Photographer: Jason Leiva

Illustrator: Chas Barton @charbarts

Dan Mace: @dannmace

Surfers ride waves. This is important. Unlike boaters, who insulate themselves within a large plexiglass vessel, or swimmers, who place their body at the mercy of the seas, a surfer uses his tools and his skillset to turn an unruly ocean into a scene of aesthetic brilliance.

Acclaimed filmmaker Dan Mace’s most vivid childhood memory is the first time he stood on a surfboard; “bunking” school, he spent his days surfing. His first video professional video gig was for a board company, featuring his friends surfing. Salt water runs through the man’s veins.

Recently, Dan moved to New York to partner with world-famous vlogger Casey Neistat. His profession continues to be full-time filmmaking. With all the work on his plate, he told me, he doesn’t get out much on the waves these days; the Cape Town native has found himself land bound in a concrete jungle. Still, if you look closely, you can see that Dan, the filmmaker, creative, and mogul of positivity, has really never stopped surfing.

In a short film from 2015 entitled “Beginning My Great Big Story,” Dan talks about the break he had taken in recent months from vlogging. He had been seeking a refresh in order to grow as a filmmaker, and so he did some soul searching. It seemed to him that he had gained an unwarranted reputation as an overly optimistic, naive filmmaker, unable to “see the negative in anything.” This, he said, could not be further from the case. In fact, it’s “quite the opposite.”

To many of Dan’s fans, this admission must have been quite shocking. The director had first gained notoriety for his clean-cut, upbeat, joy-inducing videos. Just look at his award-winning ad for Tusker, the African beer. Cutting quickly between different tribes, percussion keeping time in the background, one feels they could get lost in this high-speed world of smiles. He’s even once said that he makes movies “that make people smile.” So how could this filmmaker, with his body of work communicating bliss and the beauty of life, be the same person who has admitted to going through “the biggest downs”?

The rest of the “Great Big Story” video is an experiment. Taking placing in one village—an impoverished settlement in Cape Town—Dan aims to make two films: one showing the spaces’ objective negative qualities, the other showing “the beauty that can be found within.” The two films follow in quick succession. By changing music, lighting, and editing, Dan manages to portray two wildly different versions of the same location. The first is dark, dirty, and pervaded by a looming sense of danger. The second is bright, clean, and portrays a world of possibility. The settlement goes from a place we wouldn’t dare walk alone to one which we envy for its quality of life.

“The films I make,” Dan says at one point, “are the way I wish to see the world.” The juxtaposition he provides of these two alternate ways of “seeing” the same location imbues this ambiguous statement with a concrete meaning that we, the viewers, can feel. By seeing these two versions of the same place, right alongside each other, we become keenly aware of the filmmaker’s hand in dictating the stories that are told. It’s not just the obvious choices they make, such as the story they choose to portray—romance or action, wealth or poverty—but how they portray it. Nothing, we learn, tells its own story. Instead, stories get told.

It’s all too easy to become lured in by a particular version of events, deciding that one narrative is the definitive way to explain things. You could, for example, see the settlement Dan documents and immediately start thinking about the way capitalism and imperialism have ravaged non-Western communities. And this is certainly true, Dan doesn’t deny that; there are “objective” negatives, as he says. But these don’t rule out the beauty and happiness that can be found. Whether you find this beauty, and portray it, is therefore not dependent upon your subject, but the choice of the filmmaker to seek it out or not. And why wouldn’t you?

Which brings me back to surfing. The role of the surfer, atop her board, is to channel the potentially destructive force of the ocean into something constructive that propels her as she rides the wave. In this way, she transforms a facet of our shared world—the roaring waves of the ocean, which are often looked at with trepidation and fear—into a thing of beauty. Unlike the boater, who admires this beauty from afar, enclosed in safety, the surfer engages directly, braving the more dangerous possibilities in an effort to take the reins of this unbridled beast, making something of it which evokes awe in all who catch a glimpse.

When I say Dan has never stopped surfing, this is what I mean. He has spent his career tackling areas which have all the potential for negativity, but instead of falling prey to this possibility, or turning himself over to fear, he has found the beauty in them, sharing it with others. It’s easy, at first glance, to mistake this for a naive optimism, but it’s actually something much more difficult. It’s the conscious decision by someone who, seeing the world around him, decides that, despite the prevalence of negativity, he is going to display something beautiful, even if that means searching it out.

Dan’s ability to find the good in what others see as the bad has not only defined his work, but his career path as well. Let me show you what I mean.

