Cinematographer: Dean Cundey

My favorite movie of all time is Back to the Future and my second favorite is Hook. An American cinematographer, Dean Cundey was the director of photography for both of films. Cundey has worked on a lot of Hollywood masterpieces such as Jurassic Park, Casper, and Apollo 13. In 1988, Cundey was nominated for the Oscar of Best Cinematography for his film Who Framed Roger Rabbit. Despite his fantastic work in those family fantasy movies, Cundey is also known for his horror movies such as Halloween.


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Dean Cundey was born in 1946 in California and studied at UCLA. He has created more than 50 Hollywood feature films in his career, including notable ones with big names in Hollywood, such as Josh Carpenter, Robert Zemeckis, and Steven Spielberg. In the beginning of his career, he worked on a lot of low-budget horror films, and in 1978, one of his most popular films, Halloween came out. In this movie, he used the film technique called the Steadicam or panaglide which was not popular at all at the time. During this time period, there was no such thing as VFX or special effects, so in his interview with an journalist Simon Brew, Cundey explains he had to “be thoughtful about the effect you were going to do, and the moment you were going to try to create.” However, he appreciates the time period without any VFX, because it expanded his imagination and creativity. Also, he mentions that VFX makes movies unlimited, but at the same time, it makes things less realistic because VFX is not real.

As of the 21st century, not only special effects, but editing technology has developed, and everything is pretty much fixable within the process of post-production. However, Cundey still believes that not relying on fixing footage later makes him more thoughtful and creative during the process of filming. He always tries to get his work done in front of the camera lens by using various lights, without relying on post production. In the interview, he says that if he needs to use the technology of post-production, he has to be involved in the process with editors.

According to the interview, Cundey’s favorite aspect ratio is 2.35:1, which is a pretty widescreen frame because it gives you “a lot of creative possibilities.” He believes that widescreen can give the audience more information. He says Television screens can only have close-ups of actors, but widescreen can have more details in the background. Cundey is often called ‘the Master of Widescreen.’

I am a huge fan of Back to the Future, which is probably his signature film. He worked on all the trilogies as the director of photography. The first film is about time traveling between the 1980s and 1950s. Cundey used different light to distinguish 80s scenes and 50s scenes. He used warmer and softer light for the 50s to create a nostalgic look, whereas for the 80s, he used sharper and cooler color of light to make it different. In Back to the Future II, he and his crew had to address the difference between the ‘pleasant 80s’ and the ‘Biff-Horrific’ period of the 1980s. Since the period was dominated by the main antagonist of the film, Biff Tannen, they had to change the atmosphere completely. Cundey used more contrasty, darker, and cooler light for the ‘Biff-Horrific’ period. He also used smoke to create the ghetto atmosphere. For the ‘pleasant 80s’ period, less smoke was used to create the softer atmosphere.

Since Back to the Future is a time travel movie, for the audience to understand the complex of the story easily, Cundey and the director, Robert Zemeckis, had to be careful about visual storytelling. In his interview for Daily Bruin, Cundey explains the camera movement he used for the film:

One of the things that Zemeckis and I always tried to do is make the camerawork continuous and flowing rather than a series of cuts. This way, the audience always engaged in the scene and in the characters, but also, they have a sense that they are standing and watching something unfold before their eyes (Cundey).

They believed it was also important to think about the flow of the trilogy as a whole. Each movie ends with a scene that implies something is going to happen. For example, at the end of the first movie, Doc tells Martin that they have to do something for Matin’s kids. That way they were able to create the flow between part one and two smoothly. Cundey explains that in the Back to the Future trilogy, each movie leads you to the next movie and each scene leads you to the next scene.

Although Cundey prefers wider screen as I mentioned earlier, he and the director Zemeckis decided to shoot Back to the Future in 1.85:1. To do so, the film crew was able to create a classic look that reflected the 1950s. Since they looked for consistency throughout the trilogy, they decided to use the same aspect ratio for next two films as well. In addition to the ratio, they tried to make the visual style so that everything coordinated with each other throughout the three films.

