‘Mr. Robot’ and ‘Homecoming’ Cinematographer on Evolution of Sam Esmail Collaboration

Cinematographer Tod Campbell has an impressive resume, but he’s probably best known for helping craft the distinct moody and disruptive nature of Sam Esmail’s “Mr. Robot” and “Homecoming.” The latter stars Julia Roberts as Heidi, a former government caseworker who’s lost memory of her harrowing past.

What’s your process working with Sam like?

Where I like to start with is, “What is the point of view?” I have an idea of what I think is right, and then I sit with Sam and listen to him. Old Hitchcock movies and Brian De Palma are two big references that we looked at quite a bit. Fortunately “Homecoming” was laid out pretty perfectly, because we had the podcast as somewhat of a guide.

How has your relationship with Sam changed in the time you’ve collaborated?

It’s been now four years we’ve been working together. And there’s definitely a shorthand, I feel like I know mostly in which direction he wants to go. But there’s still always a new revelation daily. He’s that kind of guy — just when you think you have him pinned down, he’ll come up with something new. That’s why I love him so much. Everything that I’ve done with him, both “Robot” and “Homecoming,” they look and have that feel that they do because of him, because he’s just not fearful. And it just has his own voice that nobody else has and he’s certainly not afraid to use it.

How did you come up with changing aspect ratios on the show?

We talked about a few different ways to delineate the timeline. We finally came across the idea of changing aspect ratios, which I had wanted to do for a long time. So we discussed different sizes, would it be a 16:9 frame versus a 2.35:1, 2.39:1 frame? We came up with the idea of the 1:1 aspect ratio, and so that you don’t have the full picture on your screen, and neither does Heidi in her life. The one thing that I always thought would be interesting is, you’ve forgotten something and you’re trying to remember whatever that word was that you’re trying to come up with, and there’s this fogginess in your brain and how it’s a big part of that 1:1. I wanted everything in 2018, when she has her full memory, to be wide.

There’s also juxtaposition of shots, from tight close-ups to wide overhead shots.

When you’re in 2018, when you’re in the full frame, Sam loves inserts and close ups like that. When you go into, like Shea Whigham clicking his pen — that was Shea’s idea and it’s so good, because it just shows the frustration and the anxiety of what he’s going through and trying to make these decisions and Sam’s cueing into that. And, as he’s discovering and unraveling this mystery, all those super tight shots tell the story more so than you could do in any other way. When we go into the facility, and doing this big giant wide, beyond the fact that they’re just gorgeous, they do help show that these guys are total test subject in a lab, like under a microscope.

There’s a cool tracking shot that you do of Julia when she’s walking through the facility.

Sam from the very, very beginning, it’s one of the very first conversations we’ve had. He’s like, “I want to do a oner that shows off the entire facility with Heidi as she’s walking through it, and talking with Colin about it, and explaining how great the designers did.” It’s just an amazing piece to be able to see this facility without cutting, moving around her, seeing almost every aspect of that building while she’s discussing it. It’s probably one of my favorite shots in the show. It’s really hard to pull off. But I think it just does a great job of getting the geography and the lay of the land for where we are going to spend the next probably nine episodes.

What was it like working with Julia on her first starring TV role?

Those characters were so well written and so well acted that a lot of times you just find yourself lost in a take. And Julia is right there on the screen. She’s so good that I’d totally forget what I’m doing sometimes. I remember the scene at her mom’s house. For me as a younger DP, I had Sissy Spacek and Julia Roberts sitting on a couch together. And I remember when we framed it up, I was staring at my monitor. I was just like, “Holy shit, man.” These are two legends. And it gave me goosebumps. I was like, “I can’t believe it. I feel so lucky to be here.”

What have people responded to the most, in terms of the visuals of the show?

Something that stands out pretty heavily is of course the aspect ratio change, I got a lot of emails about that. I also heard a few stories of [people] trying to fix the TV when it went to the 1:1 aspect ratio, because [they] thought the TV was messed up. The takeaway is it’s a really beautiful show, I’m super proud of it, it’s probably the best thing I’ve ever done. I think one of the things that I really love about the look of the show, too, is the fact that we do get out of there. Episode 10, it’s just so beautiful. It’s such a contrast of Florida and the facility, and you’re away from all that. And just this beautiful moment between Walter and Heidi. I really loved episode 10 quite a bit.

For the fourth and last season of “Mr. Robot,” are you doing anything different from what you’ve done in previous seasons?

It’s definitely evolving. It still has all the same things to it, but with different lenses this year. We’ve added a few more tools. The biggest part of it, is just how much Sam is growing as an artist and filmmaker. Honestly, he’s just becoming more shrewd in his choices and some of the stuff he comes up with is just is one of those moments like, “God damn it, why didn’t I think of that? That’s such a good idea.” It’s going to be crazy.

Does leaving “Mr. Robot” feel bittersweet?

Yeah, it is. This has been five years now. I’m interested to tell some new stories, but this has been such a big run, this has really put me on the map as a director of photography, with somebody who isn’t fearful. A lot of the other shows that I shot prior — which there aren’t many — a lot of those people play it safe. Having one director who’s such a force like Sam, I feel like we can do anything. The guy is just really bold. So it sucks that it’s over, and it was a big part of my life. I feel like my relationship with him, we’ll go and do other stuff. It’s sad. I’m sad I won’t see Rami Malek every day; I like that guy, he’s awesome.

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