“Anoush Hat Dance”: Behind the scenes of a noir short film

Sometimes an idea I have takes a few months or even years to realize. Back in September, when a large box of beautiful wide-brimmed hats arrived at the studio, I knew I was one step closer to scratching an artistic itch I’d had for decades. One of my main influences in photography was George Hurrell, a legendary movie studio photographer whose career began in the 1920s. (He actually spent some time studying at the Art Institute of Chicago.) His composition with light, shadow and the fashion of the day made the Hollywood stars he photographed, into icons. My studio bookshelf has a special section of his masterpieces.

A still from the short film "Anoush Hat Dance"

A still from the short film “Anoush Hat Dance”

He was a genius at creating flowing shapes in his black and white photographs, shot under blazing hot lights with his beautiful 8×10 view camera. I studied those images meticulously as I was finding my own footing as a photographer over two decades ago. One thing that struck me the most was how he and other brilliant photographers of the day used the large wide-brimmed hats that were in-vogue at the time to help to create the most interesting lines and curves throughout their compositions. I never forgot that.

Last week, as I was nearing the end of a marathon 45 work days without a day off, a lovely model friend of mine, Anoush was also nearing the end of her in-residence stay with me at the studio. We were both hoping my schedule would allow at least a partial day to create something wonderful. Happily, the day before she was flying out of Chicago, I had a tiny break in my schedule.

As is often the case with too many circling deadlines, my head was full of everything but what I would create next with my art. I suddenly had a small window of time, but I was struggling with what to do. As Anoush prepared us a lovely ratatouille lunch (she’s an excellent cook and there was no shortage of healthy food being prepared during her visit), I had a seat on my most comfortable sofa and closed my eyes.

“Are you thinking about our shoot?”, came a voice from the kitchen.

I laughed. “Yes, I’m photographing you in my head, but I’m not happy with what I’m shooting… Yet… But I’m getting there.”

ARRI 650 tugsten light with daylight gel, standing by

ARRI 650 tungsten fresnel light with daylight gel, standing by

I was watching the afternoon light move across the studio. I have a beautiful western exposure on one side of the studio. And the light varies depending on what time of year it is. Being in the northern hemisphere, at this time of year the sun stays up very high in the sky. The days are very happily longer as we head toward the summer solstice, but that also means that the beautiful light happens much later in the day when the sun gets lower. Closer to very late afternoon or evening. The trick is to know where the sun is headed and where it’s going to fall in the studio.

I have a wonderful little iPhone app called Helios that helps me avoid guessing. Years ago, the day before a shoot, I’d set up a little webcam in the studio and create a time-lapse of where the sun traveled throughout the studio. These days, Helios is able to tell me instantly when and where the direction of the sun will be at any given hour. Between that and the Weatherbug app to let me know if and when any clouds would be moving in, I had a pretty good idea of the natural light I would have to work with when it came time to shoot. I love living in the future.

Still, nature is unpredictable and I had my ARRI 650 tungsten hot lights out and ready in the meantime. Sometimes I like to work with a combination of natural light and hot lights. I can gel the tungsten to match the daylight color temperature if necessary.

And one more lighting trick I’ve been using for years in my studio is to use one or two large mirrors to bounce the sun where I want it to be in the studio. My Helios app was telling me that when the sun was going to be low enough in the sky to enter through the windows at the angle I wanted, it was going to miss my large background sweep. If it were Winter, it would hit dead on, but at this time of year, not quite.

In order to create the light I wanted to for Anoush, I was going to have to use all three elements. Natural light coming in through my large studio windows, the mirrors to bounce the gorgeous sunlight where I wanted it, and one of my ARRI 650s to create a beautiful shaft of light on her eyes.

Anastasia Arteyeva Red Fatale

Anastasia Arteyeva Red Fatale

And why did I need to create a special light just for her eyes? Because I was going to use the hats! The beautiful hats that I had only briefly used with Anastasia a few months earlier in a very quick still photo shoot in the very limited low Winter sunlight. Beautiful, but we only had 15 minutes of direct sun before it moved behind a building.

Sometimes 15 minutes is all you need.

But for Anoush, we wanted to create a little short film. We needed a longer stretch of beautiful light for that.

“Give me an hour countdown,” Anoush reminded me as I started to create the set for our shoot. It’s always about timing, and a professional model knows how much time she needs to finish getting ready. Nothing worse than telling a model to rush getting ready because the light is perfect and she hasn’t completed hair and makeup yet.

I was still trying to figure out whether I should rotate my studio set 90 degrees to get direct light onto my background or if I could do what was necessary with my mirrors. A few more minutes of experimenting and I determined if I laid down one of the mirrors horizontally and angled it so that a beautiful patch of sunlight hitting the floor could be bounced up to the black seamless paper I had in place, I would have what I wanted.

