‘Mr. Robot’ DP Tod Campbell On His Visual Approach To Sam Esmail’s Dark, Off-Kilter World

Splitting his time of late between two of television’s most visually stunning dramas, Mr. Robot and Stranger Things, cinematographer Tod Campbell earned his first Emmy nomination this year for his work on the former series.

Based in the experience of New York hacker Elliot Alderson—who suffers from a dissociative disorder—Mr. Robot and its shadowed, nightmarish world lend themselves to delicious low lighting and great feats of visual imagination. Below, Campbell outlines the “visual system” he established for the series with creator Sam Esmail and the process in capturing some extraordinary shootouts, touching as well on Season 2’s gleefully demented sitcom episode.

Mr. Robot is a show that seems to present a lot of visual opportunities—it’s very dark and often surreal. What opportunities did you see, coming into the show?

Elliot’s story and the fact that there is this other personality that’s in his head, that alone was the best jumping off point for me. As I read more scripts and talked with Sam [Esmail], we knew that we could kind of go wherever we wanted to, but we did want to create a thread and some sort of visual system, a way to evoke this feeling and what Elliot’s going through.

The first season, I didn’t have the entire story. It was a little more regular television—we had multiple directors. In Season 2, Sam directed every episode and we had all those scripts prior to shooting, so that was a big deal for us.

Sam Esmail is very cavalier and has very big balls when it comes to story, as well as the visuals. He’s not afraid to go in any direction. He doesn’t play it safe. I’ve been working on shows where a lot of people play it safe, and Sam wasn’t interested in being safe in any regard. You can tell that in his writing.

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The series stands out in its approach to framing and composition. Can you explain your approach?

Yeah, we did a few things. Our photography is evolving. We’re shooting Season 3 now and we’re changing things slightly again. In 1, we wanted to be very present with Elliot. We wanted to use wide lenses, very close to him, to really be in his head, because obviously, we play a character—he talks to us, anyway, throughout the show. We always shot Rami with wide lenses, close to him, and we would also have the ability to see the world around him that he’s experiencing.

In Season 2, I used a different type of lens that allowed the background to fall out of focus, because in Episode 7, we let on that he’s been in jail the whole time. We didn’t want to show so much of the space around him, so it wouldn’t be such a giveaway, but we still wanted to be close with him. That was one of the techniques we went for in Elliot’s close-ups.

In my interview with Sam, he talked about the way he wanted to photograph it, compositionally speaking, which worked out because I have the same bent, compositionally. My still work looks like our show. I was like, “God, I think I can finally use what I like.” Our compositions come from a place that worked out for story. I can never use that type of composition on anything else because it just wasn’t right for the story.

In this story, you put him down in the corner of the frame so it feels like he can’t escape. It’s the way he feels in his head so it really worked. In Season 1, this headroom and type of composition really started to work, and the more we did it, we were like, “God, this is such a great tool. We’re constantly feeling like the floor’s undulating beneath him.” We had a point of view, we went with it, and luckily it paid off.

Obviously, New York City plays a part in this story. We wanted to feel Elliot very small in this large, large place. The giant wides where he’s very little were important to help convey that.

I love the high-angle stuff. Sometimes, we don’t shoot standard masters; when you do a bird’s eye view, it gives you a sense of geography. When we scout for a bird’s eye view shot, we’re looking for lines that would loosely emulate the lines that you see on a microchip.

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The world of Mr. Robot is full of mystery, rife with a consistent sense of unease. How do you conjure up or support that feeling with your visuals?

I tried to approach that side of it through the lighting. A lot of times, I tried to put Elliot where he’s only in half-light, so there’s always a little mystery in there. This is a very dark show, story-wise, so I try to make it a very dark show, visually. I try to make dark spaces so you can’t read every detail of every room, trying to light only the things that we need to see in that moment.

That’s the general gist, going for that dread and uneasiness. We have these rules in place for close-ups, and with the lighting, I try to take it to another layer of tonality for the story.

You often push to the brink of total darkness, even in public spaces like bars. How do you achieve that technically, and what’s the motivation there?

I wanted to continue the tone, not only from interior night to exterior night, but also in the day. I had a big problem in the beginning. When I came on, we had to go back to some of the locations they had shot on the pilot. I’m having to shoot it in the day—when I got there during the day, I was like, “Man, this is going to cut weird, all this very dark material and then the very bright daylight.”

