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Jurassic Park at 30: Cinematographer Dean Cundey on Shooting Some of the Most Influential Films Ever
If it was only Jurassic Park, it would have been enough.
A cinematographer is lucky if they find themselves at the photographic helm of a single, culture-defining movie. Dean Cundey stands as the exception to the rule with a jaw-dropping list of seminal films that benefitted from his work as director of photography.
In case you are unfamailar with Mr. Cundey's work, here is a smattering of titles you may have heard of: Halloween, The Fog, Escape from New York, The Thing, the Back to the Future trilogy, Big Trouble in Little China, Who Framed Roger Rabbit, Hook, Death Becomes Her, Jurassic Park (now streaming on Peacock for its 30th anniversary), Casper, Apollo 13, and, most recently, episodes of The Book of Boba Fett and The Mandalorian.
Yeah, the dude is an absolute legend, and super humble to boot. Hopping on a Zoom call with SYFY WIRE last summer in honor of The Thing's 40th anniversary, the soft-spoken cinematographer described it as "a great honor and privilege" to have his name attached to so many features that have woven themselves "into the public sensibilities and the history of storytelling on film."
He continued: "There's almost nowhere I go in the world that somebody hasn't seen one of the films [I worked on]. And when they say, ‘Oh, what do you do?’ [I say] ‘Oh, well, I’ve shot this film.’ [They go] ‘Oh, my gosh! I saw that as a kid and I loved it!’ I hate it when they say 'I saw it as a kid,' because that means I'm old. But [they say] ‘Oh yeah, it's one of my favorite films and I've shown it to so many friends and my kids.’"
The most impressive thing about his cinematic CV is the sheer number of groundbreaking entries. Projects like The Thing, Roger Rabbit and Jurassic Park, for example, all represented previously unseen breakthroughs in visual effects and computer-generated imagery.
It's also worth noting that he was the final DP to work with Steven Spielberg before the director established his longtime creative partnership with Janusz Kamiński. Speaking with us again for a look back at Apollo 13 earlier this year, Cundey praised the intrepid filmmakers who wanted to take the medium of visual storytelling "somewhere new."
"Jurassic Park was all about mechanical dinosaurs, but also about CG dinosaurs. That hadn't been done realistically before," he explained. "Roger Rabbit was all about new techniques of integrating animated characters into a live-action world. In each case, you don't just follow a script and then some instructions on how to do it. There's the script, and it poses…not a problem, but an opportunity. So you get to think about and invent new techniques or variations on techniques."
At the time of our second interview, Cundey listed Back to the Future, Roger Rabbit, and Jurassic Park as his top three choices out of all the films he's been fortunate enough to shoot as DP. "Those three films are my my quick-draw sort of answer," he confessed. "But Apollo 13 is certainly up there, and I would say it slides in and out of the position with my three favorite ones."
Still, it's a lot like asking a parent to choose a favorite child. Cundey's blockbuster legacy can't simply be boiled down to a trio of films — what he really wants to be remembered for is eliciting a magical sense of awe and wonder on the part of the viewer.
"I've been fortunate to have maybe eight or 10 films that allowed me to do what I really wanted to do in this business when I was starting, and when I was a kid. It’s create illusion," he added. "Create a believable illusion so people watching it aren't distracted by something. It is just part of the story. Yes, they can laugh at Roger Rabbit and say, ‘Oh, he’s an animated cartoon. I wonder how they do that?’ But for the most part, it's always about how do you serve a story? How do you serve the audience?"
During our conversation on The Thing, Cundey voiced his hope that these beloved movies "will stay behind 50 or 100 years from now."
"We we look at some of these old films from the ‘30s and ‘40s as having been formative in film history," he said. "And with so much respect for films by Hitchcock and John Ford and any number of other people that most people don't know about nowadays… But to join in that list of films and filmmakers is an amazing honor and privilege. [It gives me] a great deal of personal reward and satisfaction."