Hulu’s The Path follows the journey of Eddie Lane (Aaron Paul), a follower of a mystical movement that many consider a cult, who begins to question his beliefs. Upon taking part in a retreat in Peru, Lane experiences a disturbing vision that shakes his faith in the tenets of “Meyerism” that have been the foundation of his life for years. His venture into critical inquiry alienates him from his wife, Sarah (Michelle Monaghan) — a lifelong Meyerist who’s ascending the “ladder” toward a prominent position — and leads him to some dark realizations about the movement’s leadership.
The show begins with the Meyerists taking full advantage of a recent tornado in New Hampshire, inviting those in the storm’s disastrous aftermath to stay at their compound — thus increasing their numbers. As Eddie becomes further removed from his family and community, Meyerism’s de facto leader, Cal Roberts (Hugh Dancy), takes extreme action to further his own thirst for power and his mission to radically expand the movement.
For the past two seasons, Yaron Orbach has been faithfully shooting all of the episodes of The Path. AC caught up with the Israeli-born, New York City-based director of photography to discuss his philosophies and techniques.
American Cinematographer: What were your initial visual goals when you began work on The Path?
Yaron Orbach: Before I was interviewed I had watched Going Clear, which is [a documentary] about Scientology — it was a good thematic reference. There is a lot of peer pressure once you get in and it’s hard to get out. We wanted to create two worlds. The headquarters is in this beautiful and idyllic compound that was shot in Nyack, New York, at a place called Marydell Faith and Life Center. On the other hand, we wanted to create a world which mimics the dark undercurrents that this movement uses to lure people in. [For example,] when Sarah follows Eddie in the car and he goes to a motel, we go to a dark place; we use these slow zooms to help the suspense. Then there are more natural scenes where we want to show the brighter side of this world.
Tell us about the naturalistic look of the show, which seems to eschew painterly imagery.
I find life to be imperfect in a nice way, meaning I don’t like it to be glamorous. We don’t do backlights or back edges. My image is stripped down, natural and toned. It’s about what your eyes see when you go into a room. I don’t want the framing to be too graphic or composed or beautified. It needs to feel like a real environment.
When Eddie has his visions, which display a supernatural quality, there seems to be a departure from both the ‘lighter’ and ‘darker’ looks that you’ve mentioned.
For us, it was finding ways to go into the visions, be more dramatic, take a creative license, not be afraid to get away from our naturalistic reality, and to go for something that is more stylized. A lot of it had to be done in post.
Viewers are situated in the middle of the action on this show, with the camera following characters and observing events in a less composed manner. What was the motivation behind this kind of dynamic?
The fascinating thing about cults is how they’re perceived from the outside, how they’re perceived when you’re in them — and when you’re in them, how do you look at the outside? [Much of it] is shot handheld, to make it feel as organic and real as possible.
What was the process for choosing locations?
Finding a good location is always key, because that’s the ‘stage.’ The advantage of a pilot is that you have weeks to be part of the finding of locations. Once it goes to series, I’m on set shooting [and] my gaffer, Shawn Greene, goes to scout. With a feature you will go back to a location a few times, but there’s a ‘oneness’ to it. However, with TV you’ll return to a location sometimes 20 times, which gets challenging — but for me it’s not about reinventing how you light every time just so you won’t get bored. It’s more about what’s right for the scene and story.
Marydell is an actual place where they do all kinds of retreats, sessions and summer camps for kids. It became our home base. In season one we’re there probably 60 percent of the time. In season two it’s more evenly split because the movement has expanded and bought a new building in Brooklyn.
There were a lot of building options in Brooklyn. The one we chose is near Flatbush. It ticked all of the boxes; it has a real cemetery in the front of it and is abandoned with an old church on the side. It has one of the oldest graveyards in the city, with people buried there from the 1600s. It has three floors, big windows and a lot of different rooms. I love shooting in practical locations.
[For the tornado-wreckage scenes,] the foreground was set dressing and design but the extended part where the tornado hit was all visual effects. We ended up shooting at Gold Coast Studios. That was challenging as far as the orchestration because it was entirely done in one shot.
What we basically had on stage [at Haven Studios in Mount Vernon, New York] was the first floor of the Lane house, the bedrooms and a hallway. Between the compound in Nyack, the new center in Brooklyn, and scenes that happen in other places, we were still not a heavy stage show in season two.
What are your thoughts on the Red Epic Dragon cameras you used on the show?
I love the Red system because it’s a softer curve. When there’s someone standing in the sun, the falloff of the shade in the background is nicer; it’s less contrasty. It’s very sensitive in low light, which is important to me because I use a lot of practical lights and streetlights. [Three Red Epic Dragon cameras were provided by Panavision for The Path. Footage was captured in 4K HD at 1,000 ASA, recorded on Red Mini-Mags at 5:1 compression, and framed for a 1.78:1 aspect ratio.]
What was included in your lens package?
For season one we used Panavision Primos, which are beautiful. Because of the extensive handheld camerawork, in season two we switched to the lighter Cooke S4s, which we supplemented with Angenieux Optimo 24-290mm [T2.8], 45-120mm [T2.8] and 15-40mm [T2.6] zooms.
How would you describe the contributions of your camera crew?
I have an amazing Steadicam operator, Phil Martinez. He brings such a fluidity, and does slight adjustments that make the camera look dynamic and alive. The other two Red cameras were handheld, and were operated by Arthur Africano and Luke Owen. Toshiro Yamaguchi, Waris Supanpong and Rebecca Heller served as first ACs and did amazing work in very low light-level conditions.
Shawn Greene was also my second-unit director of photography and main director of photography on our tandem days. He’s a big part of the show as far as the lighting of it, and he’s an excellent cinematographer. My key grip on season one was Chris Skutch and season two was Sal Lanza. Sal had a major role in the way we work with these cameras.
What was your approach to lighting?