Audiences and critics alike praised Netflix’s drug-cartel-themed Narcos to the hilt for its riveting, multilayered storylines, intense performances and the show’s unique look — combining beautiful color-rich imagery of the Colombia setting with shadowy portraiture suggesting the darkness within the characters on both sides of the law. Company 3’s Siggy Ferstl, who colored that series’ three seasons returned to that world for the ten episodes of Narcos: Mexico, which stars Michael Peña and Diego Luna and was overseen by Narcos showrunner Eric Newman. The streaming service recently premiered the season to very strong critical praise.
“We deliberately went with a different look,” says Ferstl, noting that while there are some obvious connections between the Colombian and the Mexican series, cinematographer Luis David Sansans (who shot much of the Colombian series too) wanted a distinctive look for Mexico.
Less focused on colorful beaches and richly verdant Colombian locations, this series, concerning multiple cartels, the Mexican and American governments’ often futile attempts to control the criminal activity, is designed to be grittier. Sansans (Damián García also shares cinematography credit) continued the style of lighting to allow significant contrast in the frame, often with faces or parts of faces receding into shadow, but bright, saturated colors are much more constrained.
“We designed a specific LUT to bring a very film-like look to the show and graded everything through LUT,” Ferstl explains, to hold color and contrast into the ranges a film-shot show would possess.
Ironically, Narcos: Mexico is the first of the Narcos shows to be mastered in high dynamic range (Dolby Vision), which technically allows for the kind of bolder highlights and more saturated colors featured so prominently in the Colombia series. Ferstl, who pushed those boundaries for the Dolby Vision version of Netflix’s Lost in Space, explains that viewers can still experience the HDR enhancements without pushing them to their extreme; “It’s all about how the filmmakers want to use it. For Narcos: Mexico the HDR version still has a wider gamut and broader range, but we retain the feel of film. HDR lets you show more detail in the highlights, but our intention was always to preserve more the feel of film.”
To further enhance the cinematic feel, he also added layers of grain into the imagery via DaVinci Resolve’s Open FX toolset. Grain added in post can sometimes have a flat, artificial feeling, but this tool allowed Ferstl to dial it up or down based on image characteristics. “You see grain where you would really see it and not where you wouldn’t,” he says.
“I completely enjoyed working on both series,” Ferstl sums up. “They’re an amazing, talented and collaborative group.”
(For those curious to see how Dolby Vision might enhance the Colombia-set Narcos, Company 3 is currently remastering them all.)