Meet the Industry: Dan Mace, Filmmaker & Content Creator
By Elise Czyzowska
11 February 2022
Dan Mace began his career in film as anyone would: hanging around bars on the outskirts of famous South African film festivals, hoping that visiting creatives might drop in for a drink after a day of screenings and interviews. Soon enough, he was attending the same festivals, proving his skill from his very first films by winning the Cannes Silver Screen Young Directors Award three times in two years.
Off the back of this success, Dan chose to put his more traditional career directing advertisements on hold in favour of starting a YouTube channel, inspired by his friend – and later coworker, Casey Neistat.
Having now amassed over 770,000 subscribers, and almost a year into his partnership with discovery+ (The Discovery Channel’s streaming platform), Dan joined us to talk about his career, and how the jumps between traditional and not-so-traditional filmmaking have helped to prepare him for his current project: his first feature film.
Here are four things he learnt along the way…
The importance of being experienced
Even after winning so many prestigious awards so early into his career as a director, Dan describes how he struggled with ‘imposter syndrome’. He describes how he simply ‘hadn’t had much life experience’, which meant that no matter the product or the brand he was working for, ‘all [his] ads began to look the same’.
‘I went to YouTube to learn more about myself and about non-fiction storytelling’, he explained, and one of his biggest undertakings, his Not Normal series, provided both. The concept began as a digital map of the world. Viewers would ‘plant’ their unfinished ideas, and Dan (with his team) would select his favourites, travel to meet the creator, and spend anywhere from a week to ten days helping them connect the dots.
The project forced him to engage with every aspect of the filmmaking process, from conceptualising ideas with very little time for research, to post production and the logistics of travelling around the world multiple times a month. Looking back on the project – and more generally at his YouTube career, Dan certainly got the life experience he had been craving:
‘The older that I get… there’s a large portion of me that still wishes I had that delusional confidence – but there’s another part that thinks, “maybe that was a stupid move”’. Either way, he continually expresses his gratitude for the opportunities that YouTube has provided him with.
Flexing your creative muscles
As the Not Normal series makes clear, YouTube, along with platforms such as TikTok, allows a sense of freedom that the traditional world of filmmaking sometimes cannot. With full creative control, Dan no longer had to deal with the red tape that could come from working with clients or larger production agencies. In this sense, he describes it as a ‘space to flex your creative muscles’.
‘What I try to do is, say, make a song out of a brick, and things like that, as ridiculous as it is. [YouTube] has helped me to flex this muscle, and it gives me the space to do that. In the traditional world you couldn’t go to a client and say “I want to make a song out of a brick” because the probability is you’re going to fail. No one’s going to give you the money to do that.’
This freedom to experiment and to ‘flex your creative muscle’ is something we prioritise in our BA (Hons) Content, Media and Film Production. The course challenges you to create branded content, viral videos, fictional TV series and social impact filmmaking, as well as skills to navigate the modern media environment – digital literacy and data, social media analytics and creative entrepreneurship. Explore the full course outline for this Screenspace course here.
Although YouTube does host – and partake in – many digital media awards (including their ‘Creator Awards’, which congratulates channels for hitting subscriber milestones by sending them bespoke Silver, Gold and Diamond plaques), success is typically measured through the figures. Subscriber count, video views, and average watch time can quickly become all a creator thinks about, and when you add on the sudden ‘fame’ that creators amass across their social platforms, it can go to your head.
Acknowledging that a great deal of his early growth came through his association with Casey Neistat (who boasts 12.4 million YouTube subscribers), Dan has learnt not to focus on these metrics of success. Instead, he measures his achievements through his ever-growing ‘Bru’ community.
‘With YouTube I started this thing called a ‘Bru Community’. It’s a term here in South Africa for a likeminded friend. […] If I wanted to leave something behind, I would want to leave a community of people that think a certain way. I think creativity is the ability to create long-term conversations with people that stick with them forever, and that helps people to grow and to believe in themselves.’
Knowing when to trust your instincts
Having experienced the pros and cons of YouTube and traditional film, Dan explained that for him, it doesn’t work to ‘keep a foot in both worlds’: ‘You’ve got to either choose the one or the other’.
Throughout the Masterclass, however, he noted that there are times when one process does inform the other. His time studying at film school – although he never graduated – helped him to learn about writing a solid story arc, which he feels is especially important for dramatic projects. On the other hand, YouTube, being a more ‘guerrilla’ style of filmmaking, has helped him in shooting documentaries, where he has learnt that ‘a large portion of the story happens in post’.
But beyond the separate spheres of YouTube and film, Dan notes that some aspects of his creative process will always remain the same. One of these is his appreciation for music:
‘Rhythm is so deeply connected to the kinds of films that I make. Most of the films I make come from an idea I would get while listening to music. [I can] listen to music and cry my eyes out. Even if it’s a great dance track, it hits me in a different way and can really emotionally move me’.
Three pieces of advice Dan Mace tries to follow:
- Stop listening to answer and start listening to understand.
- Often opportunity is missed because it’s disguised in overalls and looks like work.
- Ideas come from the flaws in the ideas you had. Through a bad idea, you can realise a good one.