The American Society of Cinematographers

Loyalty • Progress • Artistry
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Return to Table of Contents February 2014 Return to Table of Contents
The Monuments Men
Dean Cundey, ASC
Page 2
Edurado Serra, ASC, AFC
Richard Rawlings Jr., ASC
Presidents Desk
Filmmakers Forum
ASC Close-Up

Cundey loves confronting new challenges. “On Jurassic Park, we were in completely unfamiliar territory, and we constantly had to be thinking. You can’t run on autopilot or fall back on formulas in that kind of situation. We were trying to sell the audience on the idea that dinosaurs had actually been created, and the audience really does buy it!”

As impressed as Cundey was by the CGI creatures, he consid-ered Winston’s animatronic dinosaurs equally mind-blowing. The T-Rex was 18' high and operated by a sophisticated computer system. “You had to be very careful when standing around the creature,” says the cinematographer. “If the computer shorted out for any reason, the [T-Rex] could lunge!”

Visual-effects supervisor Ken Ralston, who worked with Cundey on Roger Rabbit, Death Becomes Her (1992) and the Back to the Future trilogy, declares, “When you’re on a film with Dean, it’s really teamwork. He is interested in the technical problems we have to solve, and he is incredibly helpful in getting what we need to make the shots work. Plus, he is just hilarious. The demands on a Zemeckis film are great, and Dean met them with aplomb and panache, and he also kept me and everybody else chuckling.”

Cundey earned an Academy Award nomination for Roger Rabbit,  which combined hand-drawn animation with live-action footage, requiring compositing via an optical printer. “Dean helped create a lot of the motion-control techniques used in Roger Rabbit,” notes Burum. Cundey also worked with Industrial Light & Magic on designing the two VistaFlex cameras used to shoot the picture. “ILM did a brilliant job building them from scratch,” says Cundey.

The custom cameras required blimps, and companies in New York and London (where most of the film was shot) said they would take six months to build. With production set to begin in three weeks, Cundey, who was in England, researched sound-deadening materials, purchased a drawing board and drawing instruments, and sketched several diagrams, which he then sent to ILM. “Their shop built the blimp and shipped it over to England, and it fit,” he recalls.

“My dad is really excited by figuring out how to do something that has never been done before,” says Christopher Cundey, the cinematographer’s son.

As a visual-effects artist and visual-effects supervisor, Christopher has collaborated with his father on several projects, among them the PBS documentary The Face: Jesus in Art (2001), for which Dean won an Emmy Award. The production filmed at St. Catherine’s Monastery in the Sinai desert, on the lowest level of the catacombs of Rome, and inside the Sistine Chapel. The senior Cundey describes the night spent in the Sistine Chapel: “Nobody had ever shot motion pictures of the images on the ceiling before, and the curator of the Vatican told us we would have to do it at night, when there would be no tourists. The Vatican even built a 40-foot scaffold for us so we could get level with the paintings! When we broke for dinner at midnight, the guards brought in these 200-year-old wooden pews for us to sit on. We sat there, eating our pasta and looking up at the ceiling.” His face lights up at the memory. “Nobody gets to do that! I so appreciate the opportunities my job has afforded me.”

Cundey joined the ASC in 1986 after being proposed for membership by Burum, Allen Daviau and John McPherson. He has since earned two ASC Award nominations, for Hook and Apollo 13 (AC June ’95), but he says he is especially proud to receive the Society’s Lifetime Achievement Award. “I was telling [ASC Awards Committee Chairman] Lowell Peterson that there are certain awards we covet, but they are typically for one project, whereas the Lifetime Achievement Award represents recognition for a lot of different things, the culmination of a variety of projects and achievements,” says Cundey. “It’s the best thing one could ever receive.”

Production designer Rick Carter, who collaborated with Cundey on Jurassic Park, maintains, “With Dean, the work is always about what the story and the director need. He never tries to show off what he can bring to the table. I have been fortunate to work with a lot of good collaborators, but I think Dean is a one-of-a-kind personality, in that he sets a tone that encourages everybody to rise to that level, yet he never tries to rise above everybody else. He’s not showy or flamboyant, and it’s great that the ASC is honoring him.”

Clyde Bryan, who has served as Cundey’s first assistant for more than 20 years, agrees, noting, “Dean’s success has never gone to his head. Many people change in this business, but not Dean.”

Cundey’s daughter, Michelle, observes, “Despite the long hours he worked, my father would spend hours with Chris and me on school projects. He has a real thirst for knowledge and is always reading or studying something on the side.”

Giving back is also important to Cundey, who has served as UCLA’s Cinematographer-in-Residence and taught lighting workshops and seminars at Mole-Richardson Co., the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, and the North Carolina School of Arts, among other locations.

Very early in his career, Cundey recalls, he had to shoot something day-for-night, and he had never used the technique before. He knew from reading AC that Conrad Hall, ASC had shot part of The Professionals day-for-night, and he also knew that Hall was shooting a film on the Paramount lot. He had never met Hall, “but I called the stage and asked for him, and, to my amazement, he came to the phone. I said, ‘You don’t know me, but I am about to shoot day-for-night for the first time, and I would like your advice.’ Connie said, ‘You know, it’s kind of hard to explain over the phone.’ I thought, ‘Okay, here’s the brush-off,’ but then he said, ‘Why don’t you come to the set and we’ll talk about it. Can you be here in an hour?’

“He arranged a drive-on pass for me, and we sat and talked while he worked. He’d go off and light and then come back to continue our discussion. ‘Day-for-night? Here’s what you’ve got to do ….’ Here’s a guy who had been nominated for an Academy Award, and I hadn’t even done a film he had heard of! I thought, ‘Wow, if I am ever in that position….”

Cundey pauses a moment. “Making the impossible seem plausible has always appealed to me.”

 

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