At just 15—an age when many of us were preoccupied with raiding our parents’ liquor cabinets—Hallie Tut was shooting professional portaits of rappers like Danny Brown, Lil Yachty, and Post Malone. And the Vancouver-born, Toronto-born photographer and filmmaker has been putting in work ever since. After making a name for herself early on for her vibrant, colour-saturated photography, Tut found herself being tapped by major brands, like Nike Toronto, and production companies, like Director X’s Popp Rok (now known as Fela), for her idiosyncratic vision. After some close mentorship from X (you can actually catch her in the “Oprah’s Bank Account” video), Hallie began directing music videos herself by the age of 18.
Then COVID happened and the music video opps dried up. So, she decided to pivot. And what a pivot: for the last year and a half, she’s devoted her time to creating freaky, mind-bending TikTok videos evoking neon-drenched fever dreams. What’s even crazier, the clips have been popping off—her hallucinatory TikTok based on Bella Poarch’s “Build a Bitch” has been viewed over 7.3 million times. That feeling when the pandemic makes you weirder but it still works out in your favour.
We chatted with Hallie about working with rappers, making trippy movie magic with an iPhone, and her advice for Canadian creatives looking to break into the industry.
So Hallie, what’s your origin story?
I grew up in this little beach town outside of Vancouver called White Rock and I was always really into photography and art in general. But, I think my main photography journey started when I was around 14 or 15 years old. It was very petty; it seemed like the easiest way to impress the boys in high school. They were always always talking about these concerts downtown, and I was thinking, ‘Maybe if I become a concert photographer, I can be on stage or in the front and have that moment being the cool kid’ [laughs]. So I was able to get a fake I.D. and got a job as a club photographer downtown.
My first concert was Danny Brown. I was sitting in the front row of the venue and talking to someone from his team about photography and they actually brought me backstage and I got to meet Danny. I think that was a big moment of just like, ‘Wow, this is really cool to be a part of something and develop a creative career through the music industry this way.’ So it sparked something. And through that I started to build my own portfolio of creative photography work. I tried to keep it inspired by concert photography, like that really colorful lighting that they were using for concerts. So I kept my Instagram feed very unified and I think that really helped set me apart as a photographer…. I shot a lot of concerts in Vancouver, and that was only at maybe 16. I did Post Malone, Yung Lean, and YG at one point too.
Wild! What was it like meeting Danny Brown?
He definitely wasn’t with it at that time, so it wasn’t much of a conversation [laughs]. But he gave me a little tour of the bus. Maybe not the smartest move on my part.
I was just hustling, following wherever I could go. Actually, we moved to Toronto while I was still 16, so I sort of lost all of that connection that I was building in Vancouver. So it was like a complete reset.
So how did you manage to rebuild your network in Toronto?
I think the big thing that sparked a career in Toronto was, I knew Nike Canada’s headquarters is here and I saw a lot of the artists and creatives, they’d get free shoes from Nike. So I started trying to message those people that they were tagging from Nike Toronto and just sent them pictures I took of my Nikes at home, just saying, “You know, if you ever need cool photography for one of your campaigns...” I was just shooting my shot. It took about a year, but they finally thought of an opportunity where they could have me be a part of it for Air Max Day in 2018. They wanted up and coming creatives to creative direct the campaign and get inspired by the new shoes, the Air Max 270.
On the set of that shoot, the guy who was doing the behind-the-scenes video was the executive assistant at Popp Rok, the music video production company that Director X founded. They’re now called Fela. He just saw something in me there. He said if I ever wanted to come through to the music video studio and see what they do there, that I should drop by. I took that up with them eventually…. I think it was just in that same week that they put me on their roster, a little page on their website under ‘Directors.’ So they just sort of threw me into that world and I had a lot of fun getting these smaller music video jobs through them that really tested my knowledge of filmmaking.
“People don’t know what they want until they see it. So you have to make it and hope that people will get behind you with it.”
It truly pays to shoot your shot! There you go. Who are some of your favorites rappers that you’ve worked with?
I did this music video with KILLY not too long ago for one of SEGA’s songs that he was featured on [“Ground Works”]. That was a cool project because we shot it with a 360 VR camera. We had the ability to put the camera in the middle of the space and then have them perform over here and then behind you and around, and then connect those pieces together. The camera would move in the same space and they would appear in like five different spots in the same shot. So it’s a very cool experimental thing.
