Narcos, Netflix’s hit series about the life and death of drug lord Pablo Escobar, enters its third season. Filmpulse was allowed to conduct an exclusive interview with cameraman Adrian Teijido at breakfast during the preparations for shooting in Colombia.
Adrian Teijido (53) is a member of the Brazilian Association of Cinematographers ABC.  Besides his work for feature films and TV series as a light-setting cameraman, Teijido, who speaks fluent English, Spanish and Portuguese, has shot hundreds of commercials and image films around the world.  In the early hours of the morning, just before the location scouting in Bogota, Adrian explains to us what it means to work on an international production for a global quality series with feature film standards.
Interview with cinematographer Adrian Teijido on Narcos by Netflix
Filmpulse:Adrian, how would you explain your profession to an alien?
Adrian Teijido:The profession of the cinematographer can be explained in different ways. I borrowed my favourite definition from an American director of photography. He says we are visual storytellers. Together with the production designer, I am responsible to the director for the visual interpretation of the script. On this production my responsibility goes even further. I am not only allowed to include and implement the vision of the director, but also that of the showrunner. For this you need to know: Here at Narcos, we literally get the script at the last possible minute before shooting. Our writers write, rewrite, and rewrite, they polish the book and the dialogue for Netflix until it’s just out of time. That means: until the first day of shooting. We are then responsible for implementing the script with the necessary visual appeal for the audience. Let me give you an example: In the script there’s a normal scene, two talking people. But the storyline and the development of the story suggest that a tension-generating element could make the scene even stronger. So that’s what we’re doing and I’m looking for answers and a way to create that tension visually with the camera, detached from the dialogue. In short: I am a visual storyteller. But unlike a draftsman, I don’t need a pencil. I don’t paint with words like an author. I tell stories with light, with camera lenses and filters.
Filmpulse:Good storytelling is the key. In addition, technology is always an important aspect of working as a cameraman. Do digital innovations make your work easier or more difficult today?
Adrian Teijido:I wouldn’t say it’s easier today than it was in the past. Digital technology means taking many additional elements into account. As a cameraman with analogue film, you used to have a way of thinking, a way of seeing and shooting things that is different today. Today we have ten monitors on the set. Everyone has a monitor today and sees what you do with the camera: the director, the producer, the crew. Everyone has an opinion. And inputs. Sometimes you haven’t even finished a tracking shot from the darkness into the spotlight, but the producers are already discussing it and saying, “This is too dark, this is too bright”. But of course, there are also huge advantages. The wife of cinematographer Robert Richardson once said in an interview that thanks to digitalization her husband could now sleep at night. There is a lot of truth in that. When I get back to the hotel in the evening after a day of shooting, I know that the footage is okay. And sometimes also much later, when we were shooting far away from civilization and transport routes were a problem. I once shot a feature film in the north of Brazil, where it took us a whole week to see our own footage. In this respect, the digital world actually gives me a kind of peace of mind. Even when I’m shooting, I know that everything is fine. During the shoot, my image goes in real time to my DIT (Digital Imaging Technician), who also makes sure that all decision-makers can see the image and take it off immediately. Digital work is more pleasant. But not easier. Simpler is the wrong word for it. Every innovation has not only advantages, but also disadvantages.
Filmpulse:You are Brazilian and you are shooting a North American TV series in Colombia, co-produced by French-based Gaumont and seen by a global audience. What does this constellation mean for your daily work?
Adrian Teijido:We are indeed very globally positioned here. The mix of different nationalities makes it exciting for me. Of course it is not always easy. But we are like an orchestra. I could also answer with a comparison: Like musicians, we always find a way to communicate together. Our common language is creativity. That always works, regardless of whether the producer is American, Swiss or Japanese. For me, Narcos is the best proof that a global film crew can work together successfully: our meetings work really, really well! In the first season, Lula Carvalho ABC, ASC, was the cameraman from episode 1 to 8, and for the second and third seasons, Mexican Luis Sansans, AMC, and I are behind the camera. Colombian director Andi Baez, who is also a co-producer, is important to Narcos because he ensures the correct cultural link between the series and the location. From an aesthetic point of view, it is a great advantage to be able to shoot here in Colombia. We have great locations, which are completely different from everything that people usually see in series. This is especially true for viewers in the USA. The overall director, Jose Padhila, is Brazilian. He has directed “Elite Squad” and “Robocop” among others. He developed Narcos together with our American producer, Eric Newman. Another big part of the crew comes from Colombia and Mexico. Other key people have been hired in Brazil and around the world. An additional, equally global aspect of this show is the fact that Netflix already has over 150 million subscribers. About 50 million of them watch Narcos. Personally, I notice this because, since I’ve been allowed to work at Narcos, suddenly people from all corners of the world contact me. Recently, a gaffer from Kenya contacted me, at the end of the week it was a film technician from Los Angeles, and yesterday an Asian film student. This is interesting and, frankly, I’m enjoying it. Not because there are people chasing me now, but because this is the best proof that people all over the world love what I do – or try to do. I think the television business has never been as close to the film business and Hollywood as it is today.
Filmpulse:Escobar, brilliantly interpreted by the actor Wagner Moura, is not a shining light, but a drug dealer who does not shy away from murder. How does a cameraman stage such a leading actor?
