Abraham Martínez is a cinematographer who is the Director of Photography on TV shows such as Queen of the South and The Chi. We had a wonderful, in-depth conversation about his life’s journey to date, career, what he actually does as a Director of Photography, his abiding passion for taking photographs and far more besides…
Read on to find out lots more about Abraham Martínez, filmmaker:
DB: Where were you born and what was it like there?
AM: I was born in San Antonio, Texas. I’m an American, but my heritage is Mexican. My father and mother grew up in the era that when they went to the school they weren’t allowed to speak Spanish and would get hit on the hand with a ruler, they didn’t want me to go through that experience, so they didn’t teach me Spanish. However, I’m understanding it more as I’ve worked a lot in South America, Mexico.
My mom remarried when I was 10, to my stepfather who worked in engineering in the oil industry, so we moved to Houston. Later he got into the water system business, we moved to Denver and then to Dallas.
DB: What is your earliest memory?
AM: Going to kindergarten, standing at the front receptionist, checking my aunt – it wasn’t my mom or my dad, they were divorced – I was just standing there crying and didn’t want to leave my aunt.
DB: What was your childhood, like? What sort of kid were you?
AM: I was into cartoons, just drawing frames and making characters. Watching the commercials, mostly of kids playing with toys, I was like, “Oh my gosh, it’d be amazing just to make these commercials!” That’s kind of where the seed was planted.
Growing up, I looked at my my grandfather’s photos, who served in World War Two. He had passed by this time, but my grandma would take out a stack of black and white photos from his travels, and as a kid I’d lay all the photos out and admire them. My stepfather showed slideshows of Saudi Arabia and around the world of him and his friends.
At that time, we moved to Houston, which is multicultural, vastly different from where I grew up the first 10 years, which was very linear, small, Hispanic food, Spanish-Mexican culture. As I look back, I realise what a rich experience it was being in Houston, I would eat foods that were not part of my experience growing up in San Antonio. I didn’t know that it would be such a benchmark for me and my future career.
During that time, I watched The Killing Fields, and there were moments that captured me. Social justice was a part of it but looking back it was mostly the excitement of photography in the war zone. Somewhere in the 7th-8th grade, I had the goal of being a war cameraman.
I started shooting stills in the 8th grade, going into the lab, developing, processing. I still had regular subjects, but I knew I was wanting to go to film school. At the time photography wasn’t as accessible as it is today with digital, it is a lot harder to set up a darkroom in your house and I only had it in the school, it was very hands-on learning.
DB: What else did you do when you were a teenager with your friends?
AM: During the mid-‘80s I discovered hip hop, and in Houston, they didn’t play hip hop on the radio till after 9 pm! I was very much into hip hop culture, breakdancing, sketch graffiti, riding my bike, exploring. Hip hop was probably the biggest thing for me, in terms of something that was my own, not my parents’, but I only listened to it after 9 pm so it felt like a bit of a rebellion.
Denver was a landscape that was different for me, mountainous. It didn’t have what Houston had, it wasn’t as multicultural, but I ended up doing a lot of different things there and gravitating towards sports as an outlet, like running track. I still run, it’s one of my favourite things to do as I travel. I love running to a lighthouse in Spain or a castle in Naples, wherever I’m shooting.
I picked up skiing, my stepfather loved to ski so we skied a lot. My school had lacrosse, golf, tennis and I started learning about new types of sports and how to relate with other people from different income brackets. I didn’t take as much photography at that time.
The engineering business kept my stepfather moving and when we went to Dallas, I was able to take a film video class, shoot and work all season long, filming video and editing. I started to leave a little bit of sports behind me and focusing on where to go to film school.
DB: Did you find joining all those sports in Dallas was also a great way of making friends since you had no friends initially?
AM: On that track you work independently but also have to do relays and have a lot of trust, it is a different discipline in terms of relationships, trust and being goal-oriented. Until you asked that question, I had never really thought about it from that perspective because that’s basically what filming is.
If I had stayed in San Antonio, I don’t think I would have experienced snowboarding or skiing. I would later end up working on the Olympics in Torino [Turin] and doing all the snowboard, X Games projects. I didn’t know it would become a practical thing for my livelihood. I’ve done a lot of snow summit jobs and snow work on documentaries, those are jobs that I would have had to pass up on, such as flying on helicopters in the Alps and landing on slopes! When you look back you see how constantly your childhood experience starts building up to those moments.
