Tod Campbell, director of photography on USA Network’s Mr. Robot, talked to Awards Daily about having Season 2’s lighting influenced by plot spoilers.
This is the latest in a weekly series of interviews with the cast and creative behind USA / NBC Universal’s Mr. Robot.
“I’ve been hacked twice,” said Tod Campbell, director of photography on USA Network’s Mr. Robot. Yes, the level of intrigue on this show is so high that super-fans (or members of the Dark Army, maybe?) resorted to hacking the man behind the lighting on the show.
Luckily, security breaches aren’t part of his day-to-day work on the series about security breaches. It’s just all about the proper lighting.
“For the way I approach photography, I try to find places where the sun or lack thereof does the lion’s share of the work. We kind of sit in a little more of a traditional world in the way we like to shoot. The thing that makes it easiest for me is that everybody does their job way better than I ever could do their job. I’m just really lucky to have the crew that I have. They are unbelievably good.”
The crew may be accommodating, but the weather often isn’t, which is one of Campbell’s challenges on set in addition to time. Planning is key on the series.
“With television, you have to move fast. These guys give me a lot of time and prep to plan everything out, and once we arrive on set, it’s all about executing. Largely you’re having to constantly think on your feet, change the plan you had. I spend a lot of time watching the actors, watching [Mr. Robot creator] Sam [Esmail], looking for moments. I read his performance as well, so I can gravitate to what he’s thinking so I can come up with ideas. Once the rehearsal’s over, we start talking about how to cover the scene. He will ask me, ‘What do you think is going to work best?’ My gaffer and key grip and I just go to work and have a blast.”
Mr. Robot drew praise in its first season for its unique, gritty look cultivated by Esmail: lots of headroom in frames as a shooting device in addition to putting Elliot in the corner of a frame to make him look isolated. One of the reasons Campbell was hired for the job was how his field photography lined up with this vision.
“I was able to match that same feel that we were doing with the frame with the lighting as well. A lot of times, you only see half of [Elliot’s] face. That’s how we came up with the look of it.”
Although Campbell confessed that he was nervous about how the studio would accept Esmail’s bold style, even going so far as to hide footage when filming Season 1.
“With my executive producer’s approval, I hid the dailies from the studio for the first six days of shooting because I thought if they saw the way we were framing them, first, they were going to fire me, and then try to slap Sam on the wrist.”
Even though the show was never really in any danger from creative punishment in Season 1, for Season 2, the trust within the studio expanded to grant Esmail and Campbell even more freedom, allowing for lighting improvement based on these key adjustments.
“Largely, the best and most influential [change] was having Sam direct every episode. That was a big, big deal. Now we have one human being writing, directing, and editing, and in my opinion, we made a much better TV show because of it.”
In fact, just as Darlene has a big moment in Season 2, the lighting also goes through its own transformation, since Campbell was able to gain plot omniscience under Esmail’s influence.
“Because [Esmail] was the writer, we had to have all 10 scripts finished and prepped before we ever started shooting, so for me, it allowed me to arc the lighting and photography the same way the character has an arc. It was important to know the story and know what’s happening so I could change and manipulate the story via the photography. Technically speaking, I went with some specific lenses. The lens that I chose was perfect for sculpting actor’s faces. We were able to shoot on an entire location in a week and a half. Doing it all at once, you’re able to control the lighting a little better. That was a big difference in Season 2 as well.”
One of the most buzzed-about scenes from the second season comes in the final episode with that epic shoot-out involving Dom (Grace Gummer), the Dark Army, and unfortunately Cisco and Darlene. Campbell said they were able to do it in five takes, even if they were ready for 13.
“Well, it’s obviously from one camera position the entire scene. And the whole idea was Sam Esmail to the bone. He said, ‘I want to do it from outside [the diner] and I don’t want to ever move the camera.’ I was like, ‘Genius, dude. I love it.’ We went through all the visual effects and talked many hours about how to achieve it and do it. It’s all one take, so there are no edits, and everything had to line up perfectly.”
Campbell admitted that they looked at a lot of references when covering this scene—stills, paintings, movies, and even other TV shows. The diner has a classic, retro vibe, like something out of “Nighthawks”, only a much more violent version. Like that classic work of art, this scene is just as memorable, a fitting end for the roller coaster ride the sophomore season takes all of its characters on.
“If you’re comparing my photography to Edward Hopper, I’ll take it.”