Sat in a café, discussing the demise of Mr Robot’s third season, a friend and I clutched at straws to try and fathom the reasons.
“Esmail’s lost the story arc”. He suggested and he wasn’t wrong – Sam Esmail originally planned the three season show as a two-hour movie so, of course, he’s run out of story.
“He’s lost the mystery.” My friend continued. I agreed.
“He’s in so many Hollywood meetings, he’s not physically on-set anymore “ he suggested. I disagreed; as creator, head writer and director, Sam Esmail will be on-set just as much as he was in the first two seasons. Mr Robot is his baby.
“He might be on-set but his mind is somewhere else. His head’s not in the game… or the rather, the frame…” I quaffed.
AND THEREIN LIES THE RUB
I wrote about Mr Robot, one of my favourite show’s fall from grace extensively in my usual, five a.m. streams of consciousness here, and even though I mentioned previous seasons’ cinematography, it wasn’t until I watched Stranger Things that I realised one of the reasons why Mr Robot has suddenly taken a nosedive. Sam Esmail’s Director of Photography, Tod Campbell has left Mr Robot’s New York City for pastures new; namely the upside-down world of Hawkins Indiana.
Okay, it doesn’t explain the dip in writing quality but it does explain a hell of a lot about why Mr Robot seems to have taken a subconscious senior year slump. DOP’s are an underrated member of the team. Wrong peoples wrongly believe that cinematographers are in charge of nothing more than framing and camera moves, but they do a whole lot more than that. They help tell stories by creating colour palette, texture, feel, softness, shadows, lighting, darkness, luminosity and mise en scène.
MR ROBOT – QUADRANT FRAMING = RIP
For seasons one and two, Campbell broke every known rule of composition by shooting all of Elliot’s scenes with 32mm and 21mm lenses on 5K (Redcode) raw with Red Weapons. These strange lens choices, together with his trademark lower quad framing made Elliot’s dissociative identity disorder so goddamned believable.
The unspoken language of Campbell’s cinematography lent an unnerving, doom-laden, out-of-kilter feeling. It made Mr Robot the show it is. While any DOP worth his or her salt could watch a handful of Mr Robot episodes and imitate Campbell’s style, it’s not the same.
The operative word here is “imitate”. I’m not sure if Tod’s jumped to Stranger Things full-time as that show will already have a cinematographic style guide created by another DOP. Tod can’t be let off the leash as he’ll need to stick within that original DOP’s pre-existing parameters.
Unfortunately, this means Tod Campbell’s most distinct trademark won’t be seen in Hawkins, Indiana, the Upside Down or NYC.
Tod Campbell was the vein of silver that ran through season one and two’s rock. His season three departure and Mr Robot losing its FEEL is no coincidence and demonstrates how important the collective auteur theory is. Film and TV is a collaborative process, even when one man seemingly “owns” a show as much as Sam Esmail owns Mr Robot.
Mr Robot continues (badly) on USA Network on Wednesday 1st November.