Cinematography of “The Deuce” – interview with Yaron Orbach

May 22nd, 2019

Continuing the ongoing series of interviews with creative artists working on various aspects of movie and TV productions, it is my pleasure to welcome Yaron Orbach. In this interview he talks about the beginning of his career and technical changes in the last 15 years as the industry has shifted from film to digital, the various facets of cinematographer’s responsibilities on and off the set, and the balance between bringing fresh perspectives and maintaining consistent visual look across season arcs in episodic TV productions. Around these topics and more, Yaron dives deep into his work on the second season of HBO’s “The Deuce”.

Kirill: Please tell us about yourself, and the path that took you to where you are today.

Yaron: I was born and raised in Israel, and from a very young age I was interested in watching movies, a love my parents introduced me to. I had the opportunity to go to Alon High School of Arts and Sciences in Israel, which had different art programs – from theater to dance to video. I was about 15-16 at the time, and I was doing 2-3 minute short films on Super-VHS, learning basics of screenwriting, directing, editing, photography, film history, etc.

It was a great experience to have at a very young age, and most importantly I was working with a group of like-minded kids. The first thing I fell in love with, was the teamwork. That was the thing that I enjoyed the most during those high school years. You shoot each other’s movies, you act in them, you edit them together, and we were evolving as a group. By the second year of the high school there were people who were more drawn to directing, or screenwriting, or editing.

Everyone kind of found their niche by the second year, and mine was the photography. Some of it must have come from my family background. My father was a publisher with an affinity for graphic design, and so was my grandfather. I wasn’t pushed into it, but it was in the air. Between liking movies and finding that opportunity to be in a program that gives you an insight into how to do it, I was naturally drawn to that side of it. I loved thinking about lighting, composition and everything else on the photographic side of things. I was doing everything in the first year, and I found myself enjoying that part of it more.

Second season of “The Deuce”, cinematography by Yaron Orbach.

After I finished high school, I went to the Israeli Army for three years, completely detached from anything that has to do with film. I was serving in a combat unit, and by the end of it I already knew that I wanted to continue my film studies in the US. I wanted to broaden my horizons after getting the taste for it in high school. So I found time during my last year in the army to prepare for the SAT exams, to fill applications and send letters for a few schools in the US.

I was 22 when I finished my army service, and 6 months later I found myself in New York, going to the film program at the School of Visual Arts, majoring in cinematography. That was the beginning of my journey in New York, and that’s where I’ve been since August of ’97.

Kirill: Do you feel that it’s easier to get into the industry these days? The equipment is more affordable, and that might be opening doors for a wider variety of indie productions.

Yaron: I graduated from college around May of 2001, and the first few years were difficult. I was doing short films for free, and little by little I got into working on small indies, working for free just to get that experience. It was hard, to be honest, but a good kind of hard. You don’t have the same responsibilities when you’re young and unmarried. That allowed me to live the life of a starving artist for a few years – and enjoy it.

To your point, when I started out, I worked with film and video just started to come out. A few years after I graduated we started getting into shooting on video, as it was getting good enough to experiment with. Probably there is an advantage to it being quite accessible these days. If you want a little practice, you can spontaneously pick up a camera and shoot something. But that is all about the technical side of it.

If you want to do good work, you need a good script behind it. You need a good story, a good director, a good concept and good actors. The technology can only take you so far.

Second season of “The Deuce”, cinematography by Yaron Orbach.

Kirill: If you look back at these last 15 years or so, is it that much different shooting on digital today compared to shooting on film back then?

Yaron: In my particular case, the way I shoot digital is similar to the way I shot film back then. I made that transition about 7-8 years ago. Up until then I worked primarily with film, and these last years have been all digital. The way I like to work is to use available light and practicals that are embedded in the production design of the set. Because of this naturalistic approach, I’m shooting digital the same way I shot film.

I used to push the film a stop or two to get more sensitivity out of it. I used the same natural light, and the same practicals and lamps on set. I haven’t changed my approach much. If anything, the video cameras have made it easier to push the boundaries of making things look naturalistic. These cameras are so sensitive with regards to exposure, whereas film was a bit less. But truthfully, it wasn’t much less. You would take a 500 stock and push it to 1,000, and it saw what my eye saw in many ways.

