How Cinematography Affects Story In "Mr. Robot"

Mr. Robot is one of the most interesting shows currently on television. Returning for its third season on October 11th, this show works both as a boldly modern discussion of mental health and moral philosophy with an intriguing core narrative about hacking, while simultaneously working with the aesthetic of an 80s thriller, both in terms of its sound design, and some of its visuals.

What's most interesting about Mr. Robot, though (at least from my personal perspective), has to do with its most obvious element -- its cinematography.

There are generally two schools of thought when it comes to cinematography, though unwritten. Generally, filmmakers and viewers fall into one of two categories. Some people feel that cinematography should be used to impart the narrative. In other words, it should be used strictly as a tool to present the narrative, and should not call attention to itself, so that viewers are not taken out of the story. Others feel that cinematography should augment the narrative, and introduce subtle elements of its own to enhance the written story.

Mr. Robot is interesting because it does both of these things. The show, and its creator Sam Esmail, is no stranger when it comes to shaking cinematic conventions. The show breaks the 4th wall with ease and fluidity, affectionately calls the main company in its narrative "Evil Corp", and utilizes voiceover to explore Eliot's state of mind, and philosophical musings. So it should come as no surprise that the cinematography in this show dips into both pools.

Most film students come across the rule of thirds, and other composition "rules" at the very beginning of their education. I use quotes for the term 'rules' because, as you will find, or have already found, there are no true rules in filmmaking. In fact, like with all art forms, the people who are most successful, or who find the most pleasure, in this medium are the ones who consistently break these rules.

The above video, brought to you by YouTuber D4 Darious (who runs an excellent filmmaking channel; I highly recommend you subscribe to him for more DIY filmmaking tips, and filmmaking analyses) discusses the basic premises of these compositional "rules". All of them, in general, can be relied upon to help you create an appealing image, and -- to be fair -- many professional filmmakers and cinematographers rely upon these basic compositional rules in their films and shows.

Photo by USA Network/Michael Parmelee/USA Network - © 2016 USA Network Media, LLC

Photo by USA Network/Michael Parmelee/USA Network - © 2016 USA Network Media, LLC

Mr. Robot is different though. It purposefully, and overtly, bucks typical cinematic trends to create something different. Whenever I watch the show, I always have this gut feeling of unease, or of concern. Why is that? What do these visuals have to do with that feeling?

This goes back to my first mention of imparting a story and augmenting a story. While it's fair to say that all cinematography imparts a story -- by virtue of being the visual element, it is what connects us with the scripts, and character outlines, that have been written out -- it can be harder to identify how cinematography alone can augment, or enhance, a narrative. 

Look at the image above. Without any context, this looks like a badly framed image, right? Sure, it still follows the rule of thirds (she is placed on the right side of the grid), but there's no lead room. Because we cannot see anything beyond what is captured in this image, it feels as though Angela, the character in this shot, is looking at a wall. It's uncomfortable.

Photo by USA Network/Michael Parmelee/USA Network - © 2016 USA Network Media, LLC

Photo by USA Network/Michael Parmelee/USA Network - © 2016 USA Network Media, LLC

The same is true of Elliot in the above photo -- again, still technically following the rule of thirds, but we are again confronted by this odd lack of lead space. Everything feels scrunched together, and the balance of the image seems off.

Photo by USA Network/Michael Parmelee/USA Network - © 2016 USA Network Media, LLC

Photo by USA Network/Michael Parmelee/USA Network - © 2016 USA Network Media, LLC

Some other examples, like this one, are more drastic. Here the cinematographer isn't even following the rule of thirds. Philip Price is relegated to the very corner of the image, while the expansive office around him seems more imposing, more important. 

Photo by USA Network/Michael Parmelee/USA Network - © 2016 USA Network Media, LLC

Photo by USA Network/Michael Parmelee/USA Network - © 2016 USA Network Media, LLC

And again here, where Elliot, who is our main character, is pushed to the very corner of the frame, the environment around him seeming to swallow him whole.

