Matilda Finn is an acclaimed filmmaker, photographer, and creative director, who has gained recognition for her unique dreamlike visual style and surreal storytelling approach. Part of the MJZ roster, her impressive reel includes collaborations with esteemed musical artists such as The Weeknd, Jay Rock, Danny Brown, Brodinski, and more. In this interview, she shares her thoughts on photography, inspiration and art in times of AI. 

Interview by Daniel McKee

In your Instagram bio, the word “surreality” is displayed as a header to the work and aesthetics below. I’m intrigued by its definition in relation to your work.

I guess what I think about a lot generally is, what is “real”, “reality”? This weird hybrid of subjectivity and objectivity… I like to embrace a slightly elevated version of “reality”, one that blends symbolism or a type of surreal dreamscape quality with what we are familiar with. I think of “surreality” like that, is actually the full way we digest or perceive life, it’s like how life imitates art, and art imitates life.

Photographs is often another expression of the video projects you produce. How do you see your relationship between photography and filmmaking?

I started out with photography, and then went into filmmaking, so it’s really just how I produce my ideas. They work hand in hand, as I like to be as photographic as possible in my moving image work, and in my stills work I like to capture a cinematic quality to almost make it feel like a still of a film.

Initially I wanted to be a fashion photographer. I then tried to learn how to go from saying something in a still image to trying to say something, and tell stories, in moving imagery. They are completely different ways of working, different sides of your brain, but they also compliment each other wonderfully. I try now to do both as much as I can. Unfortunately shoot days are usually quite intense and I don’t always find time to take stills on set, but I try, as I really like to capture my ideas in both mediums. I managed to shoot a few stills for The Weeknd video and one of them managed to be the album cover, so it’s always worth it.

Now, I will use photography as a way to create my video ideas that are currently unachievable, sometimes unaffordable, even just to test. But also so I can get on with it, as ideas unexpressed are so frustrating, and you can’t wait for someone to give you the chance to make it. You have to just get on with it.

What else does photography offer you?

Something photography offers me is more of an immediacy in creating ideas. It’s just me and my assistant on set, I don’t have or need anyone else, and then I edit myself. Generally, in photography you learn how to be thrifty. When you start out, you have to produce it, you just have to do it if you want to do it. And that’s the place I’m from, where you have to buy everyone lunch from your own pocket, get everyone together, brief everyone. You are producing and directing and editing. And that’s a very good progression into moving images, because in that space you have to rely on others much more. Actually, shooting is such a small part of the process in making something; it’s producing your idea, and if you’re anything like me, your crazy, stupid, “impossible” idea. If you’re not able to understand how to produce your idea, you can’t really direct others or even recognize great team members who are capable of doing it. Which is fundamentally what you need to create in filmmaking, it’s all about the team.

So, photography is a wonderful space to figure out how to produce your ideas, and a wonderful space to have more immediacy with ideas, too. But as an art form it can only ever be like a powerful adjective, like a word you look up in a dictionary and then reveals a whole plethora of poetry and meaning. Films offer a full sentence, the full satisfying quote. Just something more, because it is more.

The Weeknd - Gasoline

You created beautiful mural-like pieces as a companion to the Jay Rock video for “For What It’s Worth”, and more recently for The Weeknd’s “Gasoline”. What were you exploring with those images?

I think presentation of work is such a huge and vital way of expression. We work in a visual medium, so to make something and then not care how people see it makes no sense to me. I get really upset if someone posts a film and crops it into a square on Instagram, I think it’s an incredible insult to so many people’s hard work. I actually think it’s insane (laughs). So I’ve always spent a lot of time considering how my work is presented. I like making a whole world with each project and really trying to immerse viewers into that. My Instagram and these murals are really a playground for me to explore ways of presenting and expressing.

We have to talk about the still image video you made for Apparat. What was it like producing a photo film of that nature?