I do feel that my mother was very encouraging and never really drove me into a specific direction. She encouraged me to try new things, and I always felt that she left an impression upon me that I really could do whatever I wanted in the future as a working professional.
DB: Was Torino your first journey abroad?
AM: After film school, I moved to New York and then to LA, and around 1999-2000 is where I had my first overseas experience (other than going to Mexico as a child). Now I’ve done 100 international trips and been to almost 60 countries but my first one was to Borneo. When you start thinking about the backstory of the international street in Houston it ends up becoming a foreshadowing experience.
My senior year in college I ended up taking World Cinema. I didn’t know I was going to travel to Africa or India but I had to take some classes, and production classes were very expensive. I was already working as a film loader and getting paid to be in the business as my part-time job, so there was no need for me to make a thesis on film production. Thankfully, I took World Cinema, so I knew about international filmmakers and it made me appreciate locations.
DB: Where did you go to film school?
AM: I went to the University of North Texas, about 1 hour north of Dallas.
DB: Was that because it was quite near or was it because of its reputation and what it offered?
AM: It was near but also, I met my wife in high school Art class and that’s how I took the transition from war cameraman to working on movies. Senior year, I already knew I wanted to go film school and my wife (my girlfriend in high school) didn’t want me to be a war cameraman, so I started moving towards working on movies.
Quentin Tarantino had started making his mark and it was an interesting, fun time for filmmakers. My wife wanted to go to FIT (Fashion Institute of Technology). We both ended up moving in together – 19 or 20 years old, very young – and I went to film school. I finished film school and that’s what brought us to New York, for her to go to FIT.
DB: What does a Director of Photography do, both on and off the set?
AM: A Director of Photography (DP) is responsible for the visual grammar of the story or shooting and works directly with the director on how to translate the script to screen. The DP is responsible for all things photography to help display the emotion of the scene, be it through the use of colour, composition or camera movement. For me, the baseline is to translate the story, with emotion, using photography.
DB: Is that sometimes a compromise between the Director’s vision, and what you know is practical?
AM: It varies. Television has a certain style to a show which is also part of the job description: to tell in a specific style and to have that discipline. When a director comes in on a television show, we embrace ideas and we most certainly want to empower them to tell a story, but we have to adhere to the show and make sure that we stay on schedule. We’ll most definitely collaborate on how to make the show and translate their vision, so there is much discussion and planning.
On a movie, the DP is there to serve the Director and to execute the vision. Lots of pre-production has been done on a movie to make sure that that we can get the Director’s vision up on the screen. For me it’s just as important that I embrace the process beforehand, working with a director, to hear them out and to really share. It fans out to many types of influences: other movies or paintings or music, it encompasses an array of art. That part excites me!
Another way the director and photographer are responsible is for the point of view of the show. Is it very subjective or objective, clinical, streamlined, traditional or very loose and run-and-gun? There are many different styles, which is a lot of fun.
DB: How much time would you spend on that pre-production, talking things through?
AM: The way I work presently (shooting TV) is, when I go to the interview process I take the script and try to have the idea of the style of the show, and during the interview see if it matches up with their idea of what they want, or if they’re looking for some style ideas. I will start creating at the genesis of the conversation.
Shooting Queen of the South, right now, it’s mostly about cartels, gangsters and heightened realism, so I keep everything that I do within that vein. If somebody calls me for a job after this then I start doing research on that show and preparing myself – marinating my thoughts – as to what the next show style is going to be. I start looking for that in everyday real life. I’m also a street photographer, I view that as conditioning certain muscles.
My next show, I start looking at the palette, maybe starting the conversation with the Art Director and Production Director, trying to figure out how we can incorporate the set, and the desire to let that evolve. I start making a framework of themes and lighting and then, as we slowly get towards production, start thinking more technically. But, initially, I’m thinking about emotion and the style of the show.
DB: Is that also because you did art for a while? Do you still paint or draw at all?