I would say that the biggest change for me is the ‘magic aspect’ that you had before. No matter how many times you used it, it still managed to surprise you a bit. It might have been a texture that would look a bit different. It might have been the light that would hit something a bit differently. Or maybe it was because it is a chemical process. And now you can see it straight away on set. You can experiment with it a bit more on location, and know that you have it. You sleep a bit better at night, but you do lose a bit of that anticipation of opening that morning email from the lab that everything is OK.

It goes both ways. Sometimes I miss that kind of excitement of seeing it for the first time, because that little surprise was always there. On the other hand, I also enjoy finishing my day of shooting and knowing that I have it. What you see on the monitor on set is what you captured, so it goes both ways.

Second season of “The Deuce”, cinematography by Yaron Orbach.

Kirill: When you talk about what you do for a living with people outside of your field, is it difficult to explain all the different aspects of what goes into your day-to-day activities?

Yaron: I think that a lot of people who are not doing this day in and day out feel that it’s a very glamorous kind of business. You are creating something out of your imagination, and there is a certain aura around it. My childhood friends who are now lawyers or architects or bankers always tell me that it’s the most exciting profession that you can have. But sometimes it’s 5 AM, and you’re shooting a scene and everybody is very tired, and it doesn’t look quite that glamorous.

People don’t think about the nitty gritty details of it, or the work ethic that is required to do it day in and day out. To them it feels like the best thing in the world, and to be honest it is sometimes. You need to work through things like you would do in any job. You need to stay focused and concentrated, no matter how tired you are and how much you want to go home. It has both aspects to it.

Kirill: Looking at your portfolio, it feels like in the last few years you have transitioned into the world of episodic television. Was that a conscious choice, or is that more along the general trend of longer-format storytelling that is branching out across different traditional and streaming studios?

Yaron: I would say it was more of a conscious choice. I have two young kids, and up until the point when I had my oldest, I used to travel a lot. I wanted to settle down a bit, and I was lucky that at that time the television format was getting to a point where it was generating some really good stories. I kind of fell into it at the right time. I wanted to find a long-form job that would keep me home for 6-7 months out of the year.

But the challenge was to not only do it to stay close to home, but to also find projects that generate good work. Doing something you’re not proud of is difficult in any profession.

Second season of “The Deuce”, cinematography by Yaron Orbach.

Kirill: To mention a couple of specific productions, on “Orange is the New Black” and “The Deuce” you got into the second season for both shows. How is it to get into an existing universe and find a way to leave your own mark on it?

Yaron: “Orange is the New Black” was my first experience working in TV. I knew the line producer and one of ADs [assistant director], and they recommended me at the time that I was actively looking for TV work. I learned a lot on that production, the whole TV machine and the ropes of it. The rhythm is different, the logistics are different, the diplomacy is different.

I came into it a bit gentler. I wanted to continue what they did, and gradually evolve it into my own style – which is using more natural, available light, and a more practical approach. This is what I told them in my interviews – that I wanted to continue with what they have, but also to introduce new energy to some things. And I also told them to tell me if they felt that I was going too far out of their comfort zone. It was a gentle transition, and I also wanted to learn everything about the TV machine.

Lucky for me, I was working with very good people who were supportive. I ended up making all those stylistic changes in how we captured the scenes, and they were happy with it. The only notes I got from them was to keep on doing what I was doing.

“The Deuce” was different. Every season is a different era. Season 1 was ’72-’73. Season 2 was ’79, and I’m shooting season 3 now which is set in ’85. When I came to the interview, I was very open. I said “If you’re looking for someone to continue what you did last season, I am probably not the guy. But if you’re open to someone who wants to bring a slightly different approach, with a different energy to capturing the era of disco and funk, then this is what I am pitching to do”. They were open to the idea of somebody coming in and putting a slightly different energy to things.

They wanted to show the progression that season 2 is happening five years later. “The Deuce” was a perfect show to come in on season 2, because they were open to mixing it up a bit.

There was another show that I did before “The Deuce”. It was “Seven Seconds” for Netflix, and I did the whole season including the pilot. That was quite different. You come in and you’re establishing the look from frame one. That ownership feels nice. You know that you’ve been there from the first frame ever shot.