I cut out a small slit from a large piece of cardboard to create the cookie for her eyelight that I would direct my fresnel light though.

“Okay, I’ll be set to go in an hour,” and Anoush headed off to finish her hair and makeup.

Now all I had to do was to get the camera rig into position without casting an unwanted equipment shadow on my carefully constructed lighting setup. Had I light-painted myself into a corner? Not quite. Good.

I planned to use a similar trick I had used on the Jillian Ann Confess music video four years ago where I would shoot at 30fps (frames per second) and then slow it down to 24fps in edit to give her movement a slight slow-motion-y feel.

I used my faithful mannequin stand-in, Ursula, to complete the final adjustments on my framing and eyelight lighting. Getting close now.

I brought out the box of about 10 hats in various sizes and styles to have Anoush pick from. Much to my surprise, the first hat she selected was one I almost didn’t order. It was the only one with a band of white near the edge of the brim. Back in September when I was browsing dozens and dozens of different hats, I nearly had eliminated that one because I wasn’t sure if I liked the white band or if keeping everything one dark color would be more effective in composing my future imagined images. Her instincts would prove to be spot on within the hour.

She moved into position on set and I adjusted the large mirror once more as the sun continued to move toward the horizon. One more adjustment on the eyelight and we were ready.

First take.

Anoush has ballet training in her repertoire and as I suspected, as soon as she started to move, I could see every delicate movement, deliberate, beautiful. And the white band on the hat she had selected? A beautiful contrast against the dark background. This is why, working with pros makes my life so much easier when creating a beautiful work of art. And she was that.

Anoush has the most unique face. Soulful. Expressive. Eyes that can be nearly sad, but evoke a series of emotions; haunting, thoughtful, intelligent, moving. Always beautiful, like an 18th century painting, I like to tell her.

A still from the short film "Anoush Hat Dance"

A still from the short film “Anoush Hat Dance”

What I had in my viewfinder was the most beautiful dance. She played with the brim, creating lovely shapes, framing her face in poetic ways that were a joy to compose with.

A still from the short film "Anoush Hat Dance"

A still from the short film “Anoush Hat Dance”


We continued our own dance. Anoush creating beautiful shapes and me stopping only to make small adjustments to our bounce mirrors. When we paused to watch playback for a few moments, we both smiled. This was something good.

I grabbed my 1968 Hasselblad to make some medium format still film images of her. I bring the Hassey out when I know I have something good going. I needed some beautiful film of this to go with the motion we were capturing!

After a time, we decided to take a short break which gave me time to do what I thought I might try earlier in the day, which was to rotate the entire set 90 degrees to get a different kind of light directly from the studio windows to the background. Anoush and I carefully dragged the 13 foot floor to ceiling poles holding the backdrop across the studio floor to their new position facing the windows. It’s that pro model thing again. Always happy to pitch in when a job requires an extra set of delicate hands!

With that completed, she began to select the next hat as I moved the rest of the camera and lighting gear into their new position. This would be a different kind of natural light and we opted to use the studio’s sheer curtains to knock the intensity of the sunlight down a bit. We shot one take using only the natural light, but on review decided that the eyelight from the original setup was missing and I quickly moved that light back into position.

Yes. Better.

A still from the short film "Anoush Hat Dance"

A still from the short film “Anoush Hat Dance”

We continued shooting with this second setup for another hour or so, until we were ready to call it a wrap, very happy with what we had done.

A break for dinner and I moved to the studio editing workstation to begin loading our footage. Anoush attended to some emails as I began to find the moments in what we shot. I put the clips up on the client monitor for Anoush to review with me and we marked what we liked. I created a select reel from that to pull from.

Next was music. I wanted something a bit somber, but not too sad. Again, I decided to try music from the Atmostra III music tracks I had used on the Anastasia Taxi film a few months earlier. A track called “Monotone Desire” played against the Anoush selects really seemed to work well. In a few more hours I had the first rough edit done. Concept, shooting, first rough cut in 12 hours. Not bad for a day off.

Anoush and I finessed the edit a bit more over the next few days. Finding a few more moments that worked better in the context of the scenes around them. It was really starting to feel like a dance now. And I had my title.

I had decided early on to grade the footage in rich black and white tones, as the original spark that caused our arrival here so many years later were the classic George Hurrell photographs. The feel of the piece does remind me of the emotive expression from old Hollywood films. Anoush has the perfect look for that among her many modeling/acting personalities.

Thank you Anoush for the delicious ratatouille and beautiful artistic collaboration, as always!

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