AM: I don’t, street photography is my main side art project, but I consider myself as part of a hybrid generation. When I was in elementary, I started learning how to type on a typewriter and then, the very next semester, we had a Mac. In film school, I was cutting audio tape with a razor and taping it on reel-to-reel, doing sound edits, but within that time in school it flipped, and we started editing audio digitally.
When I was coming up, you were the apprentice and started by cleaning lenses in the camera house, then pulling lenses, camera packages, then you went out in the field and started loading film, and then to 2nd AC [Assistant Camera]. Every step of the line you were learning from the person above you in a mentorship capacity. Now people will come out of film school saying they’re a “Director of Photography”, without going through the steps that I’ve been through. I didn’t call myself a Director of Photography until I paid the dues to my guild because I knew when I assisted for the other DPs there’s a certain level, and the high point as Director of Photography.
I feel that I’m also in the transition in terms of distribution and storytelling, the narrative is starting to expand and part of the culture and temperament of the age is not only to bridge the gap with uniform storytelling from Hollywood, but that we’re cracking out to tell more stories. Where I find myself is how to bridge the gap with cultural sensitivity.
DB: Is there somebody who stands out in your mind who had an influence upon you as a filmmaker?
AM: With the apprenticeship/mentor model the level is always the person above us. The person who trained me how to load the film was an assistant, a woman, a woman also trained me how to be a second AC. I know there’s been a lack of female representation in the camera department but most certainly some women were very fundamental in the beginning.
The first cameraman that I worked with, who was probably the most influential, was Ralf Bode ASC. He was the DP on Saturday Night Fever. When I worked at the camera rental house, that’s who I met and then his son came into the camera shop as well. During those times it was very relationship-based, that’s how you got your information and wasn’t intentional, like “how can I get a job?” I hit it off with Ralf’s son, my wife graduated FIT and we moved to LA. Immediately I called up Ralf and his team (he was shooting a movie for our friend) and they had me on as their film loader. Within three months of being in LA, I got quickly into the union camera guild, which usually takes time, that was around 1998.
DB: What are the standout projects in your mind?
AM: Looking back there are so many monumental experiences that I’ve had. I did my first documentary in 1999 when I moved to LA, the HBO documentary Americanos, and we shot in the presence of Bill Clinton at the White House. I knew that was a monumental moment, so I went to the producer and asked if I could use a cell phone. I remember grabbing that phone, walking out on the front lawn, leaning up against the pillar of the White House and calling my wife. I said, “You’ll never guess where I’m at right now!” That was very much a unique moment for me.
Another would be working on the movie Ali from Michael Mann, and the DP Emmanuel Lubezki ASC. My first big studio film which took us to Mozambique, New York, Miami, almost six months of shooting; I loaded almost 2 million feet of film. That film for me is still probably the most exciting project I’ve ever worked on with Will Smith and Jamie Foxx. It’s very personal because that’s when I first experienced Africa – we were shooting Will Smith running in Mozambique – it gave me a sense of purpose to tell a story.
Our camera truck was parked next to a cinema shanty-type “cinema”, there was a chalkboard and they wrote the showtimes of movies – it would be a VHS tape of a movie, like Death Wish. I vividly remember seeing these kids and giving them these little short ends of film from the camera truck and driving away, down a dusty road – in a very cinematic way – looking back and seeing all the kids playing with the long 30, 40, 50 feet of film. That would be the most pivotal point in my life, where I wanted my work to mean something.
I would have another job that allowed me right back in East Africa, this time in Kenya. During that time, my second mentor experience would be Andrew Anami, a filmmaker in Kenya, who literally adopted me as his son. I would have a very impactful relationship with him. He was getting close to retirement and was telling me that, when you look back you want to make an impact. One thing he told me was that he would make and show films about AIDS awareness and social justice and set up outdoor screening events all throughout Kenya and other countries. He said that they would have a table in the back and men with guns and machetes laid them down, they were so transformed by the storytelling!
Years later, I worked on The Chi and I remember doing a scene where one gangster started collecting guns from the Southside of Chicago (which is very prominent for gun violence) and brought them into the church, just getting guns out of the system. That’s the point where mentorship at a very heart-level met artwork and storytelling and, for me, that purpose came to fruition and I knew I was on the path where I wanted to be.
