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

Creator Sam Esmail and his production team breakdown how they reinvented the way they shot their hit show.
MR. ROBOT -- "eps2.0_unm4sk%u2010pt1.tc" Episode 201 -- Pictured: (l-r) Joey Bada$$ as Leon, Rami Malek as Eliot Alderson -- (Photo by: Peter Kramer/USA Network)
MR. ROBOT -- "eps2.0_unm4sk%u2010pt1.tc" Episode 201 -- Pictured: (l-r) Joey Bada$$ as Leon, Rami Malek as Eliot Alderson -- (Photo by: Peter Kramer/USA Network)
MR. ROBOT -- "eps2.0_unm4sk%u2010pt1.tc" Episode 201 -- Pictured: Rami Malek as Eliot Alderson -- (Photo by: Peter Kramer/USA Network)
MR. ROBOT -- "eps2.0_unm4sk%u2010pt1.tc" Episode 201 -- Pictured: Martin Wallström as Tyrell Wellick -- (Photo by: Peter Kramer/USA Network)
MR. ROBOT -- "eps2.0_unm4sk%u2010pt1.tc" Episode 201 -- Pictured: Rami Malek as Elliot Alderson -- (Photo by: Peter Kramer/USA Network)
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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.

READ MORE: ‘Mr. Robot’ Season 3: Why Sam Esmail Couldn’t Ignore Trump’s Victory When Writing New Episodes  

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

"Mr. Robot," Seaspn 2, Episode 5
“Mr. Robot,” Seaspn 2, Episode 5Michael Parmelee/USA Network

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.”

READ MORE: The Best Indie Film Directors are Working on One Hulu Show, and Most Just Happen to be Women

MR. ROBOT -- "eps2.3_logic%u2010b0mb.hc" Episode 205 -- Pictured: (l-r) BD Wong as Whiterose, Grace Gummer as Dominique "Dom" DiPierro -- (Photo by: Peter Kramer/USA Network)
“Mr. Robot,” Season 2, Episode 3Peter Kramer/USA Network

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.

READ MORE: ‘Annihilation’ Author Says Alex Garland’s ‘Mind-Blowing’ Adaptation Evokes Stanley Kubrick and ‘2001’

“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?

MR. ROBOT -- "eps2.9_pyth0n-pt1.p7z" Episode 211 -- Pictured: Portia Doubleday as Angela Moss -- (Photo by: Michael Parmelee/USA Network)
“Mr. Robot,” Season 2, Episode 9Michael Parmelee/USA Network

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.

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