Tag Archives: cinematography

What’s so special about Mr. Robot (2015)?

What’s so special about Mr. Robot (2015)?

Director of Photography: Tod Cambell

Mr. Robot is a show about a young, anti-social computer programmer, Elliot Alderson (Rami Malek), who works as a cybersecurity engineer during the day, but at night he is a vigilante hacker. It’s all about hiding, about feeling trapped and finding a new escape.

Elliot is recruited by the mysterious leader of an underground group of hackers to join their organisation, and help bring down corporate America, including the company whom he works for. Although he works for a corporation, his personal beliefs make it hard to resist the urge to take down the heads of multinational companies that he believes are running, and ruining, the world. His moral dilemma shines through his first person narration, his physical characterisation, but also cinematography. How he is always framed speaks the truth about the persecution he feels inside his head and how oppressed he believes the world is. But also that others are framed as well is this weird way means we are always inside Elliot’s head. The whole show is a Point of View exercise.

How? Have a look. This would be a standard, perfectly composed frame for a two person shot, either a master or an OTS (over the shoulder) shot.

The Dark Knight Rises (2012) and Inglorious Bastards (2009)
The Dark Knight Rises (2012) and Inglorious Bastards (2009)

And this is what Tod Campbell does with Mr. Robot:

Mr. Robot (2015)
Mr. Robot (2015)

This is how he deliberately violates the Rule of Thirds, but also the Lead Room rule, the Rule of Headroom, etc. to create a chronic agony inherent to Elliot.


Characters are often placed at the very bottom of the frame. This leaves massive amounts of headroom that suggests a great weight hanging over their heads, and echoes their isolation.


Lead Room and Negative Space

The lead room is the space at each side of the frame towards which the character is looking, or moving into. Usually, balanced framing would suggest to have more room in front of the character than behind to help convey the physical space that characters occupy.

See how boring this is??
See how boring this is??

So in Mr. Robot they’re going with no Lead Room. Campbell decides to “shortsight” the characters, positioning their faces at the edge of the frame closest toward the person to whom they’re speaking, emphasizing, once again, isolation. Even when they’re talking right to each other, they seem alone. They don’t know where they stand in relation to one another.

“Shortsighting is unnerving,” Campbell explains. “It further accentuates how fucked-up Elliot’s world is. The idea was to convey the loneliness. That’s the internal dialogue I had with myself: How do we tell that story? How do you get Elliot across?”


Rule of Thirds

The Rule of thirds is not necessarily broken, although used in a different manner. Instead of having the characters use up two thirds of the frame, leaving one for lead room, Tod decides to go with one third for the characters only. Wide shots also have a Rule of thirds approach, but it is the lines in the frame that determine the different areas, not the character’s size in it.


Leading Lines

As for leading lines, these are widely used in consonance with the story. They are present in almost every shot, but specially in those that have to do with corporate America. Framings from the office and Elliot’s bosses show up these amazing diagonals that create overall unease and tension, but also describe the underlying feeling of imprisonment and corseted reality that Elliot faces in his day to day life.


And it’s not all there is to Mr. Robot’s cinematography. Talk about wide, round lenses (Cooke S5s), color, open apertures and shallow depth of field for an “in his head” feeling, etc. These are the reasons why I love this show. Oh, and the hacker stuff ;).

The meaning of color in Black Swan (2010)

The meaning of color in Black Swan (2010)

I’m sure you are aware that different colors evoke different feelings on people. Like, for instance, orange looks warm and perhaps aggressive, while blue is cold and calm. Green is the color of hope and also envy, whereas red is passion, white means purity, black can represent death… and so on.

For a more technical approach on color, I wrote about it here (Color Teories), and here (Digital Representation of Color).

In film we are constantly being bombarded with arrangements of carefully composed and colored frames. But have you stopped to think up to what extent the director and cinematographer are purposely sending a message through the use of color? Any given production has a thought behind it and most of the times nothing is casualty. Let’s go on and analyse Black Swan.

Black Swan (2010)

Cinematographer: Matthew Libatique
Nominated for the 2011 Academy Award for Best Cinematography.

What are the main colors in this film? Clearly Black and White, but also Pink and Green. Here are examples of how these colors are being used.


White is clearly meant for purity and virginity. That is why Natalie Portman’s Nina dressed in white for most of the film, right until the climatic point after her false encounter with Lily (Mila Kunis).



Nina’s past looks pink. References to her childhood and her upbringing are pink. Its girly and childlike allure points out her naivety, and how she is a child inside that has grown up but is still totally immersed in the small inner world of her and her mother, unaware of other world problems or issues outside her close surroundings.



But the story is not all about Nina and her psychological derail. It’s also about her mother Erica (Barbara Hershey) as a narcissist force that abuses her daughter. The envy on the part of the mother plays a huge part in the process, especially in view of the fact that Erica, who was also a budding ballerina, never made it to soloist status. We see evidence that the mother uses Nina to meet her own needs both in her attempt to live vicariously through Nina’s dancing but also in her undermining of Nina becoming too successful.

Nina needs Erica to function and to be a ballerina; Erica needs Nina to live. It’s a symbiotic relationship. When Nina masturbates as “homework” to try to access her inner passion, she sees her mother asleep in her bedroom. This was a metaphor for her mother being connected to her sexuality, and Nina’s attempts to awaken her passion would also awaken her mother. In fact, the mother is the focal point in the audience when Nina takes her suicidal plunge as the White Swan at the end of the ballet. Fellow ballerina Lily tries to befriend Nina, which connects Lily to Nina’s mother in Nina’s head. Seduction must be followed by betrayal in Nina’s head, which causes Nina to view Lily as a rival trying to take away her role in the ballet. Nina can only become the Black Swan (again, in her own head) by killing Lily, which by extension is killing her mother.



Black is pure evil, represented by the mother’s clothing, but also in Lily’s, who is, in fact, a representation of Erica in Nina’s mind.


It’s only after the climax, where Nina finally lets her sexuality free, that we see her dress in Black. Also, during that night, when they are still at the club, light purposely changes from pink to green as Nina battles her way through her repressions and mother issues.


Check out Evan E. Richard’s shot by shot breakdown here: http://evanerichards.com/2011/1898