Mr. Robot‘s Cinematographer on Season Three’s Wild Ride
Sam Esmail’s critically-acclaimed drama Mr. Robot follows vigilante hacker Elliot (played by Rami Malek) as he wrestles with his personal demons while navigating the murky waters of good versus evil in the corporate world. We chat to director of photography Tod Campbell about creating a ground-breaking aesthetic for the show, how Malek’s arresting eyes influenced the cinematography and the ‘wild ride’ we can expect from season three.
You've really managed to create an exciting, dynamic aesthetic for Mr. Robot, can you just talk me through a little bit about your initial conversations with creator Sam Esmail about your approach? I understand that you were both keen to create something completely different, so how do you set about doing that?
Well, I guess the initial conversation was in an interview that I had and during interview, I know that that Sam had spoken with a lot of people prior, and one of the things that he kept driving at was wanting to create something different. He kept talking about wanting to do compositionally, something different, as well lighting and just tell a different story and I was coming from the same place at the same time. I was on Sleepy Hollow at the time. The main conversation we had was how at that point every director that I was working with would come in and reference some other TV show, like House of Cards, or whatever it was at the time. I said I think we should try to be the reference point for whatever comes next. That's kind of where it began and once we got through that and we started sitting down talking, we started looking at references, and there's a lot film references and a lot of still photo references and when we started talking about the story, about Elliot's story and where he's coming from.
How did Elliot’s perspective influence the look of the show?
We wanted to have the camera with him and that kind of evolved into honing in our references and then we kind of came up with a few rules that we wanted to adhere to, whether they were wrong or right. That's kind how we arrived at the place where we did.
What are some of those rules? You use a lot of short-sighting to make the characters feel less connected. Can you tell me a little more about that and some of the other basic rules that you have and how they evolved?
Yeah, I mean you said it. We're talking about loneliness, you know, because of Elliot’s inability to escape and putting him at the bottom of the corner of the frame makes it so there's no place for him to go and that's one thing that we really wanted to key in on. As far as what the rules were, we obviously felt like our compositions and our camera work would be really deliberate and we came up with the idea that there would be no Steadicam or handheld, which is obviously less specific.
It's quite unusual to not have the camera move much on a TV show, isn’t it?
It is. Lateral moves with camera or pushing in with the camera we felt was fine, but no panning and tilting. We would try to build our story within our composition and let that tell the story. And that’s why we don't shoot very tight. At times, we do, but generally we would allow for Rami and our actors to kind of move within the space and allow us to view it that way. So no, panning, no tilting and no Steadicam. I mean, I think two or three shots the first season use Steadicam. If you can't lay dolly track there're only certain things you can do.
Was it a challenge to stick to your rules?
We had to break them every once and again; it's impossible to not. By the time new directors would come in and argue and fight to do it the traditional way we would end up doing two different versions. But ultimately we stuck to it and I think the story still came off told correctly when Sam re-edited them using the shots that didn't break our rules. As far as season two goes, we obviously maintained our same sort of compositional work and then some of the rules I'd say were broken but I hate to use that term because I think ultimately, as the story and the characters evolves, the photography has to a little bit.
The way you approach the cinematography, given that it is unusual, how has that affected the other departments? I'm assuming that the way you shoot low and often show lots of the ceiling in the shot influences the locations and things like that?
Yeah, absolutely. Our locations department are looking for things that they would normally not look for; the ceilings are a big deal. We try to find patterns, you know, in our environment to use and obviously lines. Any sort of lines: be it straight lines, a grid that you can find when you line up a shot or lines that don't make any sense at all, to help create the confusion, if it's in the background of Elliot's head when he's trying to figure things out.
So, doing things differently in one element just sort of shoots through the whole show?
Yeah, it really does. It's a pretty unique situation right now, obviously. Happy that it's me.
Yes, it's exciting! I also discovered that the size of Rami’s eyes had an influence on the direction you took when you were developing the look of the show. How so?
It was one of the things when I first got hired and was watching the pilot, something that I fell in love with. I really felt like his eyes were just jumping off the screen in that very first scene and I remember thinking to myself then, Wow this is going to be amazing. I can't say that it entirely drove the choice of lenses that we used, but I did go for a rounder feeling lens.
How does a round lens affect the aesthetic?
Some lenses are quite flat and some lenses are a little rounder. I thought that a rounder lens would be a great idea for season one. Because it contours the face a little better when you are in close ups. It's funny, as I was getting through season one I started realising, due to our composition, because we shoot everything quite flat and don’t tilt up, the rounder lenses, which are great for their faces, made the lines in the background bend a touch. In season two I choose to go with a different set of lenses that are kind of in the middle.
Again, there was another evolution where in season two, I think we carried it out even better in terms of lighting and lensing across the board. That was another evolution that happened from one to two that looking back was really interesting to me.
You hone the look and experiment with it a little bit more with as you go?
Yes. I'm obviously very excited for season three. The thing that is very interesting about Mr Robot for season two and season three is that we have all of our scripts finished prior to shooting, so we’ve been able to read the entire arc of the story. Then you design the lighting and all these things throughout the season and you know where your end is- whereas typically in television you don't have a script you don't know what you are shooting until a couple of weeks prior and you can't make decisions early on. Another way our show is a bit more like a feature film is that Sam directed every episode in season two and three, so you have a more unified vision for the whole.
It also means you have a shorthand with each other, which perhaps makes it easier to map out some more interesting creative choices?
That is so true: we laugh more and talk less at this point.
Can you tell me more about season three and some of the ways that it will continue to evolve?
Okay, let me think about this because I am under strict orders to not reveal anything. I can only say that it's going to be a wild ride and I guess the fact that it is going to be a very fast-paced season. I'll just say that. Hopefully, that's okay.
This must be an exciting moment in your career, as there's a lot of buzz around the show and specifically the cinematography. You also worked on Netflix’s much-lauded Stanger Things.
I'm just so, so lucky to have spent the last two years of my life bouncing between Mr Robot and Stranger Things. It’s an ideal place to be in the world of television right now.
It seems like a fertile place to be creatively and networks are responding to what's happening with streaming and cable and have to step it up and do things that are more interesting and different. Do you feel like that’s the case?
Yeah, I hope that's the case and I really hope that there's the next little wave of television that hopefully be the networks getting together and breathing life into that kind of older model that they use and getting to a place where there are only three directors for this whole series, so we can keep the vision closer to home. All television is getting elevated and I feel like and it's nice to be a part of it and hopefully in the future I'll look back and be like, ‘Yeah, I helped sway a little bit of what was going on at the time.’
Mr. Robot returns in October. Featured image courtesy of USA Network.