Years later, we ended up selling our house in LA and all moved to Kenya to make a kid show pilot in hopes of getting it sold. That was done 2010-12, when there was no streaming the way it is now, to get it picked up. We shot it in our backyard in Nairobi, 22 filmmakers, stories broken into segments of language, art and geography and our host, dressed up in a cool Afro-punk. We used the proceeds from our house to make that kids’ show.
I met other filmmakers and directors and shot a couple of movies and commercials while I was living in Nairobi. I ended up learning a lot to take back with me to Hollywood, to teach about the portrayal of Africa. You don’t have to hit the same pictorial notes on the piano of how to showcase Africa, you export the beauty of Africa.
When we went back to the States I didn’t have a mortgage, so pretty much since 2010, my wife, kids and I have been living on the road. My wife goes to Paris a lot (she’s painter and fashion designer) and that’s pretty much how we spur one another along, watching and going to museums. We live full-time on the road, home-schooling our children. Sometimes their home-schooling goes into alignment with work. We were in Berlin, and at that specific time my son was learning a lot about the Berlin Wall and checkpoints. My other son, while we were in Iceland, was studying about Vikings. I always tell our kids that travelling and the exploration of today is about learning the hearts of men, and to truly listen!
We always have a sense of exploration with our family. When they were kids, we were mobile and it was hard to make a home, so we use a lot of our Mexican food, some spices and dishes that we carry with us, to make a home everywhere we go. There’s always been a spirit of exploration, for the human heart, and it goes along with my wife’s paintings – she has a ‘women’ series. I’m surrounded by exemplars of how to translate what it means to be a modern-day explorer.
DB: Thinking about Queen of the South, I remember the specific visuals of the opening of season four, when Teresa’s on the motorbike. Was that a pure amalgam of your ideas and the director’s vision?
AM: Yes. There is also a second part of that, which would be the way we handle flashforwards and flashbacks. In our flashforwards there’s a lot of slow-mo, voiceover and some symbolism, a little bit heightened; the directors set the point of view of how to tell that. That was a flashforward to where she’s building her wealth, we wanted to show how close to death, and vulnerable she is. The white clothing is a superstition of what is going to protect her from harm. There’s this balance the writers did, which was to put her on a motorcycle which is very vulnerable, being chased, close to death but escapes it. Then she goes to a part of her Empire at the hotel and is cutting the ribbon – also another metaphor – the scissors and the red ribbon where it slowly blows away.
DB: It is “Wow!” And very red!
AM: Coming off of season three red was very much a metaphor for me, the use of red, many different types of red: a red when blood is dry, when blood is fresh, when it’s just completely fading into the sun, that was my backdrop. It’s very much a poetic intro.The peripheral when she shoots those guys is more empty and you’re focused on them only. With that part I spoke to the director about just having her in a pool of light, focused on her Empire and the sacrifices that she needs to make to get what she wants. You think there’s security but then fireworks go off that are full of colour – red, blue – but there’s also the red and blue from the police cars. There is this duality of protection and no protection, written full of poetic symbolism.
DB: After the flashforward, the colour palette isn’t saturated, it’s pale and realistic rather than being heightened.
AM: That’s right. On the cartel-gangster genre, we are trying to stay in a lane where it feels realistic, to make it believable and based a lot more on relationships – rather than moving drugs around – loyalty and multicultural, diverse types of relationships. I feel our show has a unique layer of telling these stories, a believability and reality, not for it to be exaggerated and falling into some of the gangster clichés. I’m always trying to take with me influence and learning, adding that sense of realism, a sensitivity to culture, and it’s a lot of fun for me to add even more layers than you would normally see.
The first time we were in New Orleans, I took some tests of the local colours and skin tones – we have a variety of skin tones on our show – and they are incorporated into the more realistic point of view of the show. This season she has a little bit more control, so where the show was hand-held, following her and very loose, now it is a little bit more controlled because she’s trying to lay roots. We try to keep the point of view to the summit, which has mostly been her point of view and experience.
DB: That makes sense because I think the very next part is Boaz’s lab and that’s more hand-held.
