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USA's Mr. Robot became an obsession thanks to this one weird visual trick

Unconventional framing proves the key to Mr. Robot's success.
Unconventional framing proves the key to Mr. Robot's success.
Emily St. James was a senior correspondent for Vox, covering American identities. Before she joined Vox in 2014, she was the first TV editor of the A.V. Club.

This has been the summer of Mr. Robot.

USA's hacker drama went from that show with the goofy title to a minor TV obsession for many who got wrapped up in its coolly paranoid charms.

And when a friend asked me why Mr. Robot feels like such a breath of fresh air, my answer came surprisingly easily: the show's visual aesthetic.

How Mr. Robot bucks the usual TV trend

TV is getting better about creating shows that feel directed, where it seems as if somebody is behind the camera, telling you the story in a way that would work even without dialogue. But on far too many shows, still, the aesthetic is at best invisible and at worst incoherent.

Mr. Robot does the opposite of that. Its visual aesthetic is almost deliberately confrontational and in your face. Whenever Saturday Night Live makes a Mr. Robot parody, this is where the sketch show will start.

But that aesthetic also gives the show an overriding feeling of coherence and thematic unity that exists in few brand new shows. By having such a firm idea of what it wanted to look like, Mr. Robot bought itself time to engage in some of the typical first-season fumbling (like a midseason plot line about a drug dealer that ultimately didn't have much of anything to do with anything but looked like a million bucks).

Here's how Mr. Robot's visuals work.

Exploiting the rule of thirds for fun and profit

One of the most basic steps to understanding visual grammar is something called the rule of thirds. The rule of thirds divides any image into nine equal-size rectangles, via three vertical lines and three horizontal lines, like so.

The rule of thirds!

Please forgive my MS Paint skills.

Todd VanDerWerff/Vox

(The easiest way to improve your photographs, incidentally, is to place the subject of your photograph at any one of the four points where the lines intersect, rather than at the center of the picture. You'll be astounded how much more appealing they are with that one trick.)

Once we think of the screen not just as a whole image but also as a collection of nine smaller images, we can start to do interesting things.

As I wrote a lot about here, we tend to perceive characters who stand at the center of the frame or dominate said frame as having significant amounts of power. "Pay attention!" the camera says. "These people are important!"

Mr. Robot, however, is mostly about people who aren't important, who feel ground down by the massive systems that hang over their heads. So what does Mr. Robot look like?

Tyrell on Mr. Robot

People on Mr. Robot tend to get isolated...


It's Elliot and Angela on Mr. Robot! the extreme edges of...


BD Wong in Mr. Robot.

...the frame.


Mr. Robot.

And, okay, this shot is just cool.


The system is so overwhelming that it's all the characters can do to stay in the frame. It keeps trying to push them out of it.

But the show also suggests there's more to this than just being oppressed by "the system." Yet the ways to fight back aren't always what you'd expect. They come from people who know doing the right thing will be hard but do it anyway, and from moments of real human connection, carried out via physical interactions. When these things happen, the characters either dominate the frame, or move so that they are doing so.

Elliot and Darlene in Mr. Robot.

Elliot and Darlene take up more of the frame in the scene where they have more of a real connection.


Shayla on Mr. Robot.

Shayla doesn't dominate the frame — not quite — but she does take up more of it than the characters above are allowed to.


Elliot and Mr. Robot

The camera actually moves down slightly in this shot, to allow Elliot and Mr. Robot more opportunities to take over the frame.


Mr. Robot Tyrell

After Tyrell beats up a homeless person, it becomes only possible to see him from that homeless person's point of view. This might not be the right thing to do, but it is closer to the character's authentic self.


It's easy to write off what Mr. Robot is doing as gimmicky. In an interview, creator Sam Esmail said to me that he worries people will perceive it as such. But nine times out of 10, the show's visuals make very deliberate choices that tell the story of the series as well as any voiceover narration could.

One last thing

This show has the best title screens.

Mr. Robot title screen

From episode eight.


Episode 7 title screen of Mr. Robot.

From episode seven (notice the out-of-focus woman looking back beneath the title).


Mr. Robot

From episode three (notice the beaten down man in the lower left corner).


Mr. Robot airs Wednesdays at 10 pm Eastern on USA. You can catch up on Hulu or the USA website.

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