As an eighth grader, Abe Martinez ('96) was watching the 1984 movie The Killing Fields when he realized something.

One of the characters, a journalist played by John Malkovich, needed a fake passport for a translator to vacate Cambodia. During an intense scene, he made the passport using photographic chemicals.

Abe Martinez
Abe Martinez ('96)

"Malkovich is a character with a camera," Martinez says. "And I had a camera."

Martinez was using a 35 millimeter camera given to him by his stepfather and developing photos in a darkroom for his middle school yearbook in Houston . He also was enthralled with the slideshows his stepfather showed from his visits to Saudi Arabia.

"It was a door opening," Martinez says. "My worldview was opening up. I began seeing the camera as my passport."

That passport has taken him to 50 countries. He has worked sports events such as the Super Bowl and on movies such as Ali and Spider-Man 3. Now he's fulfilling his biggest dreams as a cinematographer, where his work can be seen on TV programs like Queen of the South, The Chi and 61st Street, which will premiere April 10 on AMC.

"I mean, I feel like I'm living the dream," he says. "I'm still getting opportunities to tell stories."

From UNT to Hollywood
Abe Martinez

Martinez's education at UNT helped pave the way to success.

As a senior media arts major, he worked as an intern for Dallas-based Mobile Production Services, an equipment rental company, and his senior-level courses focused on studying world cinema.

"Those teachers were very passionate," he says. "Passion comes through words and storytelling. I was a big sponge at the time, soaking in the world cinema classes."

After graduation, he and his wife, Amy Zaleta-Martinez, moved to New York City, where she attended the Fashion Institute of Technology and he worked at a camera rental house.

One of his co-workers noticed a customer walked in. It was Ralf D. Bode, the cinematographer known for Saturday Night Fever, Coal Miner's Daughter and Rocky.

The co-worker told Martinez, "You want to cozy up to that guy."

In the days before IMDB made contact information readily accessible, aspiring filmmakers had to seize every chance they could. Bode had left his light meter on the table, so Martinez ran after Bode, who was already a block away.

"Oh, thank you, you're such a doll," Bode told him.

Then Martinez snagged his phone number and put it in his notebook.

When Martinez and his wife moved to Los Angeles for her fashion design job in 1999, he contacted Bode and got a gig working as a camera loader on a movie called The Secret Life of Girls. He then obtained his union membership, and soon was working as a camera loader for the 1999 version of Annie.

"I really began pinching myself," he says. "I finally felt like I arrived."

"The camera is the character"
Abe Martinez
Abe Martinez (’96) on the set of ‘The Chi."

Martinez went from rental house worker to film loader to camera assistant to camera operator to cinematographer. He's covered the Olympics, NBA Championships and even photographed President Bill Clinton while he was in the White House.

His most pivotal moment came in 2001, when he worked on Ali, the Muhammad Ali biopic starring Will Smith. The filming took him around the world, including Mozambique. While shooting in Africa, he was taken by the poverty of the continent, but also by the joy exuded by its people.

A few years later, his infant son passed away from heart complications. Martinez became even more inspired to make an impact with his work. He and his family packed up and moved to Kenya to make a TV pilot for a children's TV program inspired by Sesame Street and Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood.

The show never got picked up as a series, but it earned him more experience in filming independent movies and at international locales. He worked as a camera assistant for Fast and Furious, Oblivion, Flight Plan and Spider-Man 3.

In 2016, he received the biggest break of the career -- the job of cinematographer. The producers of the Netflix series Queen of the South promoted him from camera operator to director of photography so he could create the looks for the show's travels to Mexico, Berlin and Malta.

As cinematographer, he is responsible for all the photography of the show, working along with the director to translate the script for its theme, style and all things technical.

"You're responsible for the camera, and the camera is the character," he says.

He is currently shooting National Treasure, a Disney+ series based on the movies, which will star Catherine Zeta-Jones.

With so many streaming platforms, he says Hollywood is just craving to tell more stories, and that's opening up more possibilities.

"It's been 20 years in the process and I feel like I'm living in the moment -- the golden age of storytelling," he says. "I worked hard to get here. It's exciting to see what's ahead."