Oh that’s dope! I remember that video.
Yeah, I met them like really early on when I moved here because SEGA’s like KILLY’s best friend, and SEGA actually lived in the suburbs [in Aurora] where I was living, five minutes out of Toronto. So I would be almost like his chauffeur, driving him down to KILLY’s apartment down here, almost every day at one point, and he would just be napping in my car [laughs]. I’d just drive down there just to hang out with them. Also, when we were bored, we would just go to the movies or go to the arcade, and after school we’d just drive around Aurora in my car.
So how did you go from directing music videos to making all these trippy TikToks?
I was still continuing to do music videos and then COVID kind of shut down a lot of production, especially on those lower budget videos where the pandemic safety protocol budget just eats away the entire thing. So since then I’ve just been doing my own thing. That’s when I got really into TikTok. I’ve seen all Hype House kids in this era, how much they’ve grown in the past year. So I thought it’d be a cool opportunity to get out on my own and show the type of work that I really wanted to get. With music video direction, the amount of crew and other people working on it just slowly eats away at the vision you have in your head for it. It’s like every person’s putting in something and if you’re not experienced at really communicating what you want it to look like, it doesn’t look like what you were thinking at all. That’s where TikTok gave me that opportunity where I’m just here at home and there’s nobody else to put their own input into it. So it was like the most raw type of work I could do.
Let’s talk about that vision you’re actualizing on TikTok. It’s pretty far-out! The clips are all sort of fever dreams where someone’s just waking up and looking at their phone, and next thing you know they’re in this eerie alternate dimension. What’s all that about!
I really wanted to figure out a way to show that the experience of being in between real life and the Internet, especially when you’re home alone. For me, every day I’m home alone and I’m making content that’s only going to be seen by these people on the Internet. And the persona of me on the Internet is almost like the only thing that matters. Every day when I wake up, it’s like this world that I’m building out that only exists on TikTok or on Instagram. There’s this weird feeling of like, the real me who is here isn’t as much of a person as that person is. Millions of people know that version of me and are interacting with those videos on a daily basis and filling in the blanks of what that world is like, where that person lives, and what they’re like. And that person is actually known by so many more people than who actually would know me in real life. I think that’s something a lot of kids can relate to, especially in the generation below me. Like, they started out young with an iPad and that’s their world.
I’m trying to find ways to visualize that. It’s turned into this weird fever dream where the sky’s red and it’s just this weird place that doesn’t really exist.
Damn. Feels like we’re in that place right now, talking to each other through a screen! Do you make all your videos solely using a phone?
Some of them I do. I’ve been pushing being able to do it almost on a phone now because I think that’s that last point that I found people still give me the excuse of like, ‘Oh, I need this expensive camera to do what you do.’ So lately I’ve been trying to bring it all on the phone, even trying to edit on it now. Especially for low light on an iPhone 13, I can compare it to my DSLR as far as how it’s balancing the lighting. Cinematic Mode is actually that last bit that phones were lacking on, where you had a nice lens getting that depth to your shot that you could never really achieve with a phone camera. Now, having that mode on the 13 really helps create those focus points in a way that’s very similar to how you’d see it in a real film. It’s really getting to a point where I could ditch my camera altogether, and that would actually make the filmmaking process so much faster and easier for me, but for people starting out too, because you can edit on your phone and shoot all the content on it.
What’s your advice to aspiring creatives in Canada trying to get their foot in the door?
The biggest thing I can say is if you have a dream person you want to work with, or a specific kind of content you want to be making, don’t wait for opportunities to do that for somebody else. Just do it. Just make as much content that expresses who you are and the style you want to be doing at a professional level, and that’s going to be what’s will give you those opportunities. You need to show your vision before people are going to believe in that vision. I think that’s what people forget; they’ve got no work under their belt but they’re always out chasing these opportunities to shoot with rappers and shoot for brands. But they don’t have anything that shows the type of work they imagine themselves making.
I think no opportunity I’ve ever gotten has been like, “Oh, we loved what you did for this rapper. We love that music video you directed. We want you to do that for us.” Instead it’s like, “We love this weird TikTok video you made by yourself at home for no reason” or “We like these photos you took of your friends, can you do something in that style for us?” It’s always just stuff that I forced myself to go do and had this idea and just went and made it. People don’t know what they want until they see it. So you have to make it and hope that people will get behind you with it. I think that’s the biggest thing.