Words of Wisdom from Dean Cundey

Posted by: nancym 3 years, 3 months ago

Words of Wisdom from Dean Cundey

Cinematographer Dean Cundey brings his master class in filmmaking to Coronado High School, Middle School students

 By Kris Grant, President, Coronado Island Film Festival

             Coronado School of the Arts students and Coronado Middle Schools digital arts program students listened in rapt attention last Wednesday when one of Hollywood’s most successful cinematographers of all time – Dean Cundey – shared career advice.

            Among Cundey’s blockbuster films are “Jurassic Park,” “Who Framed Roger Rabbit?” all three “Back to the Future” movies and “Apollo 13.”  A number of the students, several of whom shook hands and took “selfie” photos with the legendary filmmaker after his presentation, also remembered Cundey for his “Halloween” horror films, which he shot early in his career.

            Students submitted questions prior to his appearance and Cundey readily fielded questions from more than 120 students gathered in the Coronado Performing Arts theatre.

            When asked what prompted his career choice, Cundey shared that his mother often dropped him off at the local theater on weekends, “sort of a free babysitter for an afternoon,” and he soon fell in love with the movies. He started examining how filmmakers were able to transport people to another place and time, to “create an illusion.”  One of his favorite films of the era was “20,000 Leagues under the Sea.”

            By the time he entered high school, he informed his mother that he was going to make film a career; she cautioned him that it was a competitive field, but he said he was determined.  He enrolled in UCLA’s film school.

            Passion was the foundation of his success, he said.  “Some people learn from education, some learn from experience,” he said.  But passion is the common thread, which he defined further by saying, “You have to do it because that’s all you want to do in life.”

And he warned the students, “It can be a hazard if you have friends who don’t have that passion.”

            “If you have the passion and you network, you will succeed,” Cundey assured the students.

            He recommended that students eventually find their ways onto film sets by accepting “the lowliest intern or grunt work job available and then giving 110 percent.”

            “Never ask how much you’ll get paid. You’re there for the art.  If someone needs a wall painted on a Saturday, jump up and say ‘Wow, I’d love to do that.’ You will meet people who will remember you. You’ll be building your network early on.”

            Cundey cited Malcolm Gladwell’s book, Outliers, which asserts that to become proficient in any endeavor, one needs to put in approximately 10,000 hours, whether it’s computers or playing an instrument or filmmaking.

            Figuring a 30-hour workweek, Cundey said that 6.4 years of practice in any field would be necessary to lead to proficiency.  “The good news is that watching movies is part of that 10,000 hours of training in filmmaking,” he said. “Take a good, favorite film. Turn off the sound and watch how the camera is used. Eighty percent of our attention is determined by the visual.  Also, watch bad movies and ask, “Why am I not interested in this?”

            Cundey shared that it’s not just students who watch movies, but filmmakers, and that they often “borrow” ideas from older movies.  “Do you all watch Turner Classic Movies?” he queried.  “You don’t?  Well, you must start!

            “One of the directors I’ve worked with, Steven, oh, you know, Steven Spielberg, always uses movies as reference material, which is a polite way to say we steal ideas from other movies, often much older ones.  At the start of a production he and I will sit in a screening room and he’ll show me scenes from various movies, and suggest that we might try this angle, or that lighting, to get the same effect.”

            Cundey said that he pulls from all aspects of his education – literature, science, math, history – in his art.  “When I started out we used to shoot on film with 42 layers of color.  Now everything is digital.  But it doesn’t matter. Cameras are just tools, devices for visual storytelling.

At the essence of filmmaking, a foundation in literature is vital. 

“You have to understand why people want to go to a movie. Filmmaking is the literature of our time,” he said.

            For “Romancing the Stone,” filmed in 1984, no computers were used; “Jurassic Park” was the first film to use a computer to make dinosaurs, and “Roger Rabbit” integrated animation with live action.

            He also recommended students learn to draw, “Just the fundamentals so that you can contribute your ideas to storyboards.  Learn to draw more than just stick figures.  And learn about perspective.”

            Lighting is extremely important in filmmaking.  “You’ll need to learn formulas like the inverse square law – how far away from the subject do you need the light to be?  Light is so important to mood. “Watch the film “Gone with the Wind” – yes it’s an old movie! But they used three strips of film so it needed a huge amount of light and yet they did it successfully to create mood.  Or watch “Pretty Woman” and ask yourself why the characters look so good.

            Cundey shared that he likes black and white films because it reduces things to shapes.

            When Cundey teaches a master class in filmmaking to film schools, he talks about the psychodrama of working on a set with disparate personalities.  “Half my job is being a manager,” he said. “Working with people and getting them to contribute their best ideas, their best work.

            “By the way, don’t be afraid of making a mistake. I’ve never made a movie, big or little, where I didn’t make a mistake, like not using enough light. Or early in my career, where I didn’t lace the film in the camera. But I never again did that. 

            “I don’t believe in firing someone if they make a mistake – people learn from them. If you play it safe, you don’t develop.”

            Cundey received Coronado Island Film Festival’s Cinematographer Award in 2017 and now serves on the festival’s Industry Advisory Board.  He introduced the film “Romancing the Stone” on Wednesday night at the Village Theatres, shown as part of the festival’s Classic Film Series.

            His presentation to Coronado High School and Middle School students was arranged as part of the festival’s mission of educating young filmmakers.