BY IAIN MARCKS
Mr. Robot tells the story of Elliot Alderson (Rami Malek), a young cyber-security engineer who suffers from social-anxiety disorder and clinical depression. In the show’s first season, Elliot is recruited into a group of hacktivists led by the surly anarchist known as “Mr. Robot” (Christian Slater). The group aims to erase all debts by cyber-attacking large corporations. The second season deals with the fallout of their success. Both seasons were photographed by cinematographer Tod Campbell, who, along with director and showrunner Sam Esmail, set out to break as many rules of image composition as they could. Their success has yielded one of the most unique-looking shows on television.
American Cinematographer: Since Mr. Robot first aired, one of the things people continue talking about is how striking the show is visually — the way you short-sight the characters and place them low in the frame, emphasizing isolation and oppression with massive amounts of headroom. Having set such a specific look, how does your visual approach evolve from season to season?
Tod Campbell: When we started shooting season one, Sam and I knew what we wanted to do compositionally, and we installed some basic rules to follow because he wouldn’t direct every episode. At that point, I’d only read the script for the first episode, so the look of the show changed as we saw the story unfold. Going into season two I was able to read all 10 scripts [prior to production], and I could arc the photography over the course of the season because I knew what the end of the story was. For season three, we’ll adapt a little more I imagine.
What are these rules that you mentioned?
Campbell: Composition is a big one. In season one we used a 32mm lens on Elliot in every single shot, including his close-ups. In season two we decided to use a 21mm; Elliot thinks he is at his mom’s house when he is actually in prison, and going to a wider lens allowed us to change the feeling of the background while keeping him the same size in the frame. We also try to be open-minded and flexible — that’s kind of a rule in its own right.
What evolved from a technical standpoint?
Campbell: A lot of our compositions make use of straight lines [within the frame], and that was very difficult with the wider Cooke 5/i lenses. Right after Robot season one I shot Stranger Things with Tim Ives, who was using Leica Summilux-C primes. When I came back to Robot we switched to the Leicas. I like them because they’re so beautiful, and it’s a flatter lens, which helped us make our compositions a bit straighter.
Did you change the lighting?
Campbell: One of my main goals was to really tell the story with lighting. In season two we don’t use a lot of fill light with Elliot. Sometimes you only get to see one eye. There’s this cloudiness that surrounds him because the truth of his environment is obscured.
Did your crew stay the same?
Campbell: A-camera first assistant Michael Garofalo and B-camera first Wes Hodges have been with me for both seasons. They’re incredible focus pullers, considering we’re never above a T2. I had the same key grip, Richie Guinness [Jr.], and he’s the person I lean on the heaviest; he is literally my right-hand man. I can show up to work in the morning and everything is built and ready to go. Rigging key William Kerwick and his team go above and beyond. Gaffer Charlie Grubbs and rigging gaffer John Woods also really just blow me away.
What’s your shooting schedule like?
Campbell: In season one we had seven days to shoot an hour-long episode, so we had to move very quickly, shooting seven to nine pages a day. Going into season two we had eight days an episode. We did the first four episodes in one block, went on hiatus, then came back and shot two three-episode blocks. Some days might touch all 10 episodes if you’re trying to shoot out one location in a single day.
How involved are your camera operators — Craig Haagensen, Aaron Medick and Brian Jackson — in designing your shots and compositions?
Campbell: When I first met with Craig, he came in with tons of stills and video references and we went through them all. I told him, ‘Look, I know you’ve been doing this for almost as long as I’ve been alive, so this is going to seem very awkward and bizarre.’ Aaron has been the Steadicam guy for both seasons so far, and he was also our A-camera operator for season two, when Brian came into the B-camera position. Both of these guys quickly adapted to the unconventional framing, and that first episode we did together, that’s where we found it. Now we’ll set up a shot and Sam will either love it or hate it or noodle with it a little bit until we find that ‘Robot shot.’
Does the framing affect the kinds of sets and locations you shoot in?
Campbell: It definitely influences our locations because we’re looking for things a more conventionally photographed show might not consider. For instance, when we do our scouts we look at the lines in the ceiling, which will more often than not be in-frame. In some locations, the floor is terrible, but we don’t have to worry about it because we know mostly we’ll never even see the floor.
I imagine this poses some unique challenges for your locations managers and production designers.
Campbell: Sam is with us on every scout, and we decide on the locations together. He wants to make sure everyone is happy with the locations we choose. Demian Resnick, the locations manager from season one, was very aware of it and would come to us with photos of just ceilings. Anastasia White [took over as production designer for] season two. She’d worked with us once before as an art director. She’s very smart and aware of what’s going to be on-camera. It was a language we were all speaking.
How much do you rely on visual effects to help you tell the story?
Campbell: Sam’s not crazy about visual effects, so we try to keep it minimal. Sometimes we can’t get around it for things like gunshots and blood spurts due to the reset time [necessary for practical effects]. Any time we have a larger shot, like the scene where Elliot is released from prison and the camera tilts up from the basketball court to the sky, then back down to the prison yard, I’ll request that the supervisors come with us on the tech scout. They’ll always be there on the day, even for the smallest stuff.
Are they helping you design these shots?
Campbell: I definitely look to them for creative input. I can tell you where the sun’s going to be, how the actors will be blocked, and I can shoot greenscreen all day long, but I can’t tell you exactly what we’re going to need to pull off a complicated visual-effects shot.
Do you like to color grade on set?
Campbell: We shoot Robot in 5K [Redcode] raw with Red Weapons, and when I’m shooting I try to get the image as close as I possibly can to what it’s going to look like when people stream it or watch it on TV. I had the Low-Light Optimized optical low-pass filter installed in each camera, and our LUT starts at 10-percent desaturation, with the blacks slightly lifted. There’s a little warmth in there. Sometimes Sam will want to change a shot with subtle white-balance shifts and maybe some contrast tweaks, but largely we do it all on set before it goes to colorist Laura Jans Fazio at [Deluxe’s] Encore in Hollywood. [Ed. note: Fazio works with a FilmLight Baselight system and delivers 1920x1080 HD files.] It might be slightly darker on television because of the compression, but if you don’t go that far right away and everyone at the studio gets used to seeing dailies look a certain way, they freak out the minute you change it in the grade. Our DIT, Doug Horton, has been with us for both seasons. He’s also my therapist when I’m freaking out about how dark the image is.