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‘Mr. Robot’ Emmys 2016: How Score and Sound Explore Elliot’s Splintered Psychology

The unusual blending of score and sound mixing created greater unity for Sam Email's innovative and unsettling "Mr. Robot."

Mr. Robot

“Mr. Robot”

NBCUniversal Television Distribution

Tapping into the mindset of “Mr. Robot’s” vigilante hacker, Elliot (Rami Malek), was a great creative opportunity for both composer Mac Quayle and re-recording sound mixers John Cook and Bill Freesh. They even collaborated together in blending the sonic design.

For Quayle, who specializes in moody electronic music, it was a natural fit— mixing strange ambient sounds with unnerving beats to help blur Elliot’s objective and subjective realities. Fittingly, his lone theme in Season 1 revolved around Elliot’s splintered psychology. The rest he defines as texture and mood.

“The electronic score is pretty dark, paranoid and tense in mood,” said Quayle, who’s nominated for the first episode (“Hello Friend”). “It alternates with melancholy and there are very few light moments.”

Quayle found it fascinating playing with Elliot’s passive-aggressive nature as well as his kindness and destructive behavior. “So it was a stupid idea to have the theme go back and forth between the major and minor note of the chord,” he said.  “So we have this light and dark all in the same theme.”

It’s all about using synthesizers in the first season with the piano as the lone instrument. “I have a collection of analog synthesizers, but the deadlines and the workflow of this show and TV in general are too fast to be playing with the hardware,” Quayle said.

His bi-coastal collaboration with creator Sam Esmail was challenging at first, sending files and then responding back and forth either by email or on the phone. “There were different interpretations of Elliot’s emotions,” Quayle said. “One moment I thought it was scary for Elliot but Sam wanted it sadder.”

MR. ROBOT -- "hellofriend.mov" Episode 101 -- Pictured: Rami Malek as Elliot -- (Photo by: Sarah Shatz/USA Network)

Mr. Robot

But when they finally got together in Quayle’s LA studio they could more easily get in sync. “There’s a poignant part when Elliot talks about how his father died,” Quayle said. “I tried to tap into some sadness, and as we get to the peak of the scene, it’s almost like a heroic moment for him, which I hadn’t quite hit initially. He’s called the police on this guy who’s running an illicit website and gets up and walks out the door as they arrive.”

Quayle also had a closer collaboration with the sound team on their Emmy-nominated episode (“Brave Traveler”) when he was given the sound of an industrial pile driver during a scene when Elliot is held at gunpoint at a waterfront. “I incorporated that particular sound into the cue [as a synth beat] and had it repeat and become part of the music,” Quayle said.

In fact, according to the re-recording mixers, who often took their cues from Quayle’s score, the experience upped the synergy between them. “We were able to combine that on stage in a really fun way. It was music as a sound effect,” said Cook.

Unlike most of the other episodes, though, “Brave Traveler” was a procedural in which Elliot directly confronts his paranoia and the dire consequences of his actions in the most personal way. The highlight was an exciting prison break executed by Elliot, culminating with another instance of synergy between Quayle and the sound team.

“The use of helicopter and siren at the end of the prison break was another great blending,” said Freesh. “They’re in the same key and working together. It’s all rhythmic and like an added pulse to Mac’s music along with the shouting and the dogs barking—the realistic stuff that helped us to sell 30 inmates breaking out and celebrating.”

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