DP Luis Sansans Creates Visual Revamp for Season 4 of Netflix's Crime Drama
Narcos, the engrossing dramatization of the Colombian cocaine trade in the 1980s and 1990s, was an important contribution to the swift rise of Netflix and streaming television in general. The American-Colombian coproduction depicts a ruthless yet charismatic Pablo Escobar and the dogged DEA agents who pursue him, in an atmosphere of intense and humid dread. Lula Carvalho shot most of Season 1, and Adrian Teijido and Luis Sansans split duties on the second and third installments.
The look established in Season 1 blended a handheld, documentary aesthetic with rich colors and strong contrast reminiscent of iconic gangster films like The Godfather. In Season 3, Escobar was no longer at the heart of the story, and the aesthetics of the show began to evolve. In Season 4, the action moves to Mexico, tracing the rise of the Guadalajara Cartel, thus requiring a more pronounced shift in the visual aspects of the production.
“One of the highlights of the show for me as someone who mostly shoots features is the freedom we are given to create atmospheres and visual ideas,” says Sansans. “For season 4, we changed the look dramatically. After consulting with the producers, we decided to switch to anamorphic lenses and a 2:1 aspect ratio, which is between the 16:9 frame used previously and the full 2.40:1 of standard anamorphic.
“Mexico is a different country, especially in the north,” says Sansans. “It’s a different culture with a different texture and a flatter landscape. The geography of Sinaloa and Guadalajara is more suited to the horizontal aspect ratio, while Medellin and Colombia in general are much more mountainous and vertical.”
So the first two episodes of Season 4 were shot with Hawk Vintage ’74 anamorphic lenses from Vantage. After that, as the plot thickens and the characters become more involved, Sansans shot with Hawk V‑Lites, bringing a bit more contrast into the imagery. The cameras are RED Dragons. The 2:1 image is extracted from the larger frame.
Movement now is more likely smoother, from dolly or Steadicam. Sansans further underscored the progress of the story through his approach to color, taking his cues from the desert settings.
“Because the Season 4 story happens in the 1980s, the colors are warm and gold at the beginning,” he says. “As the story develops, the contrast increases, the color moves back towards neutral, and eventually becomes cooler. The colorist, Siggy Ferstl, is very experienced and sensitive, and we’re working on developing this transition in color and texture. It’s not a one-man show – it’s a mixture of mentalities and experience that makes a project like this work.”
The documentary sensibility is still an important attribute of the visuals.
“I often shoot with available light to create that documentary feel, and to give the actor the freedom to develop their characters as though they are in a natural situation,” he says. “I don’t like giving actors marks, and I love to play with the spaces and locations. If I have to put light on an interior scene, I’d rather use windows and sources from the outside, instead of having dozens of C-stands and flags. And the look of this show works well with that approach.”
The only standing set is an office interior. Otherwise, the show is almost completely shot on practical locations. Often, the filmmakers start with a long one-shot sequence. Going from interior to exterior in a single shot is common.
“Shooting in actual environments brings a more realistic atmosphere to the story,” says Sansans. “I think the characters feel different when we’re shooting in a real place. The night exteriors often happen in abandoned and isolated areas, which can require more lighting, and the lenses are not the fastest. But I like the contrast and the darkness.”
Scenes in Season 4 are more likely to be shot with wider focal lengths compared to the more telephoto look of previous seasons. Close-ups are often done with a 35 mm or 45 mm.
“I’m liking the feeling of wide lenses more and more,” he says. “The decision to go with wider lenses is in tune with our goal of involving the characters more with the locations. Sometimes we put a character at the edge of the frame to create tension. The show definitely has a Western feeling with the wide, horizontal frame and the tans and browns of the landscape, as well as the outlaw story.”
The Hawk V‑Lites tie everything together, lending the show a different tone compared to the sharper glass used in previous seasons. Camtec outfits the team, with help from Vantage. The main unit and second unit each carry a set of V‑Lites that includes 28, 35, 45, 55, 65, 80, 110, and 140mm lenses – a range that allows cinematographers to choose focal length with precision. The 55mm macro is capable of close-focus to 35 centimeters. And the smaller size of the V‑Lites helps in tight interior locations.
“I love the look of these lenses,” Sansans says. “With digital cameras and technically perfect lenses, things look too sharp. The Hawks bring you to that time period. The contrast, the flaring, the aberrations at the edges – all of that creates an interesting imperfection and gives another sense to the story. Something uncomfortable is going on. You might not know what it is, but it’s there. I own a set of older anamorphic lenses that I used on Dias de gracia [Days of Grace,2011]. They’re amazing lenses, but they’re very fragile. We just couldn’t make this show with those lenses. The V‑Lites have the durability we need for a production like this.”
Season 4 of Narcos premiered globally on Netflix November 16, 2018.
images: www.netflix.com/narcosmexico & imdb