Shot through the Heart

Five-time Emmy award-winning news filmmaker, Brian Hallett looks at the work with a rare, humane lens.

Shot through the heart, Brian Hallett

By Lily Kane

In 2011, Tennesseans were closely following news of the chilling and ultimately tragic disappearance of Holly Bobo, a young nursing student who had last been seen walking into the woods with an unknown man in camouflage.

A week after she went missing, Brian Hallett recalls he was on location with a crew filming a vigil organized by friends and family. Several hundred people crowded together in a gymnasium just as a huge storm gained momentum outside. Thunder cracked too close for comfort and the power snapped out. Before anyone’s eyes could adjust to the darkness, everyone in the room instinctively lit their candles and an impromptu chorus of “Amazing Grace” swelled up.

“The unity was so overwhelming, it struck me like lighting,” Hallett says. It was one of the most profoundly moving moments in his already accomplished career as a cameraman, and he couldn’t control the shot. It all happened so quickly, in low light that eluded an f-stop. But it’s the first thing he thinks of when asked about significant experiences in his career in news media, because the human experience unfolding in front of him was some of the most beautiful storytelling he’d ever seen. “Sometimes,” he says, “your craftsmanship can’t keep up with what you’ve witnessed.”

Shoot as often as possible. Study as many people as you can. There are so many ways you can film someone just walking.

This is a perfect example of the passion that Brian Hallett brings to his profession—the thrill he gets trying to chase the shots that capture the cinema innate in everyday life, and the absolute respect he has even for the ones that get away.

With more than a decade of accolades and innovations as a director of photography, writer, and producer, Hallett still follows the credo he would deliver to anyone starting out in film: Shoot as often as possible. Study as many people as you can. “There are,” he says, “so many different ways you can film someone just walking.”

Hallett started out at Baylor University in Texas where he worked at the news station and nursed a dream to study filmmaking. At the urging of a mentor to consider art school, Hallett transferred to Watkins. “I was amazed by the studio, the equipment, the hands-on filmmaking,” Hallett remembers, adding excitedly, “You had to make four films!”

At Watkins, Hallett developed exponentially as a storyteller. In particular, he cites instructor Steve Womack as an influence, but the exposure to other media and students pursuing different creative avenues also pushed him in new directions. “The classes I liked the least at first, I benefitted from the most,” Hallett says, “I had no idea how much painting, writing, and collaborating with other students would help me.” These other disciplines added to his lexicon of textures, colors, and pacing.

In the years since graduating from Watkins’s film program, Hallett has worked professionally on a wide range of short- and long-form projects in areas that include major network broadcast television, reality TV, PSAs, music videos, short films, and documentaries.

Like any true master of his craft, Hallett has a well-catalogued knowledge of the materials and processes available to him, and of how he can exploit them to best suit the mode of filmmaking he’s engaged in at any moment. When asked about specific cameras he likes to use, Hallett goes into a rapid-fire reverie of favorites including the ALEXA Mini by ARRI whose “fantastic subtractive color gives it that watercolor look we all love,” and the Blackmagic URSA Mini Pro. He talks about filters, polarizers, dynamic range, pixels. Hallett leaves nothing unconsidered.

Ultimately, he circles back to the practical, get-the-shot mentality that made him a five-time Emmy winner in the categories of short-form photography, promo spot and continuing coverage. “You learn to use what’s given to you—weather, the pace of events, people—and make it cinematic.” For Hallett, this often means his signature emphasis on a wide-angle shot for news pieces, with filters to perfectly balance out the lighting.

A Texas native, Hallett has a lot of optimism for the possibility of a vibrant film scene in Middle Tennessee, and thinks we can borrow from his home state’s trajectory. “Nashville has a unique opportunity to be like Austin,” he says, “where filmmaking didn’t get big until there were a few big filmmakers, like Robert Rodriguez and Richard Linklater. Nashville needs to support its up-and-coming people.”  He sees potential for creative growth in the city though and loves working with other local filmmakers, such as Nathan Thompson of the production company Contrast Visuals.

“It’s taken me an incredibly long time to find my voice,” Hallett confesses, “and now, in my 40s, I see the beauty in smaller, more realistic dreams that can actually come true.” He adds, “Filmmaking is a lesson in economics. You can find real inspiration in telling the best story you can on a budget.”

To that end, he is currently writing his own script for a film set on a midwestern farm. It’s a story about a middle-aged female songwriter who seeks a place when she can turn the world off and find her own voice. While there, she meets an older farmer and during the brief moment that they’re together they enrich one another’s lives through their differences.

The location was inspired by his in-law’s farm, but, Hallett adds, “Maybe I’m tired of seeing the coasts in films. I want to see more of the country.” And just like that, Hallett has given you yet another reason to believe in the future of Nashville filmmaking.