How much of horror is in the cinematography?
A lot, which is why you need a strong director of photography to create tension using the camera, color, and light.
Master is a film set at a prestigious college campus, where Jasmine (Zoe Renee) is a new student and Gail Bishop (Regina Hall) is the school's first Black dean (or "master," as she's titled on campus). The school is not only marred by the racism these characters experience—sometimes overtly and sometimes as microaggressions—but also the ghosts of a violent past, since they're located near the site of some infamous witch trials.
Jasmine and Gail try to find their places within this system while both confront the increasingly disturbing spirits that threaten them. This is the debut feature from writer/director Mariama Diallo. Diallo also appeared at Sundance previously with her short Hair Wolf.
Master's director of photography is Charlotte Hornsby, who also worked with Diallo on Hair Wolf. Hornsby's confident visuals and use of color help draw out the fear and tension of Master.
No Film School spoke with Hornsby just after the film's premiere. If you're an aspiring cinematographer, you'll want to learn from her!
Editor's note: this interview has been edited for length and clarity.
No Film School: Can we just start with your background and how you got into cinematography?
Charlotte Hornsby: I grew up in Virginia, and when I was growing up, my dad had a household rule that if my sisters and I wanted to watch a movie, we had to make a movie. This meant that we made a ton of movies together. I think, just from a young age, I really loved in-camera tricks, like making things disappear, and just by necessity, in-camera editing. I always equated making movies with playing pretend.
Then, when I was in high school, I made music videos for my high school news channel. Then I did go to film school for college, where I came wanting to focus on cinematography, but while I was there, I did some directing and writing and editing and production design. But, still, when I graduated, I really felt like cinematography was my calling and what I was best at. So I got a 5D and moved to New Orleans and made a doc down there for Solange Knowles.
NFS: One thing I noticed about the film was your use of color throughout, and how it changes. How did you arrive at that transforming color?
Hornsby: I think lighting really works on us at an emotional level and we have, as humans, such a primal emotional response to color. I long had a theory that red was the first color we experienced because I thought it was the light that is filtered through the womb. I do know through researching it that red is the first color that we experience, though it's a few weeks I believe after we're born.
But I think that red takes us back to this early connection—both using fire to ward off danger and to bring warmth. That womb light, that's a connection with the mother. I love to just play with color, especially in horror, when so much of my job is about creating a sense of palpable danger.
I find especially playing with color that changes within the scope of a scene, like the fire alarm scene that we had in Master. I really like this idea of starting from a place of safety and then within a shot suddenly changing what you know about the environment so it becomes—taking it from a place of basically safety to dread or menace.
We wanted to play with the characters' growing awareness that there was a rot at the core of the culture of this university. My gaffer and I started to play with green, sickly greens and jaundiced yellows as Jasmine is learning more about what happened at the school and at the final faculty party.
I guess those were some of the main colors that we were playing with and some of the emotions that I wanted to evoke, just at a primitive level, where it bypasses the brain and just works on you at an animal level.
NFS: I noticed specifically a lot of really slow dollies and slow zooms, and I felt like those were such tense shots. I'm interested in your choices in creating tension and suspense in the camera with those kinds of choices.
Hornsby: I think so much about building suspense is making the audience aware of danger before the character is, so that we start to fear for the character's safety. So I think, with the camera, drawing the audience slowly towards something you don't want to see, like the witch's arm going underneath Jasmine's bed is a classic horror trope example.
But also I would say we played a lot with the camera taking on the spirit of Ancaster and this dark spirit that's kind of lying in wait for the characters. So, for instance, in the beginning, Jasmine looks up at her room and we've got a vantage point that's the POV of the room looking back at her, which feels like a presence that's waiting for her there.
I think a lot about Halloween. It's just so masterful, you never know if the camera is a killer's point of view or just a camera. So, especially with the beginning, when we're kind of barreling down at Gail from this impossible vantage point, I wanted that to also feel like it was this spirit of the school itself that was just narrowing in on Gail.
NFS: What were some of the biggest challenges of this project and how did you overcome them?
Hornsby: One of the biggest challenges was the fact that we started in 2020, and we had to break down. We just stopped the shoot because of COVID only two weeks and a few days into shooting and we didn't resume until a year later. So we lost a lot of locations, some actors, we had new crew members come in and we had an entirely new way of working, with face shields and masks and distancing.
At the same time, it was a full year that I had to reflect over the work I had done and to look at the dailies, and I wrote a ton of notes for myself and I revisited a bunch of our references, and I pulled in new references. So, in some strange way, that time off, for me, was also kind of a gift, where I could reflect on what I'd done and what I wanted to improve upon. I have this huge document of notes that I wrote for myself during that time, that really informed how I approached going back in for the second half.
NFS: So you turned it into a positive, that's great.
Hornsby: Also, we got some incredible locations for the second half and brought new crew members into the fold, who were phenomenal. So, in a strange way, we gained a lot too.
NFS: Before you were working consistently in your field, what were you doing to stay inspired and also survive?
Hornsby: That's a really good question. I think to the staying inspired element, I realized that it was really unlikely that I was going to get offered to shoot the kind of films that I wanted to shoot, that had the imagery that I wanted to create. So a lot of my first approach to DPing was to direct music videos, was just to approach anyone I knew who was in a band and ask them if I could make a music video and then spend basically a year [on], because the budget was so slim.
I was babysitting primarily at the time and also working on sets, but not as a DP. And so I would just try to labor over one music video, and make the backdrops from hand and enlist the help of friends to make the costumes by hand, and shoot it on film and be incredibly sparing. Shot list it to death and then only shoot a few rolls of film. That's just how I wanted to start putting out the work that I wanted to be shooting into the world.
NFS: You talked a little bit about the COVID interruptions and those sorts of difficulties. How do you think it can be possible for indie films or smaller films to work in the conditions that we have now?
Hornsby: It's a really good question. I mean, this was not an indie, and so they had the resources to test everybody. I since then have gone back to my roots, worked on smaller, scrappier projects. And honestly, so much of that is just contingent on working outside, having the crew test in advance, and then shooting outside.
NFS: What advice would you give to up-and-coming cinematographers?
Hornsby: I would say to edit your own footage. That really helped me understand the shot variety I needed. This was especially true of making docs, but also music videos. I edited my own footage for a long time, and it really affected the way I craft shots and the shots that I prioritized. You're always going to be tight on time and you have to advocate for the shots, together with the director, you guys advocate for the shots that you need for the story.
Having a really good understanding on your own of when you can do a oner, and when the content of the scene is such that you really want to get edit possibilities, when you really want to be able to control the pace in the edit.
I think, for horror, this is really important. Horror sequences, you really want to control the pace in the edit. You want to be able to draw out time. It can take so long to get to the top of the stairs in a horror scene, and that is an effect that's only made possible through the edit. In comedy, something that you often find hilarious together on set can really drag out, if you don't have edit options in post. So I think editing helped me be a stronger DP.
I would also just say that your intuition and your sensitivity can actually be your greatest strengths as a DP. Those are just as important as knowing the technical side, but they're rarely talked about. [...] I'll just go back to saying the intuitive side is as important as the technical side. I think, keying into the actors and knowing that even if you had shot listed a set of shots you were really excited about in prep, being honest about what's happening in front of you, and being able to adjust, is really important. And so much of that is about trusting your intuition and keying into the actors.