Second season of “The Deuce”, cinematography by Yaron Orbach.

Kirill: Going back to “The Deuce”, there’s a thing that I love about such shows in that it creates sort of a document of how certain places looked like at a particular point in time. I wonder how challenging it was to take the streets of New York of today and somehow transform all of that into something that transports me as a viewer to that place.

Yaron: I would answer this question in two ways.

The first thing you said is key to my approach in general. Documentaries are my passion. When I have an hour to watch something, it would be a documentary first, a feature film second and then a TV show third – especially these days when you have young kids and time is a bit precious. This show was perfect for someone like me, who loves documentaries.

I loved being in that environment, and not just as a passive observer. It offered me the opportunity to shoot with a more handheld style. We shot also with Steadicam and moved the camera a lot. We were entering those spaces with the characters at the same time , and there was a lot of freedom. The sets are lit with accents, and the characters can move where they want and have the camera follow them or move around them. Season 1 was shot in a different, more composed approach as far as how they captured it.

That was one of the things I said in my interview. I wanted it to have a bit of the feel of a documentary, and that was one of the ideas I was pushing for.

Second season of “The Deuce”, cinematography by Yaron Orbach.

As for the second thing – the believability of it – I have to give full credit to the production designer Scott Dougan, all the researchers, David Simon and George Pelecanos who are the show creators, and all the great producers who are so attentive to detail. Every single thing – hair, make-up, the textures on the walls, the props – was accurate. Everything has been researched. Everything feels authentic, no matter if it’s in the foreground or somewhere in the background corner. Everything needs to feel authentic and they spend the time and the money to do it.

HBO is known for that quality, and that is the best environment for a show like this that wants to transport people in time and recreate something authentic, with perhaps a bit of creative license. As a viewer, you really believe that this is real. I have been lucky to work with the team that puts that above all else, starting from the show creators to the producers to the production designer who has been extremely influential in making sure that it is as real as it can be.

Kirill: How do you prepare to shoot scenes that have both characters played by James Franco in the same frame?

Yaron: In general, I’m not a very technical DP [director of photography]. I don’t know every single camera and lens out there, and I’m not drawn to green screens or big special effects work. I like work that is more intimate, with real-life characters.

We call those scenes “twin work”, and I ended up talking a lot with the VFX supervisor. It’s ultimately the VFX department that stitches these things together. We are in close contact to make sure that he has all the angles for the continuity. It ends up being a bit more technical than I like. You can’t move the camera as freely as you would in a similar scene. To be honest with you, that’s not the most exciting part of the show for me. The most exciting part is moving around these amazing spaces that they create in the show.

It’s just a bit more technical and slower to get those twin scenes, and we don’t do them as often. We might do one or two per episode, and it’s not a daily occurrence.

Second season of “The Deuce”, cinematography by Yaron Orbach.

Kirill: The major focus of the show is on the sex-trade industry, and that necessarily involves exploration of exploitation and violence towards women. When you’re there on the set with your crew and equipment, how do you approach creating a comfort zone, so to speak, for the actors to be in?

Yaron: That is a unique part of this specific job. Our characters are living in this world. We’re depicting the world of porn, and some of the actors are the directors behind the camera, or the performers in front of the camera. We do end up doing some very intimate and sensitive scenes.

I think that what you do is what you should do in life in general. You’re very sensitive, you’re very careful and you make sure that everyone’s comfortable. You make sure everyone knows exactly what we’re going to do, and how we’re going to shoot it – from what angle and what we’re going to see. We rehearse these scenes with the director, and we talk with the actors either beforehand or after the rehearsals. We go through angles and shots, talking about how we’re going to cover the scene.

We also have our producer and an intimacy coordinator, which is a new position that was created for the show last year. They are there to work with the actors to make sure they’re comfortable. It’s all about sensitivity and openness to make everyone aware exactly where the camera is and what it is seeing.

As for my crew, I’ve worked with some of these people for many years. Once we get into a scene, everyone knows that it has to be a bit quieter and a bit calmer, because you’re putting people in an environment which is revealing and can be difficult to go through. Everybody acts professionally, with respect, and again with common sense which I think everyone should have when they’re entering a sensitive situation.

