Mr. Stylized Television:
An Insight into how Mr. Robot uses Cinematography and Editing to Tell its Story
Anyone familiar with narrative television will agree that the current era may be the richest in terms of narrative. As detailed in previous Celluloid Cinema articles such as Netflix and Television and The Anti-hero and Television , because of advancements in streaming, audiences are now interested in stories with multiple season arcs and are more invested in television characters than ever before. However, it is apparent the next era of television is already budding. As the average viewer is exposed to higher quality television, they begin to become better television critics and are able to pick apart technical aspects of shows. Previously, you would not hear the words “cinematography” or “editing” being tossed around amongst the casual television viewer, yet in today’s landscape some of the top comments on online forums will be detailed conversations of precisely these elements. As a result, television creators are starting to step up their game and make their shows as visually interesting as they are narratively. The most prominent example of extreme visual stylization occurs in the show Mr. Robot, where unconventional cinematography and “glitchy” editing aid the narrative by placing the audience in the mindset of the show’s protagonist.
Mr. Robot is about Elliot Anderson (Remi Malek), a cyber security worker with schizophrenia, who plans to hack the world’s largest corporation, E Corp, with his group of hacker friends. While a larger-than-average portion of the show’s narrative takes place on computer screens, many sequences in the show also take place in a surreal version of the real world. During these sequences, the rules of composition are consistently broken in order to visually represent the mental angst and morphine-fueled highs Elliot experiences. Unless it is a close up, in television characters are framed so that their heads are in the middle or the upper third of the frame. This is traditionally done so audience’s can see the character’s body language to better understand what the intentions of a character are in a scene. However, in Mr. Robot characters are more often than not placed in the lower third of the frame. With this composition, the audience is unable to see the characters body because it is framed out, or details of it cannot be seen because the shot is too wide and the character only occupies a small space. As a result, the visual cues that viewers usually rely on are not present in the show. Instead, the audience must focus on the show’s dialogue and narration and infer what information is being withheld.
The idea of taking away the audience’s ability to look at character’s body language is a concept most television creators caution against, because it can mix the audience up as they struggle to follow the narrative. Thematically this works surprisingly well with Mr. Robot. Since the show revolves around hacking, coding is a large element in the shows narrative. One of the inherent qualities of computer code is that whatever is typed is taken literally by the computer and there is no emotional element to it. Therefore, by limiting the audience to only dialogue, the human element is removed and they experience the narrative through the same lens that a computer would. This can lead to confusion in the show’s narrative, but it is inline with the unnatural way the protagonist, Elliot, views the world. As aforementioned, Elliot deals with schizophrenia, and since a large portion of the audience has never dealt with this disease, it can be difficult for viewers to understand his actions. By cutting off most of the cues that audiences would use to understand the narrative, they become confused and paranoid that they missed something in the narrative, which puts them in the same mental state of Elliot. While the withholding of information helps in understanding Elliot’s schizophrenic point of view, the show’s editing furthers the idea by manipulating the information the show does give the audience.
Like Mr. Robot’s cinematography, its editing changes the way audience’s receive information from the show. For example, Elliot often has difficulty remembering what is going on as he constantly drifts in and out of consciousness as a result of his morphine addiction. This is demonstrated in the show’s editing with the use of jump cuts and error-riddled continuity. Several times per episode, the narrative will abruptly pause, sputter, and glitch out either jumping the story several seconds ahead, repeating certain lines of dialogue, or changing entire names. The most prominent example of this is the redubbing of the fictional E Corp to Evil Corp anytime it is mentioned within the show. This instability in time and information contributes to the audience understanding the paranoia Elliot faces. In addition, like most computer-centered television shows and films, hacking montages are at the center of the narrative just as a car chase sequence would be for an action film. These hacking sequences are not much different than those that are in other films or shows, but because they are straightforward they feel out of place in Mr. Robot. However, this does not mean they do not belong in the show, as they actually help in telling the show’s story by serving as a contrast to the surreal world. By having the hacking sequences devoid of “glitches,” the audience is able to understand that Elliot’s brain works perfectly when he is hacking into systems, and that because of the way his brain hops around, he is perfect for his line of work. This also allows the audience to understand that Elliot is so invested in hacking because it is the only space that removes his paranoia. Thus, the unconventional compositions rampant throughout the show leave the audience with a sense of uncertainty similar to that of Elliot’s.
As narrative quality increases in television, audiences are beginning to look at the technical elements that contribute to telling a narrative like they have never done before. This means that technical elements, like cinematography and editing, are being analyzed by every audience member leading to television show makers putting more effort into their stylistic decisions. The prime example of this theory can be tested in the show Mr. Robot, where the cinematography and editing contribute to allowing the audience to understand Elliot’s schizophrenic point of view which allows them to more easily immerse themselves in his world.
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