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‘Mr. Robot’ designer on using sets to evoke a world in chaos

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Production designer Anastasia White hints at what’s to come in Season 3

A scene in a dark room filled with people at computers and standing around, with a green light in the background and a young man in the foreground.
A still from Season 3 of Mr. Robot. Actor Rami Malek, foreground, plays Elliot Alderson.
All images courtesy of USA Network

Warning: Spoilers for Mr. Robot seasons 1 and 2 ahead.

Anastasia White, Mr. Robot’s production designer, is keeping mum about Season 3 of the cult USA Network show. “I will say that it will be very exciting,” she tells me over the phone. “It’s more dynamic of a season.”

What White will reveal, however, is that the new season, which premieres Wednesday, October 11, picks up where the last season left off, with the world of its hacker-protagonist Elliot Alderson (Rami Malek) in further disarray, and the machinations of fsociety and the Dark Army coming into focus.

While Season 2 was very much about Elliot and what was happening in his head, the new season explores how he and the rest of the world react to the fallout of the big hack that went down in the first season. The short of it: not so well.

And although Mr. Robot, with its themes of surveillance and paranoia, may feel like a show about the dystopian future, it actually takes place in 2014 and 2015—in New York City.

Rami Malek and Carly Chaikin.

As for the sets? “The look is pretty consistent [across seasons],” White says.

“The purpose is to showcase the haves and have-nots, the conglomerate [E Corp] versus the regular guy, and sometimes taking that to the extreme and stylizing it for emphasis when necessary. But at the same time, it’s about keeping the world of New York and the technology [the characters use] as close to reality as possible.”

Colors, lighting, and textures create that contrast. The spaces in which Elliot moves are dark and muted and are usually illuminated by natural or practical lighting like lamps, while E Corp—aka Evil Corp—is rendered in the sleek, white surfaces of corporate architecture.

“You go from E Corp, where they’re doing fine and it’s bright and clean and shiny, and then you’re outside where everything is trashed. It's just even more of a shock to see,” White says.

A scene set in E Corp from Season 2.

The show employs mostly locations and a few stage sets, and it’s sometimes difficult to find the right exteriors in a place like Manhattan, where buildings go up and businesses open and shutter seemingly overnight:

“We would scout [a location] months before shooting it, but because the city changes so quickly, we would go back and there would be scaffolding up, or the business next door would be open when we thought it would be closed.”

Still, there was no dearth of empty storefronts (especially downtown), a feature of the Mr. Robot cityscape that becomes more prevalent in Season 3. “You’ll [also] see a lot of garbage, as a lot of the city systems and infrastructure aren’t working as they usually would. It’s gotten a lot grittier and more dangerous as everyone’s assets are more vulnerable [now].”

Anastasia White

For interiors, the crew had more control. And as a show about technology and its hold on our lives, incorporating technology into the sets had to look more or less seamless—and accurate. White says that Sam Esmail, the show’s creator, prefers to shoot screens live instead of burning them in by way of a green screen in postproduction, an easier process.

As for ensuring all the tech aspects look right, one of its writers, Kor Adana, does double duty as the show’s technical adviser, while Adam Brustein, a motion graphics designer, creates everything you see on screens, whether that’s on TV, smartphones, or computers, with video playback operators making sure that everything is in order during the shoot.

Nearing the end of our conversation, it’s clear that White, who won an Art Directors Guild Excellence in Production Design Award earlier this year for her work on Season 2 of Mr. Robot, wants to reveal more. Instead, she’ll leave it at this: “The theme this year is disintegration, so it's a lot about things falling apart.”

But, she says, “It’s also about Elliot bouncing back and fighting the system.”