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Internal Monologues and Dialogues: The Imaginative (and Imagined) Visuals of 'Mr. Robot'

The show’s approach to framing, which often includes an unusual amount of headroom, helps define the relationship between individuals and how they are embedded in the corporate infrastructure.9/19/2016 11:00 AM Eastern
Elliot’s apartment (Rami Malek as Elliot Alderson). Photo by Michael Parmelee/USA Network.

The USA network series Mr. Robot has managed to capture the attention of audiences who might otherwise turn a jaded eye away from basic cable programming. Focusing on Elliot Alderson (Rami Malek), a socially challenged hacker who comes to believe that it is up to him to save the world, the series presents worldviews of society from vastly different social strata. These include the 1 percent perspective of megalomaniac Phillip Price (Michael Cristofer), who heads up E Corp., the world’s most powerful bank. In the process of redistributing the wealth of the global economy, Elliot is confounded by the illusory presence of Mr. Robot (Christian Slater), who manifests as an imaginary friend but reveals a darker side of Elliot’s own personality.

Director of photography Tod Campbell joined Mr. Robot after the pilot, which was shot by Timothy Ives. Campbell quickly established the show’s approach to framing, which often includes an unusual amount of headroom, helping define the relationship between individuals and how they are embedded in the corporate infrastructure of Elliot’s world. For season two, Campbell didn’t want to just rest on laurels. “You’re always worried the sophomore effort has to measure up,” he relates. “I still avoided using handheld, except for a single sustained oner, but we did use Steadicam a bit more. We retained the compositional style, with short siding and headroom, but I felt we needed to be tighter with respect to lighting.”

Elliot and Mr. Robot (Christian Slater) engage in a smoky atmosphere. Photo by Peter Kramer/USA Network.

One significant improvement from the cinematographer’s perspective was series creator Sam Esmail’s decision to direct every episode this season. “It was very hard because there are so many other demands on him from other departments,” says Campbell. “But we made a smart call up front, deciding to shoot these ten episodes in three separate blocks. In between each, we’d have a week and a half of prep, so he’d divide his time between that and seeing to post. This approach let us be very efficient with locations—some days shooting pieces of all ten episodes at once. Plus, to be honest, it makes for a far better show when he is directing.”

The series, produced by Universal Cable Productions and Anonymous Content, is captured with RED Dragon cameras, which provide sufficient resolution to allow for the occasional repositioning in post while facilitating VFX, though Campbell often elects to achieve startling visuals in-camera. “In episode 2, Elliot is on an Adderall jag, trying to get rid of his visions of Mr. Robot,” Campbell explains. “He has been awake so long that his brain freaks out on him, and to depict that we wanted the image to degrade. I grew up shooting film, so I wanted to take a really organic approach, as opposed to relying on a visual effects solution.” During the first season, Campbell had been startled and delighted when he discovered how the image broke up when a video transmitter and receiver were moved too far apart. “I remembered how great that looked and chose to separate them again, deliberately, to get this pixelly image that came and went, which really fit the character’s state of mind.”

Mr. Robot (Christian Slater). Photo by Michael Parmelee/USA Network.

Much of the series reflects Elliot’s tortured—or heightened?—consciousness. One “trick” in season 2 hinges on Elliot relating events to the audience that, while symbolically relevant to his situation, are a whole world apart from what he has actually experienced. This suggested a different visual approach to the DP. “I was on Cooke S5s last year, which gave us a round kind of look,” he notes. “But when I saw where we were going this season, I thought the flatness of Leica [Summicron-C] would work better. I had used them on two Stranger Things episodes and really fell in love with them.”

A different focal length also affected the way Elliot is perceived by the camera. “Last year we shot with a 32mm on Rami from 4’2” away,” reports Campbell. “That was our go-to practically every time out, because we wanted just his face—with a lot of the background out of focus—in order to be in his head with him. This season, since seeing the background behind him played into how he is talking about one situation but actually someplace else altogether, we used a 21mm at least 85 percent of the time, which was helpful in conveying the space he wants the audience to think he is really occupying.”

