The American Society of Cinematographers

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The Thing
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The Thing

A Q&A with Dean Cundey, ASC, about his work on John Carpenter's The Thing.



Images courtesy of the Margaret Herrick Library/Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences and Universal Pictures.

 


There have been a few pivotal moments that informed my approach to cinematography and to filmmaking as a whole, certain influences that have inspired me along this beautiful road: 1) My introduction to the world of Stanley Kubrick, 2) Discovering the challenging and peerless work of the writer J.G Ballard, and 3) Hearing the extraordinary way in which anarchic genius Steve Albini masterfully records sound.

All have made an indelible mark on me, but none has had the lasting impact of my first viewing of John Carpenter’s "The Thing." It was during that first viewing — those long, dusty corridors, that relentlessly creeping camera, and the almost surreal performances framed within what I can only describe as a fantastical sub-surreal realism unique to that film — that I was marked by my first epiphany. At the tender age of 15, I became aware of the “cinematographer,” and the name Dean Cundey suddenly found its way into the pantheon of filmmakers on my mental wall of fame, which included Sergio Leone, David Lynch and, bizarrely, Terry Gilliam. (No offense, Terry.)

A certain instinct led me to watch the other Carpenter/Cundey collaborations, and I devoured with a passion the suburban William Eggleston-inspired mood of "Halloween"; the sparse atmosphere of "The Fog"; the extraordinarily theatrical beauty of "Escape from New York"; and, of course, the insurmountable perfection that is "The Thing." All were connected by a distinct, elegant, smoky naturalism that, for me, sat outside the mainstream and the common conception of what makes great cinematography.

Cundey’s work on these films inspired me to pursue the mystical path that is cinematography, and for that I am indebted to him. I don’t know the man, and I have never met him, but his work from that time still speaks to me. As a consequence, I regularly make the claim that every film I shoot, regardless of genre, is my humble attempt to re-create the feeling — and that’s what it is, a feeling — that the sublime beauty of "The Thing" gives me over and over again when I watch it.

 — Rob Hardy, BSC

Dean Cundey, ASC, was already an experienced cinematographer in the low-budget world when he and director John Carpenter changed horror forever with Halloween (1978). Four years later, they jumped from the indie realm into big-budget studio filmmaking with The Thing (1982), which went on to become a genre classic and still inspires young filmmakers today.

AC recently spoke with Cundey about the project. Here are some excerpts from the conversation.

American Cinematographer: The original The Thing [The Thing from Another World, 1951] is one of the movies the kids watch on television in Halloween, so I assume it was a film you and Carpenter liked. Did you revisit it when you were preparing for the remake?

Dean Cundey, ASC: John was a big Howard Hawks fan, and The Thing was one of his favorites, which is why he paid homage to it in Halloween. When we were getting ready to shoot our version, we ran it a couple of times for inspiration — John had this newfangled thing that he called a videotape player — but a lot of what we wanted to do developed as we were prepping. One point of departure was that John wanted to use very authentic-looking locations as opposed to just building exteriors on the studio lot. The success of Halloween and The Fog gave John the clout and credibility to take on a more sizable project compared to the schedules and budgets we had had previously. I was really fortunate to be able to work on that larger canvas, and we tried to give the movie a lot of production value right from the start.

Where did you shoot the exteriors?

Cundey: A scout found a place outside of Stewart, British Columbia, which was the last ice-free port up the coast of Canada. The area was chosen not only for the scenic value it added to the few daytime shots we had, but also for its accessibility. It was an isolated little mining town, sort of like the Old West, with small wooden buildings and a culture of miners who would come down from the mine on this winding, precarious road. We stayed in the town and would ride up this twisty, very narrow road to the location up on top of some rocks that overlooked a glacier. They built the set on these rocks during the summer, and then we waited until it got snowed in to shoot there.

That set was designed by John Lloyd, right?

Cundey: Yes. John was a great production designer with a huge amount of experience and history behind him. He was great at being able to access exactly what was needed for the story while also constructing for really good camera angles and scenic value. It was my first experience with old-school art directing, where your questions and thoughts are considered in a really advanced way. It was a revelation to me.

You also got to work with the legendary matte painter Albert Whitlock, who did so much innovative work with Hitchcock and on films like Earthquake and The Hindenburg.

Cundey: Whitlock had been on staff at Universal and had his own shop there, and I would go over to his studio and talk to his cameraman, Bill Taylor [ASC]. Whitlock was another old-school guy who knew how to take a painting that had no real life and make it look real with little touches here and there — shadows, clouds that appeared to be moving, things like that. As with John Lloyd, it was a window into the kind of skill and artistry that had developed over years and years in the business.

One interesting aspect of The Thing is that you had veterans like that on the team, and there’s a real reverence for classical studio filmmaking, yet the movie also looks forward in terms of visual effects with the work of Rob Bottin, who was young and quite modern in his approach. I think one of the innovations The Thing brought to the genre was the idea that what you see can be scarier than what you don’t see. You lit the transformation scenes with a lot of clarity and detail, showing the effects instead of obscuring them.

Cundey: That evolved when Rob started working and I saw him sculpt some of the first creatures. When he made the transforming dog, he said, ‘I can only do so much to make this look real. The rest of it is up to you.’ It was evident to me that his sculpting was so great that we needed to see the creature. I hated to relegate it to silhouettes or something like that, but I also knew that if we went too far, we could give away the fact that it was a lump of plastic with paint on it. I worked with Rob to develop this idea that we would set up each encounter in an area where we could justify using a number of very, very small lights that would highlight areas, surfaces and textures. Then I would light the back wall of the set so that you could see the shape of the creature. It became a very interesting game of showing just enough for the audience to understand what was happening while still keeping the creature a little mysterious.    

Originally, I wanted to vary the camera speed during the transformations because Rob and I thought they might be more interesting if we didn’t shoot them at regular speed. We went through a couple of iterations, trying to vary the speed from very fast motion to slow motion all in one shot, and, of course, the technical challenge was that as you vary the frame rate, the exposure changes. As you increase the speed to slow the image down, everything gets darker because the negative is seeing less light. We worked with Panavision and a couple other companies to try to develop a camera that would automatically adjust the exposure, and we got kind of close, but we never succeeded. Of course, now that kind of thing is relatively easy.

 

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