“Nothing ruffled Dean, even when I was pushing him,” director Steven Spielberg says with a laugh, referring to Dean Cundey, ASC, this year’s ASC Lifetime Achievement honoree. “And I push a lot to get as many shots a day as I possibly can.” Spielberg tapped Cundey to shoot Hook (AC Dec. ’91) and then Jurassic Park (AC June ’93) after admiring the cinematographer’s work on Who Framed Roger Rabbit (AC July ’88) and Back to the Future (AC Dec. ’89), which Spielberg produced and Robert Zemeckis directed.
“Dean relieves the pressure of production just with his dry, wry sense of humor and his cool, collected demeanor,” Spielberg adds. “He brings a calming influence to the entire company, including the actors.”
Kurt Russell, who starred in three films Cundey shot for John Carpenter — Escape from New York (1981), The Thing (1982) and Big Trouble in Little China (AC June ’86) — wholeheartedly agrees. In fact, Russell recommended Cundey to Zemeckis when the director was looking for someone to shoot Romancing the Stone (1984). “Bob was looking for a very even-keeled cinematographer because he knew Romancing the Stone would be a very trying and difficult shoot,” Russell recalls. “He wanted somebody who had a great temperament and great abilities, and that’s Dean. He is very smart, levelheaded and unflappable, and he has a wonderful dry wit.”
Cundey’s equanimity is leg-endary. William Coss, Cundey’s first assistant on such films as What Women Want (2000) and The Holiday (2006), says, “Dean never raises his voice, and he goes about things in a logical manner that makes it easier on everybody.” Raymond Stella, who served as the camera operator for Cundey on more than 30 pictures, notes, “I never actually heard Dean curse, but I was told it happened — once.”
Cundey credits his parents with helping him learn how to roll with the punches. “They encouraged my sister and me to pursue activities that interested us, but they never chastised us for doing something that didn’t succeed,” he says. “It was always, ‘What did you learn from that?’ That helped me develop a tolerance for things not going right.”
His mother, Margaret Unger Cundey, was an especially important influence in his life. “She taught my sister and me critical thinking, how to analyze life situations. When dealing with people, it’s very important to not rob them of their dignity, even if they have offended you. I remember my mother saying, ‘Don’t get angry. That person is trying to make you [feel small] or make himself look better.’ And she herself was always so reasonable. It was never, ‘You have to do this because I’m your mother.’ It was always, ‘You should do this, and here’s why.’
Cundey considers himself fortunate to have grown up when and where he did. He was born in the Los Angeles suburb of Alhambra in 1946. “With the war over, America went into this happy, Leave It to Beaver period,” he remarks. “It was a time of economic growth, and all that stuff that made for a comfortable social structure.” He was fascinated with science, magic and movies from an early age, and he also possessed a keen curiosity about how things worked.
He was 8 or 9 years old when he saw 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, and when Disneyland opened the following year, he explored the sets that were put on display. “It had all looked and seemed so real onscreen, but then I wandered around the sets and saw that things were made of plywood and covered with brown stucco to look like rust,” he recalls. “I understood the illusion.”
Cundey bought his first issue of American Cinematographer when he was 14, but when he started thinking seriously about pursuing a career in filmmaking, he decided to become a production designer. When he paid a visit to the Art Directors Guild and asked what he should study in college, he was advised to pursue a degree in architecture. “I looked at what was required for a major in architecture,” recounts Cundey. “Drawing? Okay. Graphics? Okay. Calculus, beam stressing and structural analysis? Wait a minute. That seemed overkill for what I wanted to do. My mother, on the other hand, was delighted because she felt I could at least fall back on kitchen and bathroom remodels if moviemaking didn’t work out!”
Cundey attended California State University-Los Angeles for two years and then transferred to the University of California-Los Angeles to study film. One of his UCLA instructors was legendary cinematographer James Wong Howe, ASC, and Howe’s teaching assistant was future ASC member Stephen H. Burum. “All the students were dedicated, but people have certain talents, and it was clear that Dean grasped lighting and camera,” recalls Burum. “It was just in [his] DNA.”
Cundey credits Howe with finally steering him toward cinematography. “He taught us the mechanics of working with lights as well as the artistry. Because he was a working professional, he [gave us] a practical sense of working on a set. He would arrange a three-wall set and say, ‘Okay, today this is a seedy motel room,’ and he would light it from scratch, leading us through the thought process.”
Cundey’s first jobs after graduation were low-budget affairs on which he accepted any position available, including makeup artist, editor and gaffer. To market himself as a cinematographer more effectively, he customized a Dodge Maxi van and outfitted it with camera and lighting equipment. He also put together a crew, which included Stella.
Stella still marvels at Cundey’s patience. On their first job together, a short film, they were shooting high speed when the magazine jammed. “We had already shot half the mag,” recalls Stella. “It was the first jam I’d ever dealt with, and I didn’t know what to do, so I pulled the film out and took it over to Dean. ‘Is that the film we just shot?’ he asked. I said, ‘Yes,’ and he said, ‘Oh. Next time, save as much as you can.’ Most guys would have torn my head off!”
Cundey’s lifelong passion for science and technology has proven a tremendous asset in the face of the industry’s constant evolution. “We make the real world bow to imagination, and we use science-based, real-world things to achieve that,” he observes.
“Dean not only embraces new technology, he also understands it!” Carpenter notes wryly.
Spielberg recalls wanting a radical key-to-fill ratio for Jurassic Park, “and I knew Dean could do it. Dean also 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. And he was great at separating the characters from the background.
“Dean also convinced me to build more sets,” Spielberg continues. “He said, ‘I can make the inside look like outside, and we’ll have much more control.’ He made us believe we were actually back in Hawaii — or, in the context of the story, Costa Rica.”