AM: Mexico was a lot warmer and sunnier and they’re on the agave farm, which has a different feel. When we’re cutting between the two you know you’re in New Orleans, which I play a lot more blues and greens, and Mexico is a bit warmer. The Mexican cartel, you’ll find a lot looser and hand-held at times. I was able to see some sort of realism and sell a colour, rather than evoke an emotion of “Doomsday”.
DB: When you go straight off one show and onto another project, is it sometimes hard to make the mental switch between the two?
AM: Yes, SEAL Team or Showtime’s The Chi. SEAL Team is very much international, and they went to “Africa”, so I was able to contribute to some of the African layout and what was “real”. The Chi is more social justice, what it’s like in the South Side. I am personally bent on social realism and to compassionately tell a realistic story. My showrunner wanted it to feel like the audience is sitting in the living room with the actors that had a friend shot, and what those conversations were like with his mother, and the dynamics.
Early on in my career, I started shooting on social justice documentaries: human trafficking, poverty. I did maybe a stint of five years of that type of work and it took a toll on me, broadened my understanding of violence, to know that poverty is the true enemy. A lot of the characters in Queen of South, if you put their gifts in the right place in the correct context… For me it was never that she ran a cartel, it’s about the virtues that she’s trying to live by and what really challenges us at the end of the day. The same for both shows, to understand poverty and why people choose that as a “career”. When I get the script and do a breakdown, I really look at what is the true gift of this character, who is speaking into their lives, and what that character is supposed to represent.
DB: Do you have any filmmakers that you admire?
AM: I definitely like Will Smith and his production company Overbrook. I think they have a clear vision of what they want to do. I worked on the project The Karate Kid with them and their team, and really got to understand their business model, executives, heart and vision for the company and the stories that they want to tell.
When you look back at other filmmakers they were very much based on a “name” and a director, I think what we’re now starting to see is a community of filmmakers. That goes again to what I was outlining earlier about the transition-hybrid period. You see Ava DuVernay with Array and what she’s doing is also having a part of the distribution to tell stories and showcase artists who are not on the Hollywood radar and Lena Waithe, who is also putting teams together, telling more stories, having several shows – I’m very much inspired by her as well.
I feel YouTube has usurped a lot of our storytellers into the immediacy of making videos and things on the internet. Today’s filmmakers are just immediately turning over content, videos not movies that are making waves the way we saw in the ‘90s and early 2000s. We’ve landed into a part where it’s more about television, setting up longer narratives of 8 to 10 episodes. I still fancy Christopher Nolan, Scorsese and admire all those films but I’m very excited to see what’s on the horizon because I feel like we’re really just getting started.
I still work on documentaries and my last two are on Netflix, What We Started, the history of EDM, and The American Meme, which is Paris Hilton on about the effects of social media. That’s the thing that I do between shows to keep me fresh. When engaging on a movie set you have assistants and a set that’s driven by craft whereas on a documentary there is still craft, but it’s very responsive, nimble, malleable and we don’t work with actors. It’s much like my street photography where the city is moving forward, you can only get the shot once, and you have to have that alignment with the right backdrop, the right gesture or movement. Much like an actor would go to a stage without cameras and lighting setups and get to act freely, the documentary is that for me. It excites me because it’s unpredictable and you’re creating a habit and a point of view that you would not get from a TV or movie set, that I can carry over to increase the sense of realism on cinema.
DB: What would your advice be to anyone who is thinking of going into the photographic side of the industry?
AM: There’s no one set way of how to get to where you want to be. There’s nothing wrong with being an assistant or an operator and there are many different levels of assisting. I have assistant and second assistant friends who work on these big movies, and you can stay there and it’s a great place to be. First, you want to find out what is your long-range view, it’s a long game, and a patient game, and to stay the course.
Another would be the relationships you have, and to see if we have common ground. Then you take it on terms of taste: I like hip hop and DJ music, and I end up shooting the history of EDM for Netflix by these directors who have the same interest or passion. Working with passion is an endless fuel tank.
Passion, relationships, and your long-term goal, I think with those three it is very sustainable and you can gather those up now and make films with somebody who wants to shoot the same genre, who you get along with. I think whatever parts you’re not getting along with; those are the areas you’ve got to work on to sustain the long-range view. Work on how to communicate with relationships, and when you don’t agree, accept that challenge and embrace it.
