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July 21, 2017

Unseen By Design

Salvador Parra doesn't want to be noticed.

Samantha Gilbert
  • Salvador Parra

For Salvador Parra, production designer on the Netflix series Narcos NOT being noticed is the greatest compliment he can receive.

“If the audience notices my work, it means I have created a terrible design,” says Parra, who, as the production designer and head of the art department, is responsible for orchestrating the visual landscape of the entire show. 

“My job is to incorporate everyone’s ideas about the script into a nice, comprehensive, visual concept.”  This means taking into consideration: the hopes and dreams of the director and the director of photography, the producers and writers, and all of the other department heads, all the while working to add his own personal artistic concepts in order to create an environment which both the actors and the audience believe is real.

Oh yes, and this must all be done within a budget, on a tight shooting schedule, whilst being responsible for the actions and products of the largest department in the production.

Whew. No small feat.

And because Narcos is a period piece based on the widely known, real-life story of Columbian drug lord Pablo Escobar, creating a world that is aesthetically accurate is imperative to the credibility of the storytelling.

Shot on location in Bogota, Medellin, and Cali, Columbia, the challenges of creating this particular landscape go beyond simply coming up with ideas or trying to match that which had existed in the 1980’s and 1990’s. Those endeavors are difficult enough on any production, but for Parra and his team on Narcos, sometimes just finding the proper resources to bring their ideas to fruition is a very real obstacle.

“Shooting a period piece in Colombia is difficult because a lot of construction is involved and we have to teach the locally hired hands the importance of accuracy.” Parra explains, “The crews there don't have the schooling of the big American productions nor do they have a very strong filmmaking history, so teaching all the skills to work on this show is the biggest challenge.”

Parra and his team encounter more trials just in finding the items they need to build and dress the sets and settings they are working to recreate. As if filling rooms and locations with convincing layers of life isn’t difficult enough, the Narcos art department does not have the luxury of running down to a big box store to purchase supplies, nor do they have accounts at rental houses packed with props and set decoration, because such amenities do not exist.

“I always try to build and dress more that what the scene needs, just to have the actors confortable in what they see.” 

“There are flea markets where it is possible to find really wonderful things, but there are no big warehouses like in New York or Los Angeles, so you have to deal with local antique houses where it is sometimes quite difficult to make a good deal.”

He continues, “Transportation can also be a very strong issue since there are a lot of restrictions concerning traffic in Colombia, so we have to be very organic. The local labor helps a lot, special deals have to be made with freelancers because of the government requirements for every single person.”

Parra did have one advantage that certainly helped ease the shock of encountering these difficulties that productions in the states and in other countries with more established film industries most likely don’t have to face, he had worked in Columbia before.

“15 years ago I prepped a movie in Medellin called Rosario Tijeras, so I was familiar with the history of Pablo Escobar and the Medellin community, where they still maintain a very strong opinion of these people [cartels] and their stories.” 

And so it was his enduring love for good storytelling and even the impending challenges themselves, those he knew would rear their ugly heads, which ultimately drew Parra to the project upon presentation.

“I didn't know anything about Narcos until one of the show’s directors called and asked me if I might be interested in a project shooting in Colombia,” Parra recalls. “He sent me the first and the last episode of the first season and I was shocked. I loved it because it was different; I adored the incorporation of archival footage and the use of multiple languages. It also seemed like a very risky project, so I decided to do it.”

And with the right attitude, risk and challenge will no doubt inspire growth and change, two things that Parra holds in high regard.

He believes the key ingredient for being a good production designer is growth. “This is a profession where you have to continue growing, otherwise, you will get bored…and that´s when you have to leave the job.” 

Parra goes on, “One of the best pieces of advice I have ever received was from [director] Julian Schnabel during the shooting of his film, Before Night Falls. He advised to always be open to change, whether it’s color, wardrobe, anything. In the last minute, if you have doubt, don’t be afraid to change.”

These principles have guided Parra to over 25 years of experience in the film and television industry.

Parra began his journey to becoming a production designer as an art student studying sculpture in Mexico City’s national art school, La Esmeralda.  In the interest of building his own world of experience and education, Parra rounded out his skillsets to become as affluent in the cinematic arts as possible. He worked in nearly every art department position available: as a set decorator, a sculptor, a construction worker, a prop master, and as a scenic painter. 

He came up when Mexican directors like Guillermo del Toro, Alfonso Cuaron, and Luis Estrada were emerging in the Mexican film industry, and so he focused his attention and developed his skills to become a production designer. 

“Making good television involves a lot skill and a lot of creative solutions, which forces you to improve and learn every time out.”

As the true storytelling romantic in Parra emerges, “I still get surprised all the time: when I find a new texture, see a lovely sign, discover a new location… everything is a perfect well of inspiration.”

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