The ‘Mr. Robot’ Experiment: Can a TV Show Be Shot Like an Indie Film?

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Although the argument of TV vs. film primacy has moved to the point of psychic exhaustion, “cinematic” remains the #1 adjective used in every Emmy pitch. The highest praise that can be accorded small-screen stories is when a creator’s vision is expressed in visual language… that evokes a movie.

However, what so often gets lost in all this sound and fury is, no matter the budget, it’s the film and TV production processes that shape the final product. For the creative team behind “Mr. Robot,” they wanted to find a path that would give them the aesthetics that can only come with expansive planning, while maintaining much of the run-and-gun pace TV production demands.

How TV Gets Made

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After wrapping season one of “Mr. Robot,” cinematographer Tod Campbell wasn’t particularly satisfied. He had come to understand the vision of the show’s creator, Sam Esmail, but the work sometimes fell short of the sophistication and elegance he wanted to see.

“Too often, it feels like we were making do,” said Campbell. A cinematographer known for working quickly and minimally, he also has experience shooting bigger shows like Netflix’s “Stranger Things.” He knew the problem wasn’t simply a matter of the show’s low budget.

“There’s an element of control missing for a show that is shot on location,” said Campbell. “You visit the same location multiple times over three months, and you struggle to achieve the congruency of light. You spend more time figuring out how to hide the fact the leaves are gone from the trees than telling the story.”

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The show’s creator was well aware that his talented DP’s energy wasn’t going where it needed to be. He’d been struggling with the same inefficiencies of shooting episode to episode for months.

“We aren’t the type of show that is on set a lot,” said Esmail. “We’re in New York City, we’re going to shoot New York Fucking City — why wouldn’t you? The fact that we were so location dependent, the episodic production structure didn’t work for that. You literally had to make compromises constantly for other scenes to fit locations. It really hindered the creative process when it came to our production designer, our cinematography, because they never could get a rhythm. They’re there for two-eighths of a page and we’d go fast to [another compromised location] two blocks away.”

Could ‘Mr. Robot’ be shot like movie?

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For Season 2, Esmail wanted to explore movie-style production within the constraints of TV. If the scripts were written in advance, and he directed every episode, could the the 12 episodes adapt a movie-like block-shooting approach to production? Producer Joe Iberti, a veteran production manager on studio movies, was brought aboard to help crack the code.

“The key is the scripts being done ahead of time,” said Iberti. “We can put together a block of shooting at a particular location that would be prohibitively expensive to keep coming back and forth to over a season, but if we could condense it to a couple of days and shoot out all our episodes in that time, we realized real efficiency there.”

But first, Iberti had to play with the budget to allow eight full weeks of prep before production, with another prep stint between each of the season’s episode blocks. (Season 2 had three blocks, Season 3 has two.) Once he did that, the show unlocked new potential.

The locations department was no longer confined to settling for locations where they could return episode to episode, or that fit the jig saw puzzle of shooting a show in eight days. They found spaces that allowed for the wide, low-angle shots Esmail craved. Production designer Anastasia White worked with locations to maintain color palette consistency and the show’s look. Campbell would map out what time of day was best for each location in terms of daylight, and work with the assistant director to determine the shooting schedule.

Campbell points to the scenes at the basketball court, and the grey light that gave the scenes a mood, as one example of the control he now had in shaping the show’s look.

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“Having the scripts ahead of time meant I could arc the lighting to match how the story was progressing,” said Campbell.

For her part, White captured the metamorphosis of the characters over the season by creating a detailed color scheme for each character, working with Campbell to match it in the light he’d use.

“We really used the color palette and kept the characters in their own tones,” said White. “We did a lot work at the locations for Season 2; we didn’t just shoot them as is. With the prep we planned ahead for heavy set dressing, including painting if necessary when we needed to get a little of that New York grime to register for the camera.”

One Director, One Shot

“I never fancied myself a writer. I didn’t think I’d be any good at it,” said Esmail, who went to the AFI masters program to become a movie director, not a TV writer.

