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