When Cundey shot Back to the Future, the special effects of that time are not the same as special effects of today at all. For the scene where Marty and Doc are standing in the fire trail after Delorean passes by, they shot the real fire trail using flammable liquid without the actors first. Then they shot Marty and Doc on a blue screen so their special effect team could composite the actors into the shot. Cundey says since the technology has been developed today, we have several more options: we could shoot the actors in the location and add visual effects afterwards. However, although it is easier and sometimes more effective to make films digitally, Cundey believes the older practical way makes it easier for the audience to have sympathy for the characters.


Different kinds of lighting techniques were used for Back to the Future. When Doc introduces his invention, a time machine he created from Delorean, low-key lightning was used so the scene could look mysterious and have a Sci-Fi look. Three-point lighting was used throughout the whole movie for the characters’ faces to look clear yet natural, which makes the movie more dramatic. Cundey did an amazing job lighting up the characters in the dark. The combination of low-key lighting and three point lightning made it possible for him to capture the details of the characters’ faces without destroying the dark mysterious atmosphere. Cundey is known for the number of lights he uses, and he tries out different kinds of options with a lot of lights.

Using these techniques, Dean Cundey succeeded in making such an iconic movie. Thanks to the first movie’s big hit, the production team had the chance to make another film, which ended up being two different films, Back to the Future II and III. Although the trilogy addresses time traveling between several different periods involving a bunch of characters, Cundey made it possible for the movies to look very easy to be easily understood for the audience of any age group.

Another favorite movie of mine is Hook, which Cundey worked with Steven Spielberg. This magical movie is about 40-year-old Peter Pan played by the legendary Robin Williams, giving up his life in Neverland to marry Wendy’s daughter Moira. He forgot who he used to be and his memories in Neverland, but to save his children kidnapped by Captain Hook, he goes back to Neverland.

The Aspect Ratio was 2.35:1– much wider compared to Back to the Future. Cundey used Panavision Cameras and Lenses, and the Negative Format was 35mm. It is a two hours and 22 minutes long film, but the storytelling is very smooth and it does not feel that long. Hook was released five years after the first Back to the Future came out.

My favorite scene of the entire movie history is when Peter gets to be able to see his imaginations again (–U&t=5s). Since he gave up the life in Neverland, he became a lawyer and a very strict father. In this scene, he is at a dinner table and all the kids are eating, but food is invisible to him because he has no imagination. However, as he trains and hangs out with the orphans, he remembers his childhood and gets back to being Peter Pan. Once his imaginations come back, he suddenly starts to see all the colorful food.


In this scene, Cundey shot Peter’s delighted face looking down the dinner table first implying now he is able to see the food. Then he slowly moved the camera to the food. Most of the lighting is on the food, so the characters face are lighted up from the bottom (dinner table). In addition, the characters’ costumes are all in very dark color whereas the color of the food is very vivid and colorful, the food looks very emphasized. Thanks to the lightning and the color contrast, the food really stands out in the scene. Since the food is a sign that Peter is back to his childhood, Cundey had to create this look for this very important turning point.

Peter and the kids then start a food fight with very colorful imaginative pies, which makes the scene very colorful. Compared to the previous scene, the difference of the color is obvious. Before the dinner table scene, Peter was very tired of getting muddy from training. All the characters wear brown or grey costumes. Cundey and his crew showed the impact of his transition by using different colors.

With amazing actors such as Robin Williams, Maggie Smith, Dustin Hoffman, and Julia Roberts, Cundey finished this masterpiece. Hook was nominated for several Oscars, and won some awards such as the Golden Screen award in Germany. Cundey and Spielberg built a strong relationship and trust, which led them to make Jurassic Park.

Dean Cundey is one of the leading pioneers who have contributed to the Hollywood industry around the 1980s. Although now he is said he is not as good and his style of filmmaking is outdated, I still appreciate his work. Hollywood movies created in his era never get old. I agree with his idea that movies today are not relatable because they rely on the digital technology too much. Filmmaking is getting very easy these days, but the more you take time and effort into its production, the more love you have towards a movie. His enthusiasm about filmmaking that he always tries to get a perfect look behind the lens without relying on post production cannot often be seen in other cinematographers these days. Overall, he is a legendary filmmaker who I will admire for the rest of my life.

Yukari Kamiya



One thought on “Cinematographer: Dean Cundey

  1. Damn almost all of his movies are hits! This was really cool to find out. I reacently met Dante Basco who played Rufeo in Hook and he talked a little bit of the camera work in the movie. Great job.


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