Advertising can be a rather icky word. Especially for someone like Dan and his “millennial counterparts” who are “not all about making money,” producing commercials can often be seen as selling out. While this is certainly sometimes true—Dan explained to me after I asked him about some quotes I had found about one “uplifting” advertisement he had made that it was all industry jargon—he makes a conscious effort to create commercials which evade the more manipulative connotations of advertising for something realer. “I’m going to tell you what I’m doing,” he said, “I’m trying to sell you something, so I’m not going to pretend I’m not.”

His real innovation in this is that, even while acknowledging the work is a sales pitches, the viewer somehow feels more connected to that brand than if they hadn’t. The idea behind this is that, as he says, social media has made people a lot more aware of when they are watching an ad. The old model in which one is strung along until the very end, and then told “buy this,” simply doesn’t work any longer, he told me. Consumers want to be involved, not used. “They have strong opinions,” he said, “and want to be heard.” The way to resonate with such a group of people, he believes, is to tell “honest stories.” In that way, the consumer can decide whether or not they want to affiliate with brand, feeling as if it is a choice and not a ploy.

So Dan only works with brands that, as he says, “keep it real.” While he’s achieved immense success in commercial work, he hasn’t compromised that goal, and has probably gained more fans because of it.

In the Tusker advertisement—Dan’s first—for example, the title itself tells it all: “Us.” To create the minute-long ad, Dan visited 42 tribes around Kenya, compiling the sounds of each into an anthem, overlaid with the voice of a popular Kenyan artist. Why would Dan go to such lengths to create a beer ad? Because the ad isn’t about beer, it’s about a nation coming together to put the “Us in Tusker” as the narrator says.

This sentimentality surrounding the alcoholic beverage isn’t manufactured, however, as it is in those Budweiser ads with a hearty American voiceover and images of firefighters and horses. No, Tusker and Dan “keep it real.” To put the “us” in Tusker, that is, they actually go to the “us”—the 42 tribes dotting Kenya. Each is given a spot in the ad, and each, on an iPad, seems to be given a preview of the finished product. The activities they engage in, furthermore, are not scripted, but their typical days, whether it be playing cricket, dancing, or hanging around. Even the fact that a music producer is involved is made apparent with a quick cut back to the studio.

Despite ending with such a grand finished product—a glossy, fast-paced, one minute ad selling beer—Dan manages to deconstruct the medium, showing us a glimpse into just what an ad is—a high budget short film product including a film crew and expensive production team—while showing us what it can strive to be—a project including all parts of the community, displaying a nation’s true face to the world, and empowering and inspiring those both watching, and starring, in the work. It’s one of the first commercial I’ve seen to get comments on YouTube which exclaim they found the ad to be so inspiring, both technically and content-wise, that they are now “proud to drink that beer.” “That’s not a commercial,” another adds, “That’s art.” In the world of Dan Mace, however, we now face the question of whether that’s even necessarily a distinction we have to make.

Like the wide open sea, social media can be a dangerous place, especially for someone—like Dan—who has admittedly struggled with anxiety. As he once put it, “there is a melancholy attached” to “being shown things we didn’t even know existed on a daily basis.” Not to mention the FOMO and envy of stylized group shots which make the viewer, at home, wish for such a lifestyle.

But Dan didn’t shy away from the platform. In fact, he told me that YouTube—with its brand of creator-centric video embodied by Casey Neistat’s daily vlog—had completely changed the way he saw film and its possibilities. Forever engaging in the struggle to remain positive, and always thinking with an open mind, Dan took the possible toxicity of social media and used it to his advantage. Instead of portraying his “best life” as we call it nowadays—cutting out disappointment, unhappiness, and the everyday stuff of life—Dan decided to flip social media on its head, sharing his “journey in all its realness.” That, he said, was not only when he started to gain real engagement from others, but when he began to feel fulfilled himself.

Soon enough, he had achieved millions of views on his channel, Danthedirector. Even more impressive, he became known for his “integrity,” as one local newspaper put it. For a social media star, obviously, this is quite the rarity. Who would have thought others wanted to watch, not just your ups, but your downs, as well? The ability to tell “honest, real stories,” he explained, is more than a therapeutic exercise, it’s what the viewers want. It just took a few open-minded creators, like Dan—who has the words “I’m not normal” tattooed on his hand—to open up this possibility.

Echoing sentiments he expressed to me, Dan told a reporter last year that he uses his YouTube “to showcase positivity and to inspire others out there to ‘Do More.’” He continued, “There is so much negativity online and my give back is to try to add to the positive stories being told and not focusing on the day to day negative bullshit you know.”