Adrian Teijido:Well, that changes from episode to episode. It depends on what we want to tell the audience in that respect. Dramatically, the character of Pablo Escobar changes over the course of the episodes. His story begins and ends in different inner worlds. Towards the end of season 2 his family flees to Frankfurt. He, the family man, becomes increasingly lonely while he is relentlessly hunted by his many enemies. This loneliness we have of course worked out with the camera. If I remember correctly, it was in episode 7 or 8 of season 2 when I decided, together with the director, to shoot Wagner Moura at a very wide angle. To visualize the growing tension of Escobar and its increasing fragility, we didn’t shoot the usual close-up with normal lenses, 40 mm, 45 mm or 60 mm. I got very close to Wagner with the camera, always with wide-angle lenses in the 21 mm and 25 mm range. That’s how this image composition was created, which feels strangely restless, indeterminate and unguided. As a viewer you feel this, but as a layman you don’t understand why it is so. We like to use such tricks here again and again: they condense the atmosphere.
And yes, Pablo Escobar was a very, very bad person, it doesn’t take an eye level with him for that. He was a murderer. But he was also a man of incredible charisma. A lot of people liked him. That was also always important for us and for our storytelling. In South America the drug lords are often the only helpers of the little people. For them they are heroes, of course.
Filmpulse:In the episode “Exit El Patrón” in season 2 of the series there is an incredibly strong scene: Escobar leaves his hiding place to release his daughter’s rabbit to freedom. The camera moves, pans, picks out everything in a planned sequence that becomes a mirror of Escobar’s emotions. How does such a shot emerge, in which art and craftsmanship merge without, as the cameraman, pushing the main actor into the background?
Adrian Teijido:Creative input for shots either comes from the director or I suggest them to him. The rabbit was an important symbol for us. In the story it belongs to Escobar’s daughter and when the family has to leave him, his daughter asks him to take care of the white rabbit. This, like many other things, was not formulated with this weight in the script as a background story. For us the rabbit had a high symbolic value. A pet that had previously lived in safety in a cage, forced to be released into the wild, perfectly reflected the development of the plot. So I started to play visually with the director with this additional narrative strand. Of course, it’s part of it that in such moments you feel the breath of the nervous producer as cameraman in your neck. You then hear with one ear, as he wants to know from DIT: “Why the hell are they shooting an entire planned sequence with this rabbit?” Yeah, we make up a lot of stuff on the set. But always in a way that doesn’t interfere with the shooting schedule. This show is really expensive. It would be unprofessional if we didn’t finish the callsheet at the end of the day. But for a scene like the one with the white rabbit, you can find time if you want.
Filmpulse:Netflix is said to provide an exceptional level of creative freedom. Is that how you experience it?
Adrian Teijido:Hmm, I don’t think there’s a Netflix policy on that. The “bad guy” in the shooting, although that’s the completely wrong term for our collaboration here, is Paul Marks. He’s the producer. He signs off on the call sheets. He has to, because he’s responsible for the budget and also ensures the relationship with Gaumont. The people at Netflix are present, but not every day. Our location is Colombia, not the US, so maybe that gives us a little more creative freedom than usual. Conversely, Eric Newman is on location here. He is the showrunner and our executive producer. Eric is supported by Jesse Moore. She’s always on the set. If we have an idea, we go straight to her and tell her: “You, we want to do it differently! Most of the time Jesse then replies: OK, do it. But first, please shoot the scene as it is written in the script! For a Netflix cameraman, that’s not that different from working with a film agency for a commercial. The client has the final decision. The showrunner is our client, so we follow his wishes. Just as it should be in any professional relationship.
Filmpulse:Can you name the one, most important, rule that a cameraman has to know and live by? The most important of all important!
Adrian Teijido:Just one rule? There is not only one rule! Okay, I’ll give it a try. The most important rule is: “Find the best gaffer! It’s just as important to have an outstanding production designer. That is equally important. In seasons 2 and 3 of Narcos, Salvador Parra from Mexico was our Production Designer. He is outstanding. With him, I knew that wherever the camera looked, the picture looked good.
Filmpulse:What advice would you give a talented young cameraman?
Adrian Teijido:The best advice I can give is: “Try to free yourself from the technology and camera types and think as a storyteller.” Thinking in technical categories should not be a priority for cameramen. We are storytellers. That’s why I strongly disagree with any colleague who says that a film failed because of the direction. No! As a cameraman, you have a co-responsibility when it comes to storytelling. It’s about more than just the camera work. It’s part of our profession that we delve deeply into the story and support the director right from the conception of the visual realization. Conceptual thinking comes first. Then the technical considerations. Technology must not prevent your creative ideas. If I feel I’m telling the story better, if I have the camera mounted on the ceiling for that, then I have to do it. Technology must not be an excuse not to want the best for a film. I am convinced: only free spirits can be creative. Of course, if you agree to a major project like Narcos, there are rules of the game for which I am also jointly responsible. But even here it helps the quality if you have learned to think without technical constraints. That’s the only way you can pull white rabbits out of the hat.
Filmpulse:Adrian, a very big and sincere thank you for this interview and your detailed answers. See you soon hopefully back in Switzerland skiing with your family!
Footnotes on cameraman Adrian Teijido
 Brazilian Cinematography Association (ABC) is the Brazilian association of leading cinematographers, comparable to the ASC (American Society of Cinematographers) in the USA, where membership is only possible on the recommendation of existing members.
 Adrian Teijido knows the publisher of Filmpulse Magazine, Kristian Widmer, former CEO and producer (and until the end of 2016 majority shareholder of the Oscar-winning Condor Films AG) from joint shootings for TV spots and image films in South America and Switzerland.
Light and shadow, good and evil:
The upcoming HBO series “The Young Pope” (with Jude Law and Diane Keaton) promises a very interesting contrast to “Narcos”. “The Young Pope” is not set in Colombia, but in the Vatican. Instead of drugs driven by faith, the series is absolutely on par with the filming of Pablo Escobar’s life in terms of power and style. Narcos: 2 seasons so far, season 3 in production | The Young Pope, watch: online streaming, 1 season: +HBO HD, Sky Atlantic HD and Sky Go.