DB: Who in your life has been the most influential?
AM: Overall I think my wife is the most influential. We’ve been together since high school, so she has to endure all the travel, and she’s always there. Most certainly, my faith is the strongest thing for me, to have a spiritual side, “diet”, if you will. I’m Christian so my faith is there to travel with me.
When I was working on movies, I would have to say it was the people that work in the next category, to see who has gone through the process, to see what your journey is. I think that those are the people that I’ve admired, and that hasn’t necessarily been about who’s taking the prettiest pictures, but who still has their family and their marriage intact, somebody that’s actually been able to stay afloat in the ever-changing seasons of the business.
DB: What are your hobbies, pastimes and passions?
AM: I mentioned earlier, I am a runner, and when you are a runner there’s the runner’s high after a certain point. Filmmaking and taking pictures, I get a little runners’ high off that, I get excited when things line up. When everything lines up and you get the shot… there’s such a rush of excitement! I don’t see any reason why I cannot just pour myself 24-7 into that process!
I look at paintings. I’m still into Impressionism at the moment, before that I was into the Renaissance and a lot of the Dutch painters. I do quite exhaustive studies, listen to art lectures on YouTube. I’m very much stuck into the process of painters – not necessarily the paintings themselves – and also their life stories.
DB: When you travel, do you target places that you can go that relate to art?
AM: Always when I travel, I not only have a relationship with co-workers, I have a relationship with the city. When I do a show I go to the museum I pick a painting. Over a six-month period when you see the same painting you have to make an adjustment to be excited about seeing that same painting again. Every show that I do, I have an inspiration painter or painting of the season, and I usually try to find that locally; in Chicago, it was Charles White. So when things run low in my tank, or exhaustion hits my wife and kids, we will go to the museum, I go back to that painting and see exactly how I was moved when I picked it as an inspiration and what do I see that’s different? Usually, I definitely see something that’s different and inspiring.
When I go running to all these different locations I don’t run for an hour, I try to find what is the icon of the city or what is the theme.
DB: Do you find that it’s an emotional process where you’re feeling the things, rather than necessarily intellectualising them?
AM: I feel like that’s the battle. I think the dominant force for me doing this is to evoke emotion but it is fun to find a through-line to where some painters took the influences of philosophy, which can be a lot more object-oriented – also in architecture – which then leads me to the more intellectual, technical side of construction. You have to see what’s included and not included in the frame because you have got one shot at it – it’s quite a commitment with paint. To understand colour composition, colour theory, to talk with the art director and set up the template. I also talk to wardrobe about the construction and even how a piece of wardrobe moves, or a pattern.
I’m a film guy and film was very expensive, you didn’t have that many takes, it was very finite in terms of time. With digital you just keep rolling, so for me, the discipline of painting is being able to have a strong commitment on the preparation process with my director. I’m still trying to hold on to those timeless disciplines.
I love the spontaneity of street photography, that’s my counterbalance, to accept the things that I can’t control and to position myself to make beautiful or compelling stories with a single photograph, and I feel like the combination of the two is a great toolkit.
DB: What could you not live without?
AM: Wow, man… it’s definitely hard under quarantine, not going to museums. I have my wife’s paintings. I’ve got a little painting that I bought before COVID that I have a sitting next to the couch and every day it brings me joy. I certainly can’t live without my faith, and my family on the road with me, that’s very important, to have them close.
DB: If you could be granted one wish, what would you wish for?
AM: That would be a dream of my wife’s. She has an ultimate wish to set up an artists’ residence for refugee artists and to put them into the art scene, to set up a hub. I definitely see down the line being a teacher of Photography and Motion. I feel like somewhere in there is our residence-gallery-hub, tied to refugees. Finding artists on the fringes, who aren’t on the scene yet who have raw, original talent, so their vision of the world may be radically different and conveyed in a different way – it’s very exciting.
[Edited by Grace Rainbow]
Find Abraham on:
Link to 10 Insights from this interview with Abraham Martínez:
10 Insights From Abraham Martínez
Link to Queen of the South S4 trailer:
Link to The Chi S1 trailer:
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