This Canadian visual artist has used her perspective to help brands shape their messaging.
Profile by Steve Root
Five years ago, on the very day Hallie Tut turned 18, she was in the middle of shooting a Nike Air Max Day campaign for its iconic shoe when she was asked for her signature on the contract. Had the then-high schooler not been of legal age, it would have had to be signed by an adult. But now she was the adult and in the big time with a big brand.
It seems astonishing that a global giant like Nike would hand a plum creative gig to a kid who was just as concerned about finishing her homework as she was about satisfying her contract deliverables. But then, much about Hallie Tut’s life has been astonishing—and surreal, mysterious, and even harrowing. Not unlike the photographic work she creates and shares with her almost one million followers on TikTok and Instagram.
How it started
“I’ve always been into art and photography,” the now almost 22-year-old Vancouver native explains. “Since I was eight, I knew that I wanted to go to Ontario College of Art and Design because they have this crazy building, like a cube on stilts, high up in the sky, like a cartoon. I didn’t even know what university was about, but I knew I wanted to go to that school because of how cool it looked.
“Since the third grade, I had a point-and-shoot camera that I brought to school every day, and I would take pictures of my friends at recess. Then my dad got me [a design program], so I was manipulating things, playing with color. At 13, I bought myself a DSLR camera. When I was about 14 or 15, I started shooting concerts for a nightclub in downtown Vancouver. I developed a portfolio and really became immersed in the local art scene.”
It was all going to plan until that harrowing part struck. Tut’s father, who had been struggling with cancer, was told he had only a year left to live. The single parent abruptly moved himself, Hallie, and her younger brother to Toronto to be with his parents, who would become the children’s guardians. All Hallie could do was wait for the terrible day.
A style emerges
She poured herself into her photography and videography, exploring her anger and fear. What emerged is a distinctive visual style of dreamlike surrealism studded throughout with recurring themes of flying, floating, and falling. There are heavenly angel wings and hellish lightning bolts, and all of it is drenched in intense, saturated color. And did we mention nighttime as a leitmotif? Judging by the lack of daylight in her work, you’ve gotta wonder if Tut isn’t part night owl.
There’s no doubt, though, that she’s determined and strategic. “I knew that a lot of big companies were headquartered in Toronto,” says Tut, who by now was aspiring to a career in advertising, and one firm drew her focus: Nike Canada.
“I started shooting my own Nike shoes down in the basement, using cool lighting effects.
I found the Instagrams of people who worked there and started sending them my pictures and asking them to keep me in mind if they needed a photographer. I bugged them for a year and half, and eventually they contacted me to shoot their Nike Air Max Day campaign. They let me creative direct and photograph it. They gave me a budget, we had to plan out shoots all around the city—it was my first commercial job.”
It was on that assignment that the project’s behind-the-scenes videographer overheard that Tut was just 18 and he knew he was on to some special talent. He also worked at Popp Rok, a Toronto production company founded by Director X and known as the source of music videos for the likes of Drake, Adele, Ed Sheeran, The Weeknd, and Post Malone. Intros were made, and before you can say “big league,” Tut found herself directing projects with $50,000 budgets and 30-person crews.
Ironically, though, in both the Nike and Popp Rok situations, Tut says she found herself overwhelmed, not by corporate demands and budgetary constraints but by the lack of those things. “A lot of what I do is very low budget, trying to use different techniques to make something cool within limits, and I get inspiration from having that box. In the case of the Nike campaign, we sat down in a meeting, and they said, ‘think of your wildest idea, and we’ll tell you if we can make it work.’ They didn’t give me a budget, and that was really hard. I didn’t know what things cost, so I didn’t even know how to start.”
The pandemic pause and TikTok
So, she says, she was strangely relieved when COVID hit, productions slammed shut, and she found herself confined back at home, doing her own shoestring-budget work. “It was about a year into COVID before I started to learn about TikTok. I knew it was taking off, but I thought it was about people just talking into their phones, making jokes, or maybe dancing. So, I read up on it, learned about how kids were blowing up overnight, and thought, ‘I’ll give it a shot.’ “
She did, and more good things started happening. Brands and products such as Apple Canada, Amazon, Converse, Paramount Pictures, Fortnite, Prime Video (Wheel of Time) liked what they saw of her creations and came calling. “With TikTok and having different brand sponsors, I’m able to make a full-time living,” says Tut.
She also shrewdly made a video incorporating TikTok dance sensation Charli D’Amelio that garnered hundreds of thousands of likes and another with pop singer Bella Poarch that raked in a whopping 7.3M likes. Not bad for a young adult working out of her basement.
There was another huge stroke of good luck about this time: Tut’s father miraculously survived. “It’s been about four years since he was expected to be gone,” she says, “so that’s been great.”
Creatively bright future
Not long ago, while attending the aforementioned Ontario College of Design, Hallie made a deal with her dad that if she could prove her career viability by growing her followers to 100K, it would negate the need to finish school right away. Her fans rose to the challenge, and she shot from 30K followers to more than 700K—in just two weeks. Buh-bye profs and term projects.
Lately she’s been working with a producer on a music project, “a bucket-list thing I’ve always wanted to do,” she says. She also has a short film in pre-production that will mark her first tentative steps back into longer-form direction. She’s tight-lipped about the story, but hints it’ll involve mystery and heaven and bizarre flying contraptions.
That’s a whole lot of creativity oozing, and for now, it’s all there for the taking, free on social media—you can’t currently buy a Tut original. But that may soon change. “I’m thinking about some sort of NFT project,” says the artist, always ready to test new waters.
So, who knows? You, too, may soon be able to capture a touch of Tut’s astonishing, surreal, and mysterious lightning in a bottle.
Hallie Tut is an artist, filmmaker and "world builder." She creates ethereal and magical visions that transport you to another world.