Although Campbell made a conscious effort to emphasize geometry this season and keep the lines straight, there was an occasion when he broke from that dictum. “I was at [camera rental facility] TCS looking at various lenses when Sam stopped by and fell in love with this 8mm rectilinear lens. I didn’t want that kind of image distortion, but Sam thought we needed a special look for one scene in which Elliot seems to be hacking the FBI. Most of it takes place in his mind, with only a short detour into the light of day before we go back into his psyche, with foreground elements stretching out as we move in toward him. It was all Sam’s brainstorm—I didn’t see it coming at all—and it really works well.” Campbell estimates he used the 8mm eight or nine more times during the season, but only for extreme wide shots, where the inherent distortion was not apparent.

Angela (Portia Doubleday) and E Corp. CEO Phillip Price (Michael Cristofer)at the E Corp. offices. Photo by Michael Parmelee/USA Network.

The cinematographer’s favorite challenge of the season came with a longish segment in which Elliot enters a sitcom-like pseudo-reality resembling TV from his youth—even to the point of including the titular character from the NBC series Alf. “We treated that just like a ’90s sitcom, shooting three-camera,” Campbell reveals. “When I called the production company and told them I was shooting Betacam and needed to find three matching DigiBeta cameras with ENG lenses, they wanted to know if I was serious. It was like, ‘You’re what?’ Those cameras aren’t fast like RED, so we needed more stop, with a lot shot against greenscreen. We had to boost light levels a lot higher than I’m used to, but it was a blast for gaffer Charlie Grubbs and me to figure it out and adapt. We used Coop lights and big soft lights from everywhere, but the weirdest part was hearing a laugh track playing back on set so Rami could react to the sounds.” Campbell also shot on other formats when appropriate, relying on an old Ikegami with external deck recorder to shoot the subversive videos broadcast by fsociety, Elliot’s underground hacker group.

Mr. Robot is principally location-driven, shot all over New York City. E Corp. headquarters employed two floors of a midtown Manhattan high-rise, modified by production designer Anastasia White to serve as Price’s office and a separate floor for the FBI’s on-site investigation. “We looked at a lot of office spaces but I fought hard to get this one,” says Campbell. “While it was more expensive, there were these north-facing windows, which was great for me in terms of the light coming in. I tried to get all my locations situated that way, to get a beautiful soft light coming in.”

Photo by Michael Parmelee/USA Network.

Campbell embellished on what nature provided, lighting all the close-ups with his usual large, soft sources. “My crew and I had a dialogue right at the start about my preference for book lighting, so they know the drill and don’t ever need reminding. Key grip Richard Guinness Jr. is not afraid to build every rag that is on his truck; you show up on set and all the frames are built and lying against the wall with snap grids on them. Sometimes I’ll double-diffuse, so that might involve an 8x12 in place plus an intermediate frame with 129.”

While avoiding the use of smoke in E Corp interiors, Campbell made a point of adding atmosphere for most scenes featuring Elliot. “I think it gave those scenes a warmth and visual interest,” he states, “though it can make you nervous when everybody is looking at you, waiting for the atmosphere to settle enough so we can shoot. When you’re doing eight or nine pages per day on TV, that is a factor.”

Sometimes the series manages to shoot in ambitious ways that far outpace usual broadcast fare. Such was the case with a night shoot in Manhattan’s Battery Park, during which a seven-figure ransom is publicly set ablaze. “When scouting there, we found it is really dark,” he declares. “There’s a ton of tree growth, so the existing light just didn’t work for us, especially given that we wanted to look in both directions.” He recalls using four lifts with Maxi Brutes, 20Ks and T12s. “I love to shoot fire at f/8 to hold as much flame as I can, but with an exterior night wide, I still had to lean heavily on the camera’s dynamic range.”

Angela and Darlene (Carly Chaikin) at the bright headquarters of E Corp.Photo by Peter Kramer/USA Network.

While Bling Digital continues to handle digital dailies, post was moved to New York in the second season. “Our edit suite is right in the office,” says Campbell, “which lets me see the color correct as we shoot. After we wrapped and I returned to Austin, I had a virtual color-correct session every Monday, with Sam in New York and Deluxe Encore lead colorist Laura Jans Fazio in L.A.—a tri-coastal approach that works well.” Campbell adds that Fazio looks after the DI.

Campbell remains extremely excited about the future of the series. “The original idea was a feature film, so this is kind of breaking down as one season equals one act,” he explains. “And the response to the show is just such a blast. Sam told me that if you look on Google Maps, you can see one of our locations is actually labeled ‘Elliot’s apartment.’ I thought that was awesome.”   

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