I am admittedly late to the Mr. Robot party. Premiering in late 2015, Mr. Robot follows a young computer hacker (Elliot) as he works his way into an underground cyber terrorism group. That is as much as I will give away because all I can say is that the show is fantastic and the less you know about it going in to watch it, the better it is. Mr. Robot is a show covering largely serious and dark subject matter with a plot and overarching themes which have only grown more relevant since its premiere five years ago. But what sets Mr. Robot apart from other television shows from the past few years, I feel, is not only its fantastic writing, excellent performances, and relevant themes. I believe that the reason the show works so darn well is its cinematography.
The cinematography of Mr. Robot is absolutely nothing like any other television show that I have seen in the 21st century. The look of the show is very unique and nearly instantly recognizable among every other show on American television. The reason that the cinematography is so distinguishable from other shows is that that it breaks almost every common rule of what makes cinematography “good”. Characters are often placed very far to one side of the screen when talking to another character, which means that the commonly used “rule of thirds” is not usually seen in the show. Compositions in the show are also just very different from the normal compositions and set ups that you would see on other television shows. The framing and use of negative space and abstract images, placement of the actors, and color design all mesh extremely well and help to create a visual world which is totally unique and deserves to be studied. The cinematography of the show breaks every rule and convention which is commonly used to create visually pleasing images. So… Why does it work so well?
It works so well because the aim of the show is not to make the viewer feel comfortable. The aim of the show is to immerse the viewer into the world of a socially inept hacker who out of the blue falls into one of the most notorious online hacking groups in history. The story does not call for beautiful visuals but rather visuals that serve the tone and desired effect of the story. The cinematography helps to build tension with its unusual framing and composition. It makes the viewer feel uneasy in normal situations, further immersing the viewer in the story and allowing them to better understand how the lead character is feeling throughout it. That isn’t to say that the cinematography is so abstract and bizarre that it takes away from the show altogether. The show absolutely looks good even if it doesn’t fit the standard mold of what “good” is traditionally supposed to be. I personally find it to be quite brave and daring (especially in 2015) for a major television program to premiere and feature this style so prominently in their first season. But thankfully it works amazingly well and helped set the show apart from other television programs during its four season run.
So lets talk more about the cinematography and the importance of context to compositions. As I said before, the reason that the cinematography of the show works so well is due in large part to the tone and story which the show are going for. The unique and strange compositional choices make the viewer feel like something is off in the world of the show which is exactly what the intent is. If this same type of cinematography and compositional style were to be used for an episode of a largely popular comedy series, I am not sure that the cinematography would work as well as it does here. Why? Because of the context. If you were to put these abstract images into an episode of “Modern Family”, it just would not work. Not unless the episode was deliberately a spoof of “Mr. Robot” or a send off of other shows that use and are greatly known for unique compositions. The style of the drama and the story of the comedy just do not go together, taking us back to the issue of context. For another serious drama, sure this style of images could work quite well. But for a prime time comedy? I don’t believe that it could.
So what can we learn from this and apply to our own photography? Well, the most obvious lesson is that we know that abstract images (if done carefully and with a purpose) can turn out quite well. However it is important that there is a reason for the image being abstract. Let’s say that you were taking pictures for wedding invitations for a couple who just recently got engaged. If the pictures are shot in a moody, bleak, dystopian, and completely abstract style, I am willing to bet that the couple will not ask you to take pictures at the wedding or recommend you to other friends who are in need of a photographer. Why? Because you took pictures which make them look like they are about to break up instead of get married. The style of your photography does not match the context and setting. Now lets say that you were just asked to take promotional pictures for an up and coming punk rock band. They want promotional stills which will make them look like something totally new and different. Here is where you can employ these stylistic choices. The context demands the style, and the style will help to achieve the goal which you are setting out to meet with the pictures you take.
Essentially the aim of this post is to
- Make you understand that abstract framing in photography can work
- Get you to understand that while abstract framing does work, it needs to fit the context of the photograph and have a purpose for being used
Try out some of the styles you see in the show in your own photos! See what you can come up with. Try out your own ideas! Do not be afraid of abstract designs in your pictures, but do not take a picture only because it is abstract. Take the picture because the design works and it fits the context which the picture is being taken in. Try whatever you want in terms of style and composition in your picture, and remember how well it works in Mr. Robot. This doesn’t mean that every abstract picture you take is going to look amazing, but it does mean that you shouldn’t be afraid to try out taking abstract and different types of photography styles.
So that is gonna be it for today. I hope that you enjoyed today’s blog. What are some of your favorite television shows? Any other shows you see that have a great look to them? Let me know in the comments below! And as always…
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