Every Frame of ‘Griselda’ Nails the Period Vibe

Few series acclimate the viewer as quickly and completely to its period as Netflix‘s “Griselda,” a drama set in the ’70s and ’80s about cocaine magnate Griselda Blanco (Sofia Vergara). From the show’s opening frames, the filmmakers immerse the viewers in 1970s Miami, giving an immediate and persuasive sense that what we’re watching is something more than a typical reconstruction of an era — it feels as though someone just happened to drop a camera in the middle of the real Griselda’s life and captured everything that occurred as it occurred.

Some of this comes from the carefully chosen and steadily accumulating period details in the production design and costumes, but what really allows “Griselda” to establish its ’70s milieu within seconds is the gorgeously textured cinematography by Armando Salas, ASC. In partnership with director Andrés Baiz, who, like Salas, worked on all six of the series’ episodes, Salas came up with a color palette and grain structure that works on a subconscious level, convincing the viewer that the footage is from 1978. For Salas, it began with an exploration of still photography from the period.

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“We looked at films from the ’70s, but we also looked at a lot of photographs,” Salas told IndieWire. “Photography has this great benefit, which is that you are not limited by the distribution and archival qualities of the period — did it have to go through internegatives or interpositives, and how was it scanned for us to see it now? With photography, you get beyond all that, and you actually see what the film stocks of the ’70s looked like.” Salas quickly learned that older film stocks rendered color differently from current methods of digital cinematography. “The electronic sensors have gotten so good at capturing reality and massive amounts of color information that sometimes it’s a little distracting. So sometimes it became about taking away color information that we didn’t want and being really specific about what older film stocks did to approximate those colors.”

Salas found that the way ’70s photographs represented color had an impressionistic quality that he wanted to recreate. “We have this love for the way those colors are rendered because they’re beautiful and they’re painterly,” he said. “But they’re not necessarily realistic.” That idea of a painterly quality became a guiding principle for the look of the series: “A painter looks out at the world and paints a landscape that isn’t what’s there, it’s filtered through the paint and the brush and the eye of the artist in terms of what is important for that scene. That’s what we were trying to do in terms of color, we were trying to distill down to the essentials.”

Griselda. Sofia Vergara as Griselda in episode 105 of Griselda. Cr. Courtesy of Netflix © 2023

Discovering that this distillation is what would lend the show a period flavor came largely during the location scouting process. “Andy loves taking Polaroid pictures, so he would take them on scouts,” Salas said. “Then I started to get involved in it as well, and we started staging photographs at the scouts based on where we thought the blocking would be. There were a lot of failures in those photographs, a lot of things that didn’t work out, but every once in a while, we’d get these really amazing pictures in terms of the rendition of color and skin tone. The image eliminated a lot of colors that it couldn’t faithfully reproduce, and we used that as a starting point.”

Salas combined what he learned from the Polaroids with lessons he applied from still photographers like Philip-Lorca diCorcia to land on the show’s overall look, which he described as less a faithful replication of the ’70s than an evocation of its “vibe.” Key to the look was emulating the grain structure he found in diCorcia’s photographs, something Salas achieved via extensive testing in collaboration with his colorist as well as the hair, makeup, and wardrobe departments. “We basically built a kind of digital film stock for the late ’70s and another for the early ’80s,” Salas said, “a grain texture that was built into the pipeline of the show so we could preview it on set. It was in the dailies, and then it’s in the final color, so it wasn’t this post decision after living with the image for a long time.”

Griselda. (L to R) Sofia Vergara as Griselda, Paulina Dávila as Isabel in episode 102 of Griselda. Cr. Courtesy of Netflix © 2023

Another key to the series’ period look was Salas’ lens selection. Interestingly, he opted not to use vintage lenses but went with Panaspeeds, which he felt would allow him to recreate vintage lenses’ properties without suffering their liabilities. “The Panaspeeds had a lot of the characteristics I liked in older lenses,” Salas said. “A slightly softer contrast, a gentle falloff toward the edges, but they perform consistently from lens to lens, without a lot of the issues you have with older lenses, aberrations that come up at an inopportune time that you have to then deal with. You can fall in love with a vintage lens at a certain distance and it’s an amazing lens to shoot a portrait with, but when you actually take it out into the field and do all the insane things that we do under all the different circumstances, it starts to fall apart. With the Panaspeeds I felt like I could be true to the aesthetics of the show while also eliminating as many variables as possible.”

The idea of eliminating variables and stripping the image down to its essentials extended to the coverage, as Salas and Baiz tried to find a visual grammar that would express Griselda’s experience as a woman in a man’s world. Ultimately, Salas landed on what he described as a combination of “grit and glamour” that drew on his own memories of growing up in Miami. “I tried to be true to the quality of light that I remembered from my childhood,” Salas said. “But the name of the show is ‘Griselda,’ so we really wanted a lot of intention with the camera to filter the world through her eyes. There’s a lot of ugliness there, but there’s also optimism and joy and ambition — but she’s also a sociopath and a killer. We didn’t want a bleak show, so it was challenging to find that balance.”

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