“I want to shoot a movie through a Coke-bottle lens,” Joe Dunton mused to a crowd at Cucalrous 10. The audience, mostly film professionals, gathered for the midday screening and the panel chuckled. After all digital was just starting to take off and looked like the wave of the future, but this was the man whose name was synonymous with film lenses.
“No, I’m serious,” Dunton clarified.
Jock leaned over to me and commented, “He’s serious and if anybody can give a new look to film, it would be Joe.”
Known locally for owning and operating JDC Wilmington Camera Services from a long, low white warehouse on 23rd Street, like many innovators, what goes on in Joe’s head is hard for the rest of us to comprehend. But when we see the results, they are undeniable.
Cucalorus—our home-grown internally renowned independent film festival—is turning 22 this week, November 9 through 12. The festival grew out of Twinkle Doon—a group of young film artists who showed their work at Water Street Restaurant. Yet, it has evolved into much more—an annual event with the cache and recognition of a major holiday. Now spanning five days and multiple venues, Cucalorus truly inhabits the name “festival” and celebrates myriad connections that film has in our modern world. This year Cucalorus is looking backward to honor one of the godfathers of the film industry, not just in Wilmington, but globally.
“I don’t think there’s any way you can imagine filmmaking—at the studio level or the indie level—in this region without seeing the broad signature of Joe Dunton,” Cucalorus’ executive director, Dan Brawley, notes. “Joe is really the godfather of indie film in NC. He works at every level in the ecosystem, from the top to the bottom. Dino [DeLaurentiis, who founded Screen Gems locally] understood the need for that, and Joe takes action on it by supporting emerging filmmakers. Joe was an essential guide in the early days of Cucalorus and helped us navigate the awkward steps between being a grass-roots event and becoming more established.”
It is appropriate Cucalorus 22 is the year for honoring Joe because 22 was the age that everything changed for him.
“I was 22 [when] I built a video assist so the choreographers could see the dancers—on an actual recorder,” Joe recalls.
The film of which he speaks is “Oliver!” The choreographer needed to see what the dancers looked like. Enter a young television repairman-turned-camera engineer, Joe Dunton. It was a case of being in the right place at the right time. When Oswald Morris asked if it was possible to put a video camera on the film camera to see the dancers, Dunton said, “Yes!”
“We used a recorder,” he explains. “I call it the world’s first because it had a recorder and you could record it and play it back.”
For the next six months, he was at Sheperton Studios working on “Oliver!’ and falling in love with the film world.
“Jerry Lewis claims he invented the video assists, but that was only ever a television camera alongside the film camera, and you couldn’t replay it,” Dunton tells. “Because he was acting and directing, he could put a stand-in and come back to look to see what the shot was like.”
Video playback, or video assist, would become ubiquitous in film. For the next 10 years Dunton built video assists for films on demand—but always did custom projects. Finally, he realized he wanted to run a production line, “because [he] knew it was that big by then.” And then he took a leap: JDC was born.
“[I] started my own company,” he continues. “That was in ‘76. I started renting cameras—again, people didn’t buy cameras; they rented them.”
Originally from England, Dunton traveled across the pond to Wilmington thanks to the movie “Flash Gordon.” It was his first job with JDC, and it happened to be a DeLaurentiis film. “I worked six months with that,” he says.
After working on DeLaurentiis’ equipment, and refurbishing most of it in London, he worked with DeLaurentiis on “Conan the Barbarian” in Spain, before moving on to do “Dune” in Mexico.
“We ended up in Wilmington to do ‘Firestarter,’” he says. “When [Dino] said he was building a studio here in Wilmington I said, ‘I’ll build a camera department.’”
Dunton crosses his hands on his chest to recount the next events. “We laid out where the camera department was going to be,” he says. “Then ‘Year of the Dragon’ came in, and he used the camera department as his offices during the film. So, I said to Dino, ‘I’m going to take my equipment home because you’ve made us look a fool.’ He said ‘Joe, I’ll build you another one in three weeks’—and he did. He built me another one in three weeks, and he phoned me on a Sunday and said, ‘It’s ready.’”
Dunton is the man to go to talk lenses. He launches into a discussion on anamorphic lenses upon my asking for an explanation on them.
“It’s simple really…” he begins.
And we are off on a 20-minute tour of design history and the evolution of cinema in relation to theatre and television. Yet, somehow, it boils down to this: In WWI, Henri Chrétien designed a lens that allowed soldiers in tanks to have a wide-angle view.
Technological advances in cinema led to what most of us think as “widescreen” projection.But not all lenses are the same.
“The lenses make the picture,” Dunton tells. “You can have 20 different lenses of the same focal length.” He explains how each will show something slightly different—a sharper corner for example.
Dunton bought Mitchell Camera Company lock, stock and barrel. He even has the mahogany forms for casting cameras and hundreds of card file drawers full of spare parts. But just like when he received his British Academy of Film and Television Lifetime Achievement Award in 2010, he really doesn’t enjoy talking about the past as much as he relishes discussing the future of film and all the potential of the industry. Case in point, his daughter Erica just finished principal photography for her latest film—the entirety of it was filmed on an alternative device, which cannot as of now be released.
“It’s not the technology now; it’s the stories,” Dunton notes. With the shift in technology, money is no longer the obstacle to filmmaking. Drones have made helicopter shots possible for anyone, and every kid who has a phone in his or her pocket now has access to a camera.
“The cameras now can have interchangeable lenses on them,” he says with a gesture to his iPhone. “You can make a film now, so if you can dream it, you can make it.”
The conversation shifts toward his plans for independent filmmakers in North Carolina, and hopes to resurrect the film industry here with new projects. It’s the perfect illustration of Brawley’s observation about Dunton.
“I think we want to inspire the next generation of industry builders—and now is that time,” he says. “We need to reinvent ourselves—and Joe Dunton among all the things—is an inventor of the most special and rare kind. So it seemed like we needed his help now more than ever.”