Cinematographer Dominique Martinez’s next film is a dynamic short called Black Apple. It’s a stylish neo-noir set in a high school, and Martinez serves as both co-director and cinematographer on the film.

The Miami native’s journey towards creating this darkly atmospheric tale includes an unexpected visit to the world of children’s TV, not to mention multiple Emmy nominations. Martinez spent her own childhood watching movies with her Cuban grandmother, whose eclectic taste eventually rubbed off on her granddaughter as well.

This upbringing inspired Martinez to pursue photography. She then enrolled at the American Film Institute, a path which eventually led her to the Jim Henson Company. Martinez discovered a surprising knack for filming puppetry, and has since built a reputation as one of the most talented cinematographers in children’s television today. 

Her work on Netflix’s Waffles & Mochi’s Restaurant was nominated for a Children & Family Emmy for Best Cinematography for a Single Camera Live Action Program. The project presented Martinez with the unique opportunity to further the show’s visual style in its second season. She introduced softer light and more motivated camera movements, resulting in what she describes as a “cotton candy” aesthetic. With the show’s emphasis on cooking, Martinez also employed a snorkel lens to capture every detail of the food, much of it prepared by executive producer Michelle Obama!

Martinez sat down with Awards Focus to discuss her immense success with Waffles + Mochi’s Restaurant as well as Apple TV+’s Slumberkins, all of which has prepared her for Black Apple and this exciting next step in her career!

Awards Focus: I’d love to start off by asking what drew you to cinematography, and where you got your start in the industry?

Dominique Martinez: My parents aimed to instill art in all forms to their three daughters, so from a young age I was drawn to painting, photography and film. My Cuban grandmother had an eclectic taste in film and truly loved old movies. I have a lot of memories watching movies with her and asking her to be quiet because she would talk over the film to tell me all the actors’ names and in what other movies they appeared. With all that, it wasn’t until college where I realized the combination of photography and film was a profession. 

After assisting and pursuing photography in Miami, I was accepted to the American Film Institute which is when I moved to Los Angeles. After AFI, I started shooting indies, docs, and commercials. Through one of those projects, I was connected to the Jim Henson Company and tapped to shoot a proof of concept for them. 

AF: Your most recent credit, Waffles & Mochi’s Restaurant, has earned you a Children & Family Emmy nomination for Best Cinematography for a Single Camera Live Action Program. What was the creative dialogue like between yourself and the director, showrunner and/or creative leadership team? Who do you work most closely with? 

Martinez: I was brought in for the second season of the show where Waffles and Mochi now own their own restaurant. Jeremy Konner and Erika Thormahlen (Creators/Executive Producers) and Tim McKeon (Executive Producer on Season 2) wanted to push the visual style of the show a bit more for the second season and I was happy to do so. In creating the lookbook, the images I kept being drawn to were in the magical realism realm and with that in mind, I knew we were going to implement soft, natural-source inspired light and move the camera as much as possible within the parameters of filming with puppets. I wanted to have the show feel like “cotton candy”- not the color, but the feeling of cotton candy when you see it- soft, airy, fun. 

I worked closely with the three fantastic directors, Shannon Flynn, Alex Braverman, and Cat Solen. We had a fairly quick shooting schedule so we shot-listed every episode during pre-production and we kept brainstorming throughout production on how we can push the visual storytelling even further. 

I always love working with the entire Camera, Grip, and Electric team on shoots. Everyone brings a fresh and unique perspective to set and that collaboration is very exciting for me. 

AF: Waffles and Mochi’s Restaurant, among other credits of yours, features both live actors and puppets/puppeteers. What does this change about your typical approach, and how does it differ from completely live action credits of yours such as Work/Friends?

Martinez: Yes, there is a difference for sure when puppets are added alongside live actors but the goal stays the same in regards to what is the story we are telling. That dictates everything and then we plan from there. When working with puppets, I typically aim to move the camera as much as possible to help integrate the blocking of the human actors in a scene. Camera movements are a great way to aid the puppeteers in bringing the puppets to life and avoiding stagnation on the visual plane. As a kid, I remember trying to figure out how Kermit rode his bicycle or how he walked alongside a human actor. It was magical. 

Once the puppeteering method is established (will everything be on steel deck or partial steel deck so that the puppeteers are working down below OR will the puppeteers be on rollies on the floor) then I work closely with the Production Designer, in Waffle’s and Mochi’s Restaurant’s case the fabulous Darcy Prevost, to figure out how we are going to ‘hide’ the puppeteers who will be alongside the human actors. Monitors for puppeteers and how they are mounted, eyelines, special lighting depending on the puppets texture and how that balances out with the human actors lighting- these are all some of the decisions that have to be made during pre-production that never come up during a non-puppeteered show.

AF: Another unique feature of Waffles and Mochi’s Restaurant is that there are a lot of great food shots as the two cook alongside host Michelle Obama. What technicalities went into getting those detailed shots of the meals?

Martinez: I chose the Sony Venice and Cooke S7i lenses because of how flattering they are on skin tones while also supporting my magical realism approach. Additionally, we utilized a snorkel lens for the food photography, allowing us to showcase in great detail the food prep shots. It looks like a sniper gun when on the camera but it basically allows for focusing millimeters away from an object and is extremely sharp. It was really fun to use that lens for details you don’t typically see when you are cooking at home. 

AF: Another recent credit of yours is Slumberkins. Although a children’s television series, the three focal puppet characters often delve into a lot of deep conversations. How did you navigate this subject matter while still keeping it visually lighthearted?

Martinez: Oh, I love Slumberkins. It was such a fulfilling show to shoot and my kids really love the show too, which is extra special for me. Everyone learns and has fun while watching, which is the ultimate goal in the type of children’s television I have been a part of.

Slumberkins is based on a book series helping young readers understand emotions and how to deal with them in a healthy manner. That theme carried over to the show, where we aimed at maintaining the graphic painterly feel reflected in the books while introducing 2D elements that would meld well with the puppets and the composited world. Even within this clearly artificial world, it was very important to everyone involved to have motivated and integrated lighting on the puppets, for example dappled sunlight as they walked through the forest. Because these are emotions that every child needs to learn how to identify, we wanted the lighting to be felt on the puppets in a real way. For instance, when Big Foot is scared during his first sleepover, we added contrast to his face and integrated practicals (flashlights, overheads, night lights) to motivate the lighting while he is laying in bed. Then once he goes into his ‘heartspace world’ where he asks “What am I feeling?”, we programmed a live lighting transition to a clean colored background unique to each character. During that minute of the episode, Big Foot breaks down what he is feeling with memory bubbles floating around. We needed to keep that minute of storytelling very simple visually so that the viewer is focused on and not distracted with any highly stylized visuals. Once Big Foot has understood what he was feeling and has a plan with how to deal with his fear, we then programed a live transition back to him in the bed. 

AF: What can our readers look forward to next from you?

Martinez: There are more episodes to come of Slumberkins which is very exciting. I also finished a short film, Black Apple, which I shot and co-directed and which is in the film festival consideration stage. It is a neo-noir that takes place in a high school which is quite the departure from children’s television I have been filming as of late. There has been some interest in developing the short into a feature film so I am focused on making that happen. Stay tuned!