When I discussed this with a filmmaking mentor of mine (this was when I had just started watching the show), he quipped that cinematographers had gotten bored with convention, and were just messing with audiences for the hell of it. Maybe there's some truth to that. But with Mr. Robot, I would like to think there is something underneath the surface here.

That's because these images do augment the narrative. Elliot is an anti-social character, who enjoys spending more time by himself, with his computer, than he does with other people. He only truly considers one person, Angela Moss, a close friend. Further, the story is centered around his desire to help people, and his actions to bring down "the man", so to speak -- all of this is fueled by the mysterious figure, Mr. Robot, who has a very antagonistic relationship with Elliot.

With all of this in mind, is it so odd that the cinematography would reflect these things? By pushing our characters to the edge of the frame, the viewer is unable to really see what is coming, while also feeling very uncomfortable -- we're not used to that type of framing. So by using this unconventional framing, the show is able to make us confused, and/or uncomfortable, and set itself apart from competing shows.

This is further compounded by the usage of wide angle shots that do follow conventional composition rules.

Photo by USA Network/Sarah Shatz/USA Network - © 2014 USA Network Media, LLC

Photo by USA Network/Sarah Shatz/USA Network - © 2014 USA Network Media, LLC

This speaks to the "imparting and augmenting" dichotomy I spoke of earlier. Shots like this are purely technical (or mostly technical). They provide us with a sense of time, place, and tone which is written into the narrative of the story. These kinds of shots bring the words to life. What was a paragraph of Courier font is now a robustly beautiful, and informative, image.

Photo by USA Network/Peter Kramer/USA Network - © 2014 USA Network Media, LLC

Photo by USA Network/Peter Kramer/USA Network - © 2014 USA Network Media, LLC

Regardless of whether or not these images have a modernist aesthetic, or if they are recalling grungy, textured imagery from past films and shows, we regard these shots as normal. We may comment on their beauty, or on how cool they are (as we do nowadays when we see a single-take shot), but we generally don't dive into them further to analyze their meaning.

Image taken from IMDB.com

Image taken from IMDB.com

Mr. Robot has plenty of this style of cinematography -- cinematic, informative, pretty to look at. It imparts information well, and allows the viewer to passively ingest the story, the setting, and the characters.

Photo by USA Network/Michael Parmelee/USA Network - © 2016 USA Network Media, LLC

Photo by USA Network/Michael Parmelee/USA Network - © 2016 USA Network Media, LLC

However, it also throws us imagery like this -- unconventional, odd, confusing, and unnerving. Yet it speaks to the confusing, dreamy, or suspenseful elements of its narrative. This kind of cinematography takes us out of the experience, if but for a moment, and yet in doing so it provides us with the chance to delve deeper into the narrative, and to analyze its characters.

Photo by USA Network/Michael Parmelee/USA Network - © 2016 USA Network Media, LLC

Photo by USA Network/Michael Parmelee/USA Network - © 2016 USA Network Media, LLC

It is very possible, as my filmmaking mentor quipped to me, that these cinematographers are just bored, and are trying to see what they can get away with. It is also entirely possible that creator Sam Esmail wanted to create a distinct visual aesthetic that would set his show apart from other dramas currently on television. But these choices feel very deliberate. And, whether by happenstance or by design, they speak to the underlying themes of the show in a way we are not used to. In an age where the majority of thematic understanding comes from overt dialogue and obvious themes, it's both refreshing and confusing to see some of Mr. Robot's themes being discussed in such an obvious, yet subtle, way.

If anything, Mr. Robot's cinematography speaks to the kind of out-of-the-box thinking that has lead to so many film movements, and so many television revivals. We may be in the Golden Age of Television currently, but that does not mean there isn't room for innovation -- quite the contrary. Mr. Robot will continue to challenge us, I'm sure, and I hope its boldness will inspire other creators, and other cinematographers, to do the same.