A great example of this is his “VLOGGING in the PAST!” video from this February. Constructing a filmmaking set from a VHS recorder and a dolly, then wheeling it around his city in an effort to get the shots he wanted, Dan makes the point that gear should never be an obstacle. If filmmakers were using this equipment just thirty years ago, with all its difficulties and constraints, and still producing great work, what’s your excuse? “Create more,” he says in the film’s closing. “Just shoot your idea, and stop making excuses.”

The piece serves as a remedy to the gear craze that can infiltrate even the firmest minds online. With numerous publications, ads, videos, and message boards dedicated to the newest gear, it can feel like you’ll never be able to succeed without the most expensive cameras at your helm. Although he doesn’t speak to this directly, I’m sure Dan has, at times, felt the same way, hence his decision to address the issue in his video. By putting himself through the gruel that is shooting his entire city in one day with his self-constructed “Pram Cam,” however, he shows us that this couldn’t be further from the truth.

The irony of it all is that he’s using the same distribution channels which fuel gear-crazes and the excuses that come along with it to counter this message with a call to just “create.” Once again, he’s flipping the expectations of a medium on its head. Whether its truth telling on social media, or downplaying the importance of gear on a filmmaker’s YouTube channel, Dan seems to enjoy showing us that the applications of technology we often take for granted are, in fact, decisions. He—unlike many—simply decides to find the beauty and inspiration others might ignore.

Dan recently left his lucrative work in advertising to come to America and join Casey Neistat on his daily vlog, 368. The two have been friends for some time, and the latter convinced Dan to drop the comfort he had achieved to embark on a new adventure. Trepidatious at first to come to a place that made him feel “smaller than [he’s] ever felt,” Dan made the move, explaining that it’s not an opportunity but a “f***ing decision.”

“Most people doubted my decision,” he explained in a recent video, thinking he shouldn’t “downgrade” from a commercial director to a “YouTuber.” This is exactly the kind of staid thinking Dan has rebelled against, in surfing all the waves in his way. If he could make social media a positive space, and advertisements a genuine, uplifting experience, why couldn’t he come to New York and make what most describe as a step downward into an impossible leap up.

In their thirty-odd videos thus far, Dan has shown himself to be, among other things—including tired, funny, cute as heck, and an inspirational truth-speaker—someone who truly believes in the power of creativity. One quote in particular has stood out, having been shared mercilessly on social media: “To me,” he said “creativity is the ability to be able to believe in the way in which you see the world so much that you actually create an art form out of it.” Though the answer was given off the cuff, during one of his first days in the city, it eloquently captures just what makes Dan’s work so powerful and, I have to believe, what makes that “fire in his brain,” burn so hard for his filmmaking.

Because Dan believes wholeheartedly that creativity can change the way you see the world, and vice versa, he never stops creating, or urging others to do the same. If you knew that the secret to changing the world was by altering your perspective of it, either through creating that perspective objectively and showing it to others, or watching the objectified creativity of others, wouldn’t you do the same?

“@danmace might be my favorite guy on youtube,” one Twitter user wrote, “….he seems like the nicest, most positive guy.” This is all well and good, and certainly a sentiment many of us who watch Dan on YouTube share, but we can’t forget that this isn’t easy for Dan, and neither will it be easy for us. Positivity doesn’t flow in his veins; he’s been through his fair share of ups, downs, and real-low-downs. He’s not naive, either, wandering the world in his own universe (though he admits he once was). No, he’s a filmmaker who has chosen, through his art—whether it be film, ads, or vlogging—to ride above the negativity that infects many of our shared spaces, portraying a vision of a world bright with possibility and fresh thought. A world, you might say, that he wishes to see.

Dan looked good on the surfboard, riding our fake waves. He says he hasn’t hit the coast in a while, but as we know, he’s always surfing. From the moment he showed up, the man was a ray of sunshine. As he spoke, the crew sat around, barely holding back smiles. Because, unlike many people, Dan doesn’t seem phased by anything. Throw him some dirty rotten facts—i.e. social media is evil, or advertising is deceptive, or even, in our case, you’re going to have to get into a freezing cold kiddy pool in 60 degree weather—and he turns them on their head. All of a sudden, social media is uplifting, advertising is art, and shaking from the cold is as cool as Miles Davis.

It’s the tools he carries with him—from a surfboard, to a camcorder, to GoPro, to whatever brand camera he’s using now which we won’t mention because they didn’t pay us for it—that allows him to ride the waves of life, a discomfort to many, and create beauty from them. But even with these tools, more is needed, and Dan has got it; it’s the surfer mindset. Just because something has the power to kill you, and scares everyone else away, doesn’t mean it can’t be made into something beautiful—you just have to look.