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Meet the alum who is a renowned music video director

Floria Sigismondi has directed award-winning music videos for such celebrities as Sam Smith, Rihanna, Bjork and Justin Timberlake.

Photo credit: Shane McCauley Neuehouse

Filmmaker and artist Floria Sigismondi is no stranger to working with big names in music, movies and fashion. In fact, she’s a big name herself.

Sigismondi graduated from the Communication and Design program at the Ontario College of Art (before it became OCAD University) in 1987. Since then, she has established an illustrious career as a director for music videos, films and commercials.

Now based in Los Angeles, Sigismondi has directed iconic videos for artists such as Rihanna, Bjork, The White Stripes and Sigur Ros, which have swept awards globally.

In 2004, her music video for Christina Aguilera’s “Fighter” won Video of the Year at the Junos. And in 2014, her music video for Justin Timberlake’s “Mirrors” won the MTV Music Video of the Year Award. Her videos for David Bowie and Marilyn Manson have earned permanent spots in New York’s Museum of Modern Art.

As a filmmaker, Sigismondi recently directed the supernatural horror feature The Turning. She also wrote and directed the critically acclaimed feature The Runaways starring Kristen Stewart and Dakota Fanning and has directed episodes of The Handmaid’s Tale and American Gods.

Her commercial work includes directing the commercial for Gucci’s Bloom perfume in 2019, starring Florence Welch, Susie Cave, Jodie Smith and Angelica Houston. Sigismondi is also an acclaimed photographer, and her third book of photographs, Eat the Sun, features such Hollywood stars as Nicole Kidman and Tilda Swinton.

Most recently, her video for Sam Smith and Kim Petras’s “Unholy” won a Juno for Music Video of the Year and the MTV UK Video for Good award in 2023, and she directed the Spotify clip that reveals Taylor Swift as the Top Artist of the Year.

In 2023, Sigismondi’s powerhouse career also led her to win the EnergaCAMERIMAGE Award for Directing Achievements in the Field of Music Videos.

Flash back almost four decades: Sigismondi says that while she mostly took painting classes at OCAD U in the 80s, in her final year, she found photography to be her calling, and film was a natural progression for her after that.

Her parents were Italian opera singers, and she notes that she learned about passion from watching her father sing opera. With a passion for telling stories and creating new worlds where magic and reality merge, her work continues to impress audiences around the world.

In conversation with Floria Sigismondi

How did you go from OCAD U grad to music video director?

In my last year at OCAD U, I took one photography class. It was so exhilarating that I stopped going to class and just booked the studio and shot and shot. I loved how immediate it was, how it forced me to interact with humans –  I was a very shy and quiet person. Photography, and especially directing, definitely helped me come out of my shell. If I didn’t learn to communicate with others what I had in my mind's eye, it would not be realized.

I started arranging my photos in a series, so that they told little stories. It was a natural transition from photography into film. The challenge now was not to create only one image, but many moving images. Film is unique like music; it commands time of its viewer. Film combined all the things I loved, lighting, sculpture, sets, fashion and music.

My father introduced me to the films of Fellini and Pasolini and I found myself wondering what was behind the camera. What were people doing just on the outer edge of the frame? I knew I wanted to direct and learned as I went, with the help of Don Allen, who gave me a chance purely on my photographs which he saw in magazines and billboards. I did not have formal training. I co-directed two music video and from there went on my own.

How did your education at OCAD U support your career?

I think one of the qualities that makes my work stand out is my use of colour. I use colour in a way a painter does. I use it to evoke certain emotions. That comes directly from my colour education at OCAD U, which I loved.

A lot of my inspirations come from painters like Francis Bacon, Van Gogh, and the Expressionists and Surrealists. The works of Oppenheim, in particular the hairy teacup. The collage work of Hannah Höch has been a huge inspiration. These things inform my work still today.

I guess if I would put in in one sentence, it would be the ability to let myself dream. Anything you can dream up you can paint, so when I’m directing I hit it from that angle. I don’t make work that is too rooted in reality. I’m an experimentalist at heart and my years at OCAD U have nurtured that in me.

What advice do you have for artists and designers currently studying at OCAD U?

Find something that makes you want to stay up all night doing and keep doing it. There is only one way to know yourself better, to develop a singular style and that is to keep creating.

When I was just starting to take photographs at OCAD U, I went up and down Queen Street with my portfolio, hoping one of the fashion shops would let me borrow some clothes in exchange for a print. Eventually they would print them as ads in Now magazine.

I would use a whole box of printing paper, dodging and burning by hand just to get the best possible picture. All this time in the darkroom and shooting gave me invaluable opportunity to experiment. To find myself, what I liked and what I didn’t.

But finding yourself creatively also changes. It is a journey. I fell in love with that journey. There is nothing better than seeing something that doesn’t exist in your mind and then creating it into form, a film, a photograph or a painting. It’s what makes me keep going.