Immense! It was a crazy shoot for sure. It’s like a blur now, but I think we shot 11 days of stills, and the video was a one day shoot. Half of the stills was done in beautiful Ukraine and the other half was done in the UK. Frankly, the video part of the production was crazy enough. These are always the best projects though, the hardest ones. I reminisce a lot about this one with the team, even though I can’t bring myself to watch the video to be honest (laughs). It was the ultimate version of what I do in stills, in that we just smashed as many shoots and set ups together as possible each day and went for it. It was amazing, and very tiring. The edit process was a lot, especially since I had to color correct every single image, but it came together in the end. The whole team was incredible. I have to shout out my wonderful producers and PM’s on that were the best: Martha McGuirkNellie Heron-AnsteadKatie LambertDasha DeriaginaAlexander Timkov and Rachel Bashford and my long time photo assistant Sebastian Hinds. I’m very happy I didn’t put them off for life…

Apparat - Heroist

Any unlikely sources for inspiration?

I think inspiration is everywhere, and sometimes it can surprise you where it comes from. Sometimes I’m inspired by some random video on Instagram and sometimes I’ll be on a walk and eavesdrop on a conversation that’s better than any scripted one. Sometimes the way a bird lands on your window, looks at you and shits on it really can be inspiring. I don’t think I’m unusual, generally. Music has always been my biggest source of inspiration, every idea I have ever had has a track to thank for it. I have a lot of books, I sometimes chase down books just for their covers. I’m a bit old school like that but that’s not revolutionary. I still source things I looked at as a kid, and I guess I try to be a kid still chasing inspiration. The most childlike way of chasing inspiration is actually going into the imagination, spending a lot of time there, that’s where the ideas are. So this is not unique or unlikely, but where I would find the “unlikely”, for sure.

How do you see the adoption of emerging creative AI impacting the future of image-making?

It’s exciting to be part of such a bizarre time in life. It’s seeing history unfold, and a part of history we formulated through fiction and art. For sure, I do think there will be negative impacts. Creative work is going to be a lot tougher to get because of AI. Of course we still power AI, but it’s going to move very fast so who knows if we can retain control. There is still so much unknown about it, and where it will go.

It also might almost bring back the purity in art, ironically. I hope for this. Human-made work will become very important, bespoke, and probably (hopefully!) very well paid, because it’ll be like having a piece of clothing handmade, it will be more rare and take time. It will make you feel, so it will be cherished more. It will bring back the magic in art that I think we forget about sometimes. This of course, would be a positive. We are quite oversaturated now, and AI will likely increase this at first, oversaturating us with imagery – but we could benefit from the contrast too. Big companies will likely bombard us with cheap imagery, and then art will be like gold. There are pros and cons – but at the end of the day, you can’t replace humans. Well you can technically, but I’d love to not end that negatively. We birthed AI, and let’s hope to co-exist with it.

Have you been experimenting with AI?

I haven’t personally used it, but it will be used within our post production techniques for certain and I’ve already had researchers create AI imagery for commercial spots I’ve pitched on. I may well experiment with it in the future but it would be in a post production hybrid way, as I do think there is something fraudulent in solely relying on AI to create ideas. I also find it personally pointless. It’s not fulfilling, I didn’t express it. In my opinion, art is about personal expression, and AI is not a reflection of how you see. It’s devoid of any voice in a way, and that’s why it’s also perfect. It takes many different human techniques to make the perfect image. But that isn’t a voice. A human voice is flawed, and that’s what makes it beautiful, one of a kind. AI is so perfect that we can’t dream of achieving it. But perfect doesn’t make us feel much.

AI as a tool and collaborator will create incredible work. AI replacing artists will create images, but not art. And unless we are selling to robots, humans don’t need a whole lot of images to survive. But art is essential to our understanding of ourselves and of others. It’s like AI is the ultimate mind, but humans have heart. Art from the mind is just aesthetic, but it is with our hearts we truly say something. This is corny, but true. And I guess that’s what I mean by being irreplaceable.