Cinematographer Halyna Hutchins leaves behind enduring legacy

Halyna Hutchins - credit -

Killian Tassoni | Wikimedia Commons

Alexandra Nita

Cinematographer Halyna Hutchins died Oct. 21 at the age of 42 on the film set of “Rust” when a prop gun was discharged. Shelived a life defined by her passion for her craft, and her credits include the superhero film “Archenemy,” horror films “Darlin’” and “The Mad Hatter” and the “racially charged cop drama” “Blindfire.” Her journey toward filmmaking spanned both continents and careers.

In an interview for American Cinematographer for its list of 2019’s rising stars, Hutchins, a Ukrainian native and self-identified “army brat” who grew up on an Arctic military base she described on her website as “surrounded by reindeer and nuclear submarines,” said that her appreciation for movies was initially born from the fact that “there wasn’t much to do outside.”

Hutchins studied economics at the Agrarian University in Ukraine before earning a graduate degree in international journalism from Kyiv National University. While she had some experience filming herself participating in extreme sports such as parachuting and cave exploration, her time as an investigative journalist served as her first professional introduction to cinematography.

“I was fascinated with storytelling based on real characters,” Hutchins said when speaking of her time traveling with and observing film crews on British documentaries in Eastern Europe.

That interest in the narrative potential of the camera led her to move to Los Angeles where she sought out any production-assistant job she could. While working her way up to grip- electric, a position involving setting up both lighting and camera-related rigging, and shooting small short films, she also involved herself in fashion photography, which helped her understand the “aesthetics of lighting—how you create the mood, the feeling.”

In Los Angeles, Hutchins met Bob Primes, a cinematographer and two-time Emmy winner who encouraged her to apply to the American Film Institute Conservatory where he was a professor. Hutchins studied there from 2013 to 2015.

Faculty there had emphasized both her tenacity and her creativity. “She was an extraordinarily determined person to begin her career as a working parent,” Stephen Lighthill, the chair of the cinematography program at the American Film Institute Conservatory and the president of the American Society of Cinematographers, said to Time.

“She was one of the most innovative students I’ve ever had there.”

Hutchins’s approach as a cinematographer was defined by her attention to using technical detail to create atmosphere and her focus on collaboration.

Hutchins explained to American Cinematographer that while most of her work was done on digital formats, it was also informed by the characteristics of physical film stock such as exposure and film curves. After “Archenemy” was released in 2020, director Adam Egypt Mortimer lauded Hutchins on Twitter for having a brilliant mind for light and texture. Hutchins also rejected the idea of the cinematographer as a lone auteur. One thing I learned is that cinematography is not something you do by yourself. It’s a group [project]. You need to develop your own vision, but the key to a successful film is communication with your director and your team,” Hutchins said.

Hutchins’ work with director and former classmate Farzad Ostovarzadeh on her thesis film “Hidden,” which screened at the Camerimage International Film Festival and was a finalist for the Vizio + Dolby Vision Filmmaker Challenge, was a particular point of pride for her.

The filmmaking community celebrated her life and mourned her death with a three-hour emotional candlelit vigil hosted by International Cinematographers Guild 600 at its headquarters in Burbank.

The AFI has created a scholarship for female cinematographers named after her that her husband encouraged anyone looking to honor her memory to donate to on Twitter. Hutchins herself benefited from programs intended to improve representation of women in filmmaking— in 2020, only 6% of cinematographers working on the top 250 grossing films were women—in 2019 where she was one of the eight female members of Fox’s first DP Labs program.

“Throughout her career, she was an advocate for female DP’s and directors, familiar with the struggles women face in the entertainment industry,” director and writer Olia Oparina, who called Hutchins “her closest friend,” said to Variety.

Investigations surrounding Hutchin’s death are ongoing.