Shapes Of Light And Shadow: How Cinematographer Dean Cundey Shaped The Look Of The ‘80s

Originally published in the Halloween special issue of Birth.Movies.Death magazine in 2018.

John Carpenter gets most of the credit for Halloween’s simple, near-perfect craftsmanship. To be fair: he did a terrific job, a masterful director ramping up toward the height of his powers. But all films are collaborations, and Carpenter is only a part of the team that put Halloween together. Hats off, everyone, to the director of photography who helped make Halloween the masterpiece it is: the legendary Dean Cundey.

Cundey entered the film industry the same way many of his generation did: through the UCLA School of Theatre, Film, and Television. Long obsessed with moviemaking, having built model sets as a childhood hobby, Cundey emerged from film school in 1968, willing to take any job on offer. His output in those early years bore the prolificacy of a young professional hungry to build a body of work. 

Far from the high-budget blockbusters he’d eventually work on, Cundey’s early CV is littered with prominent exploitation films. Black Shampoo; The Witch Who Came From The Sea; The Human Tornado; Ilsa, Harem Keeper of the Oil Sheiks; Bare Knuckles; Rock and Roll High School; Roller Boogie – few projects were “below” Cundey in those days. Even then, too, his style began to emerge, most notably in the surprisingly strong Bigfoot film Creature From Black Lake. Cundey quickly established a reputation for skill and competence – not to mention the fact that he built up his own collection of equipment, which he drove around in a vehicle Debra Hill dubbed “the Supervan.” 

But it wasn’t until Cundey teamed with John Carpenter, at Hill’s behest, that he truly made his stamp on cinema. Cundey’s work on Halloween was every bit as revolutionary and influential as the film itself. Leveraging the power of the Steadicam, then a new invention largely unseen by audiences, Cundey had his camera prowl around sets with the calm smoothness of a stalking killer. Imitating the point of view of villain Michael Myers, the camera became a character in its own right – one of the first times a DOP had been able to execute moving-camera shots with such fluidity and personality. The look and feel of a generation of horror movies was set.

Halloween also demonstrates a great deal of what subsequently made Cundey one of the hottest cinematographers around. In addition to its showy Steadicam work, it’s a showcase of perfectly-executed building blocks of filmmaking. Cundey and Carpenter shoot in gorgeous 2.35:1 widescreen, using anamorphic lenses and employing the entire width of the frame to create their dramatic effects. The film also came near the beginning of a trend towards shallow depth-of-field and keeping lens flares and other lens artefacts onscreen, defying what was considered best practice at the time. Most notably, Halloween is a masterclass in light and shadow; not only is much of the film shot at night, a difficult task for any cinematographer, but it uses varying gradations of shadow expertly to insinuate movement and to create dramatic reveals – and scares. These fundamental bits of visual grammar would persist into Cundey’s later work, too.

Throughout the ‘80s, Cundey continued to shape the look and feel of popular entertainment. He reteamed with Carpenter four more times, on The Fog, Escape From New York, The Thing, and Big Trouble In Little China, while also maintaining the style they’d established in the second and third Halloween pictures under directors Rick Rosenthal and Tommy Lee Wallace. His partnership with Robert Zemeckis was defined by experimentation with compositing and visual effects, netting Cundey, incredibly, his sole Academy Award nomination, for Who Framed Roger Rabbit. The Back To The Future trilogy, too, saw Cundey combining multiple cinematographical styles from different eras, while also deploying near-flawless motion-control photography effects. He’d continue to create pristine, effects-soaked work in films like Jurassic Park and Death Becomes Her, even shooting in microgravity on Apollo 13.

Cundey’s late-period career is full of curious choices, compared to his ‘80s and ‘90s heyday. Many of his films made after 2000 barely even registered with mainstream audiences. Look at the now 72-year-old’s most recent IMDb credits and you’ll find a slew of kids’ films, romantic comedies, and odd choice aplenty. But look a little closer, and you can see the connections. It makes sense that Cundey would be hired for a film like Garfield, for example, given his pioneering work on Roger Rabbit; likewise, Jack and Jill’s reliance on motion-control camerawork and split-screen shots to have Adam Sandler play two characters echoes Cundey’s groundbreaking work with the McFly family in Back To The Future Part II. Likewise, his sole directorial credit, Honey We Shrunk Ourselves, is yet another film that relies on eye-opening visuals, requiring an eye not just for effects, but for scale-conscious cinematography. Cundey is clearly keeping himself occupied and challenged as a cinematographer; his choices of project simply aren’t as acclaimed as films.

More than his technical innovations, however, Cundey’s greatest gifts to cinema come in the form of pristine, unimpeachable cinematography as storytelling. The subtle, unflashy camerawork in Jurassic Park serves to heighten the tension and wonder created by the visual effects and Spielberg’s direction. The Thing’s icy-cold palette helps to isolate the cast and action. Back to the Future’s ever-changing photography styles place us in different time periods and even visually distinct alternate realities. Even the oft-derided Hook benefits from the sparkling, magical look afforded it by Cundey’s lighting. From those early days through the advent of digital cinematography, Cundey has continued to maintain his involvement all the way through the digital transfer, colour grade, and visual effects processes, guaranteeing his vision and professionalism was maintained. Little wonder the American Society of Cinematographers honoured him with a Lifetime Achievement Award in 2014.

Perhaps the best way to measure Cundey’s legacy upon cinematography and cinema is through the degree to which his work is imitated even today. Many a young horror filmmaker professes to pay homage to John Carpenter’s work, but visually speaking, what they’re really referencing is the work of the Carpenter/Cundey director/DOP team. Nostalgia is a powerful motivator for homage, but in this case, new filmmakers are doing it right, borrowing from the best.

At 72, Dean Cundey’s glory days are likely behind him. With days that include the likes of Halloween, Jurassic Park, and Apollo 13, it’d be hard to find better glory days for nearly any cinematographer. But given the titles he’s worked on of late, the question remains: will Dean Cundey ever shoot another film that lives up to his skill? Will that tantalising re-teaming with John Carpenter, or Steven Spielberg, or Robert Zemeckis, ever eventuate? Or will the ‘80s’ greatest popular cinematographer simply vanish slowly into comfortable obscurity? Only time will tell. For now, we can but hope – and enjoy the massive catalogue of work that already exists.