Unit photographers bridge the gap between film work and photography, as their presence on set helps maintain continuity and authenticity for any promotional stills used upon release. Mexico City-based photographer Nicole Franco had the chance to document Netflix’s most recent season of Narcos: Mexico, capturing the beauty and horror that exists in this adaptation of Mexico’s history of drug cartels.
This project came about when Nicole was contacted by the photography campaign manager, Hanifa Haris, at Netflix in early 2020, with who she had a prior connection through work done for AirBnb. Since the show is based on real events and people, Nicole’s documentary-style helped her capture stills while the dramatic and violent scenes unfolded.
The tone of the show is obviously quite dark and gritty given the content, and my documentary background was no departure from the client’s request.
Ironically, a few months prior to the initial email about the unit job, I was contacted by an international media outlet to cover a story about real nacro crime activity in Central Mexico.
Narcos: Mexico is on its third season, after the show was adapted from the original Narcos, which focused on Colombian cartels like Pablo Escobar’s Medellin outfit. Nicole was lucky to be on set for the episodes that Brazilian actor Wagner Moura — who played Escobar on the first iteration of the series — directed himself in February 2020. She captured the vivacity he brought to the set, with first-hand experience of how the austere subject matter can both document history while engaging the audience.
The energy on set is so important to the production. It takes a village to create a series and you’re in it together.
Set in 1980’s Mexico, the show’s filming locations vary between glamorous and grim. The rich drama of the series exists in its complex characters, compelling dialogue, and gory action, which led Nicole to utilize different photographic styles based on the nature of the scene. For the intense exchanges between the warring Sinaloa and Tijuana cartels, she captured the expressive gestures and body language of the actors, while making a point to include the nostalgic 80s era sets.
The stills needed to translate real life themes, and maintain an edgy, journalistic feel.
While the majority of filming took place in Mexico City, Nicole ventured alongside the film crew to other locations such as Veracruz, Mexico, which was set to look like the west coast city of Tijuana, Mexico. A few hours south of the capital city, in Cuernavaca, Mexico, Nicole captured an exciting scene where actors staged a fight outside the Mariano Matamoros Airport, at one moment even crawling through the baggage terminal.
Locations in these places were remote and often took a few hours to reach but were fantastic; fishing boats, old airports, cantinas, beautiful cathedrals, the list goes on…
For Nicole, working on the Narcos: Mexico set was a lively and unpredictable experience. She was provided with the shot list and general briefs ahead of time, but each set was only revealed upon arrival. Nicole needed to learn the layout of the day’s set, determine her shots, and attempt to stay out of the view of both the steadicam and the multiple positioned cameras. Then wake up, move onto another set and repeat the process all over again.
Unit photography is constantly trying to anticipate and position yourself so you’re not in the way. Some sets presented more challenges than others logistically.
Other types of photography require the photographer to place themselves based on their own preference or perspective. They have the freedom to move about a set or studio to find creative angles and lighting for their desired image. Nicole found it challenging to inhibit her natural creative instincts, which saw endless possibilities to capture the actors as the filming progressed.
A challenge to overcome on the daily was being given a specific place or having to find limiting spaces to hunker down and wait while the camera was rolling.
No matter the job on set, the hours are always challenging. Nicole remembers the long work days and early morning call times, anticipating hours of standing in the Mexican sun. Though the weather seemed to be a variable that Nicole felt she planned for, but in her own words, “one can always have planned better for it in hindsight.”
Camaraderie and humor get you through long days. The majority of the over 200 crew and cast had all worked on the previous seasons together so it felt like a real big family.
This feeling rang true when the cast, crew, and hundreds of extras gathered to film a wedding scene in the Roman Catholic Cathedral de San Jose in Toluca, Mexico. Nicole captured captivating images of the radiant moment, from above the pews, behind the bride, and among the invited guests.
In the hauntingly beautiful Cathedral, the dramatic tone of the red-carpeted aisle stands out among the crowd as it leads the bride and groom to an inevitable and tragic end. Nicole’s striking imagery of the event enticed producers to choose her shot of the bride for the Narcos: Mexico Season 3 thumbnail on their streaming service homepage.
It truly is an incredible and unique privilege to be a part of a production like “Narcos: Mexico.”
As Nicole frames it, unit photography is “humbling, thrilling, and exhausting.” While her time spent on the Narcos: Mexico set was cut short due to the pandemic, she was inspired by the process of filmwork and the passion of the cast and crew. Those on set know that they each play an important role in the grand production that, when woven together, paints the illusion of seamless entertainment that we all know and love.
All the moving parts and work unfolding in front of you is inspiring. Film making really is a tremendous experience and I look forward to being on set again in the future.