by Sue Artz for Halloween Daily News)

[See all of our coverage from H40: Forty Years of Terror here.]

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[Interview] Cinematographer Dean Cundey on the Art of Illusion in Film