Mr. Robot's VR Simulcast Gets in Your Head
Showrunner Sam Esmail shows his virtual reality chops.
Still from Season 1 Episode 3, 'eps1.3_da3m0ns.mp4.' USA Network
This post contains spoilers for Season 1 of 'Mr. Robot' and Here Be Dragons' 'Mr. Robot' short film.
Fans of the show Mr. Robot are used to feeling like a figment of someone else's imagination, as they are constantly told they've been made up by protagonist Elliot Alderson (Rami Malek). But in a new episode delivered by virtual reality simulcast last week—the first of its kind, according to distribution company Within—showrunner Sam Esmail uses the new medium to shove viewers even deeper into Elliot's head.
Esmail worked with Within's sister production company Here Be Dragons (HBD) to create the kind of intimate experience that VR was meant for. Billed as a one-time only event that "self-destructed" after being viewed, Within has confirmed to The Creators Project that it will be re-uploaded next week. If you didn't tune into the simulcast, its narrative follows Elliot's memory of his first date with Shayla Nico (Frankie Shaw). Those expecing information relevant to last night's episode may be disappointed, but it flourishes as a portrait of Elliot in a happier time. "This piece is purely about Elliot," says HBD technical creative director Justin Denton.
The short explores aspects of Elliot's character we haven't seen in a while, but more importantly it explores Esmail's burgeoning infatuation with virtual reality. While the Mr. Robot team has been tight-lipped about the possibility of more VR mini-episodes in the future, Denton says that Esmail is "enamored" with the medium. While some viewers may have wanted more from this story, the writer/producer/director got exactly what he wanted from it, according to Denton. Not only did he get to try out new virtual reality tricks, but he delivered an emotional payload that didn't have a place in the main series. "Sam wanted us to have this moment of purely remembering Shayla where you really get a good emotional feeling as a couple," Denton explains.
The filmmaking innovations in Here Be Dragons' Mr. Robot short deserve attention as well. "There are a number of shots like this that will push forward the language of narrative VR," Denton says. Elliot's paranoia is expertly communicated through Esmail's placement of the camera in his claustrophobic apartment, and his anxiety through every jarring jump cut that punctuates Shayla's knocking at the door. He may not be facing off against multinational corporations or mercenary hacker collectives, but first dates can be even more nerve-wracking for someone like Elliot.
Later in the film there's a sequence where the camera is embedded between Elliot and Shayla as they talk in a gondola of the Coney Island Ferris Wheel usually associated with Elliot's alter ego, Mr. Robot. Each character is positioned just at the edge of your peripheral vision when you're looking at the other. It genuinely feels like being the third wheel on a date, which enhances the painful awkwardness of the conversation. In order to get this shot, Esmail had to leave Malek and Shaw alone in the gondola with the camera, communicating solely through the earwig normally used to deliver Elliot's narration. This was a breakthrough for the team at HBD—a way to direct actors from far out of frame. "We'll definitely be using this in the future," Denton says.
The short borrows a dreamlike quality from other films in Within's pedigry, like the star-studded Take Flight and the sanitarium roller coaster ride Catatonic, to bring viewers deeper into Elliot's relationship with Shayla. A multicolored musical montage that looks like a mid 2000s iTunes commercial on mescaline leads into a scene where we're suspended over Elliot's bed as the couple. "Sam wanted you to feel like you were in bed with them, but not actually be in bed with them," says Denton.
And you do. Each of the experimental scenes in this short film has a specific, intended emotional purpose, which only stirs more questions. Will Shaw reprise her role as Shayla in similar memories in the main storyline? What was that song Shayla was humming? Will there be more Mr. Robot mini-episodes punctuating the rest of the season? A Within representative says there are no more planned at the moment, but Denton assures us that Esmail had plenty of ideas that didn't make it into this episode. The technical creative director wasn't at liberty to discuss those ideas, so we may see them in another mini-episode or perhaps another Esmail VR film. We look forward to the showrunner's next foray into the medium.
Mr. Robot airs Wednesdays on USA Network.