After grad school, he was frustrated with the scripts he read so he wrote “Sequels, Remakes and Adaptations” with idea it would be his first indie feature. The script found its way onto the 2008 Blacklist and suddenly he was ushered into Hollywood as a writer. No one had interest in him directing.

“I struggled a lot, because the way I write is [really just a blueprint for the visuals] and I couldn’t imagine handing it over to someone,” said Esmail. “It was like Season 1 [of “Robot”], handing over the script [to other directors].”

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For Esmail, a great deal of the paranoia and social anxiety in the Eliot character was personal. Finding himself in one-hour “tone” meetings with each director of each episode became a farcical exercise — the idea that he could encapsulate his vision in what amounted to a PowerPoint presentation.

“I’ll be honest, it took me a while to get in his head,” said Campbell. “Sam has a vast knowledge of movies, and remembers every image – billboard, photo, painting – and using visual references became the way we really communicated. It’s not usually a specific thing he wants to replicate, but more the vibe he’s going for and it really helped me enter how he saw ‘Robot.’”

For Esmail, covering a scene with close-ups and a master is simply documenting the action and doling out information. It doesn’t supply a point of view.

“You are wired in TV production, especially if you are a journeyman director, to count the pieces of coverage you need,” said Esmail. “You don’t have the luxury of saying, ‘Well, hold on, that’s how you cover the scene, but who is this scene about? What is the point-of-view of the scene? And then from that, what is the most dynamic way to shoot that?’

“Maybe you never see the other person Darlene is talking to as you do a slow dolly push in on her and then you’re out,” he said. “The shot I just explained, you could be done with the scene much sooner if you made that commitment, but it takes that prep upfront to think about that scene and make that decision. If I’m not there, is a TV director going to feel confident enough to make that decision on their own?”

Campbell sympathizes with TV directors, saying it doesn’t matter how much you nudge them, there’s an instinct to cover your ass by covering the scene in a way you know the editor will be able to make the scene make sense.

“Because Sam is editing the show in his head, he’s able to make gutsy call of slashing coverage,” said Campbell. “Then at the same time, we can put our time toward nailing [that one complicated] shot and still make our day.”

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After Season 1, “Mr. Robot” was a hit and Esmail had the juice to become the show’s sole director. That gave White and Campbell the power to go bold as well. White dialed up the abstract sterility of the 1-percenters at E-Corp, and extended her bold use of color to define characters. Campbell went dark — very dark, like cinematographer Gordon Willis dark in “The Godfather.”

“Sam brought up Gordon Willis in our first meeting, and my goal now is for him to tell me it’s too dark,” said Campbell. “I hear people say the show’s too dark to see on their TV, but there’s a spirit about the way we shoot this that I love and it should look different. That’s how Sam sees it.”

It’s Not a Movie

While the block shooting and Esmail directing reconfigured the production to emphasize the visual storytelling, “Mr. Robot” is not a two-hour feature. The cast has to find their characters, while the production constantly jumps back forth between all 12 episodes, in what is an extremely complicated storyline.

“Sam’s script descriptions are remarkably clear and help ground all of us as we jump around episodes,” said Iberti. “But the burden for what we are doing falls on the cast, which is something we always have to take into account.”

Esmail conducts what he calls a “binge table read” for the cast during prep, but according to Iberti none of it would be possible if he wasn’t on set.

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“I have to pull them aside and say, “Let’s just talk about where you were before this scene,'” said Esmail. “‘We’re shooting this scene from episode 7, so the last time we saw you was in episode 6 and you were talking to X, because this happened.’ And sometimes they’ll say, ‘Wait a minute, why did that happen?’ And we have to peel the onion a little bit. I don’t remember every detail, but that’s why we have an amazing script supervisor.”

Everybody involved in the show has their own thick binder filled with various charts to keep tabs on what’s going on, but ultimately the play’s the thing. “At the end of the day we have to play in the moment,” adds Esmail. “Because acting is such an emotional thing, we can’t get too far into intellectualizing everything. I’ll leave that to the writers.”