This has been done before, elsewhere on the web. Mr Robot has been out long enough that it has to be, however, I just discovered the show, so here’s my take on it as a photographer.
When I was in high school, I wanted to be in the movie industry. I wanted to take a story, and make it come to life. My school didn’t have any courses in filmmaking, few do, but mine had the next best thing. Photography, as an art course, teaches a lot about composition. When most people think of composition, they think of the Rule of Thirds, the basic tic-tac-toe grid overlaying an image and splitting it into 3 groups of 3 rectangles, that dictates where a subject should be placed. But, composition is so much more than that.
Composition is how space within an image is used. There’s positive and negative space, each with its own amount of visual weight. There’s contrast and shape, that work to pull the eye across the frame. And yes, then there’s subject placement.
With Mr Robot, there’s a couple of things I noticed. Primarily, the show doesn’t seem to rely on the Rule of Thirds for framing. The Rule of Thirds in merely one compositional technique out of many. It’s a good one, which is why it’s so popular, but it’s not the only one. Golden Ratio, Golden Triangles/Spirals/etc, Symmetrical, and Fill the Frame are other techniques. For Mr Robot, they use multiple techniques. One scene will be shot using one style, and the next another.
Take a look at this frame of Elliot on his psychiatrist’s couch. You could argue it’s the Rule of Thirds, since he’s squarely on the right vertical line. You could expand on that by noting the how nicely the lampshade follows the upper left and central left bounding boxes.
The basic rule of any compositional technique involving guide lines, is that the emphasis should be placed at the intersection of lines, and visual contrast should be placed along the length of lines. Compositionally, using just the Rule of Thirds, Elliot is as important as a lampshade. Obviously that’s not true, since Elliot is the only thing in focus. So, lets look at this shot again with a different framing technique: Diagonal Method
Compare Elliot to the lampshade again. Now, Elliot has 3 lines and 2 intersections, compared to the 2 lines and 1 intersection of the shade. The emphasis is clearly on Elliot here. Not only that, but look at the Elliot’s placement in relation to those elements. There’s a line that falls exactly along the bridge of Elliot’s nose. Another crosses through his eye. Their intersection is squarely on his face. The other intersection lies perfectly on his shoulder. While the composition kinda works when using the Rule of Thirds, when looking at it with the Diagonal Method, there’s no questioning his deliberate placement.
Let’s look at another scene, this one in a boardroom at Evil Corp. If we look at this scene using a traditional Rule of Thirds framing, our two characters lie in the center of the bottom most sector. It works, but its a little cumbersome.
Looking at it again after dividing the frame into quarters, it looks much different. The top half of the frame is the room’s ceiling. All of the interaction takes place in the bottom half. Also, note how the two characters are on either side of the division line. It could be written off as a coincidence, but since the scene has these two characters in conflict with each other, this composition reinforces their divide.
The strange thing about this shot, and there are many shots in the show that are like this, is that if you removed the two characters, it’s still visually appealing. It’s as if the shot was framed for the room itself, and the characters simply happen to be in the field of view. That’s the other thing I noticed, it’s almost as if the camera doesn’t see the characters, as if they’re not even there.
Why use a nonstandard composition though? Well, Look at our main character. Elliot is an awkward kid. He has anxiety and imaginary friends, including us. Since we are part of Elliot’s psyche, we should feel as awkward and uncomfortable in situations as him. By utilizing an unconventional frame, the show doesn’t look like we expect a should look, which makes us feel a little uncomfortable and disoriented. It helps us become more empathetic to Elliot, letting us connect to him more, and makes us become more invested in his story.
This just goes to show that while it’s okay to follow the normal standards, it’s also okay to break away from them. In fact, sometimes, it’s even better. Change is good, refreshing, and very much needed.