As much as I could help it on Season 1, I just never, ever shot in the sun. If I have to be there, I’ll drape black across the street to kill any hard sun that creates hard shadows, because I wanted to continue that vibe of a dark-feeling show, and it’s impossible to do that when you shoot in New York.

I love silhouettes—I studied Gordon Willis and all these great guys who shoot very dark, and I felt like that was tonally right for this story. In Season 2, it really started falling into place. Once I had Sam as a director, who’s very, very concerned about the visuals, I can press on him like, “Hey, we should go find something else to shoot inside right now, and come back out here when the light’s better.”

That’s pretty normal, I think, for most DPs, but for us it was imperative, and luckily I had a director and showrunner on board who would get down with that idea. For me, bright, sunny days just aren’t the story. That’s kind of the old USA method, blue skies and whatever their thing was.

There’s pieces in Episode 1 where Elliot’s happy, he’s going to go to Starbucks, he’s got his latte. He’s really turned over a new leaf, and we shot that in hard sun. That’s how you can use that, but in our story, there’s always something looming around the corner, so we always want to try to keep that in mind when I scout locations that are going to be exterior day.

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Season 2 was a great platform for your actors—Rami Malek was able to be really wild and free with some scenes. What was it like to work with your onscreen talent in those situations?

Having Sam direct every episode, we’re able to have conversations for months in advance of certain things like that, where we might want to light a little more broadly. We shot one two nights ago where it seemed like, I don’t know where Elliot’s going to go. He could go anywhere. We need to be prepared for that, and it’s like, God, that’s super hard to make a good-looking show—to not give him any marks and just run around the room.

In those moments, I have to get with my gaffer and my key grip and my operators, and we’ll find ways of choosing the right location where you can have windows so we can light from outside. We don’t put any lights inside typically, so that we’re able to give them this canvas in which they can work and not feel constrained. As you can see, when you give Rami the space to do what he does, he just kills it. It’s amazing to watch.

It’s a pretty awesome process here, I have to say—better than any other job I’ve been on. It’s pretty cool that we can fly under the radar of the normal system and just do what we want, within reason.

You have some shootouts and bigger action sequences this season. Have you ended up going through extensive camera choreography?

In that scene with Darlene where they’re having dinner and Cisco gets shot, we set the camera up and we just said, “Okay, we’re going to set up this tableau, and we’re going to let everything happen inside it. We’re not going to cut to anything, we’re not going to move the camera. We’re just going to set it here and block to the lens, essentially.”

We blocked off Sixth Avenue on a Sunday night. Once Grace [Gummer] comes in, we were like, Okay, this should be a oner. Let’s just have him get shot up in a oner, her come outside—the motorcycles, the cops—and let’s just play it in a oner. That’s one of the things Sam loves to do. There’s times when we’ll shoot scenes like that where it’s a major action sequence that we’ll do in a oner, and we’ll do 15 takes of it.

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There’s times where we do move the camera. Sam has this thing that he does every once and again, and I’ve really come to love it. It’s exploratory camera, where it will move through the scene. You see it in the beginning of Season 2, where you’re on a heartbeat monitor, and then it moves past young Elliot’s face, and then you see his father and mother are in the background, and the doctor, and then it goes and finds that brain scan, all in one shot. It’s this exploratory camera movement, and we’re doing a lot more of it this year.

It’s a great way of telling a story not through edits, in the typical fashion. We don’t have all the time in the world, but we find a way to do a lot of that, to really try to be better storytellers, and not just, “Master, single, single, tighter, tighter.”

How did you handle the nightmarish sitcom episode, which was a huge stylistic departure?

God, we had ALF. [laughs] That was crazy! When Sam had written it, we were throwing around references of Full House and all those kinds of ‘90s sitcoms. That’s where we wanted to go with this. For me, shooting on my regular camera and having post degrade the image or whatever…I wanted to use those cameras that they used back then. We went back and shot on Betacam—actually recorded on Betacam tape—with three cameras, the way they do.

We shot that whole thing in a day and a half, two days. We just attacked it in the same manner in which those shows are done, with silly backdrops and crazy sets, and really went for it. We went total high-key, super bright, lights coming from everywhere, and we all had a blast doing it.

It’s a really cool piece, and it really stands out in the middle of the season, with this bizarro sitcom vibe—there’s laugh tracks, and all this great stuff in there. I thought it was really well done.