We take pride on the show in regard to how we handle these very intimate scenes. There’s a lot of care and thinking about how to make the environment very comfortable for the actors.

Second season of “The Deuce”, cinematography by Yaron Orbach.

Kirill: When you work on a TV production and you have multiple directors in the same season, how do you find the balance between visual continuity across that arc and providing space for the director to leave their own mark on it?

Yaron: TV is a bit tricky. The directors come into a machine that’s already in motion, and if there’s already a stylistic language embedded in it. In a way, they can only do so much. They are required to bring in something new, but within an existing mold. That is challenging for TV directors, but that’s the format, because in many cases you are coming into an existing environment.

My job is to create that visual continuity with the directors. I’m there to provide that guidance, but we also want the new energy of a director. We want the new ideas, and we want to embrace all of it. I keep an open mind and enjoy the different people coming in and out, because they each bring something different. We have an existing mold, but I want to be a bit flexible with it. It’s okay for it to change a bit. It’s like Play-Doh that changes form a bit and doesn’t always have to be the same – as long as it is serving the story. Ultimately, one of the main jobs for a cinematographer is to use the cinematic language to serve a story.

Once you find that language on your TV show, you deviate from it in a more controlled way. But it’s still important to be flexible, and I work hard to create a flexible environment for new people and new ideas to be welcome in. My experience is that when you create an open environment, you always get something good out of it.

Second season of “The Deuce”, cinematography by Yaron Orbach.

Kirill: Looking at different shows in the last couple of years, some have the same cinematographer working on all episodes of a single season, and some have multiple cinematographers, each one working on a few episodes. Do you have a preference in this area?

Yaron: My preference is to be the only cinematographer, and that’s what I’ve been doing. I did season 2 of “The Deuce”, and before that I did the season of “Seven Seconds”, and before that I did two seasons of “The Path”, and it was always just me. It might be better for the work-life balance to split episodes among multiple cinematographers, but I do like having that continuity. I like the marathon aspect of it, where you start on day one of a show, and you stay through the very last scene.

I also think it’s useful, because as directors come and go, you’re there to help, guide and even inform – because you have been through the whole trajectory of it. So I only interview for jobs that have that kind of a structure.

Second season of “The Deuce”, cinematography by Yaron Orbach.

Kirill: Looking back at your earlier productions, what stays with you after some time passes?

Yaron: I see the experience as a whole. It’s built out of the good parts, like camaraderie. It’s built out of the hard work, and out of the easy days. It’s built out of the highs, which might be a scene where you captured something very special, and the lows, which might be just a long tedious day where everybody’s tired.

When you work on a show like “The Deuce” which is so rich and which has so much emphasis on quality, and you’re in an environment where they are willing to spend the time to get the quality, it is the best environment you can ask for as a DP. For me, this is as good as I can hope for. I’m working with amazing creators who want to have the best possible product, who are not cutting corners, who want to put the money on the screen, who want quality above all else. So it’s mostly highs, and very few lows.

Working with this level of creators has been a pleasurable experience. This is fantastic, and it’s hard to ask for more. It’s as good as you can hope for in the TV environment.

Second season of “The Deuce”, cinematography by Yaron Orbach.

Kirill: You pretty much answered the last question I had for you, which was about what keeps you going in this field.

Yaron: I have been doing a lot of TV back to back. In between seasons 2 and 3 of “The Deuce” I did “Modern Love” with the director John Carney with whom I did two movies a few years ago, “Sing Street” and “Begin Again”. I’m actually looking forward to finishing this project in July, taking a few months off with the family and going on a nice vacation. I’m not sure what would be next. It might be a movie or a TV pilot, but something hopefully as good as “The Deuce” has been.

What really keeps you going in the field is loving what you do, it makes it pleasurable, and you feel very fortunate in many ways. I feel blessed that when I was 16 I found my calling. It was a stroke of good luck on my part.

And here I’d like to thank Yaron Orbach for graciously agreeing to answer a few questions I had on the art and craft of cinematography, and on what went into creating the world of “The Deuce”. The second season is out on BluRay, and other physical and digital formats. And if you want to know more about how films and TV shows are made, click here for additional in-depth interviews in this series. Stay tuned for more interviews in the near future!