Michael Maes: Cinematography with heart

Michael Maes was co-director of the documentary 'Epiphany' with Frans de Backer.
Maes seems to gravitate to some of the coldest parts of the planet.

From the crystal blue water of Stingray City to the white expanse of the Arctic circle, Michael Maes has covered many miles in his pursuit of spectacular cinematography.

Born in Belgium, Maes moved to Cayman in 2008 and fell into his career quite by accident, when he returned to diving after a dive incident caused him to take a break from the sport.

“When I started diving again, I had a hard time remembering what I saw, so I wanted to take pictures of the beauty I witnessed underwater,” he said. “I got myself a GoPro and soon discovered I could share the beauty and tell a story through my lens.”

Soon after that, the GoPro was swapped for a Nikon DSLR, and then an RED Digital Cinema camera. “That was a tremendous learning curve, but it ultimately got me into cinematography,” Maes said.

Since that cinematography journey began, the self-taught cinematographer has contributed to film festivals around the world and had his work broadcasted on the BBC, Nat Geo Wild, Outdoor Television, PBS, Cayman 27 and others.

Soon, some of Maes’s work will be part of a permanent collection in a museum in the US. “But I can’t spill too many beans about that yet,” he said.

This image of a mother polar bear and her cub sold for over $20,000 in a local charity auction.

Animal planet
Maes has captured numerous animals on film, in various worldwide locations. His favourite spot, both on land and under the water, is the Arctic.

“Being close, but not too close, to polar bears; swimming at arm’s length from a 25-foot-long orca; trying to get face-to-face with a massive walrus male, to name a few; those are experiences I’ll never forget,” he said.

In Cayman, a very different climate and range of animals also provide Maes with beautiful camera fodder.

“The obvious sandbar with its peaceful stingrays and the grottoes when they are packed with silversides. Alas, that is a rare occasion in the last years,” he lamented. “I also enjoy watching racer snakes, bats, crabs, geckos, etc. in our garden.”

A scene from the documentary ‘Epiphany’.

Environmental awareness
It is hard to miss Maes’s obvious love for the nature he captures in his work.

“I want to spread awareness of wildlife and environmental issues to the broad public by showing people the beauty and fragility of nature in mesmerising images,” he explained.

When it comes to other cinematographers, he admires those who share his environmental mission and who will go the extra mile to bring these messages to the public eye.

“I can enjoy extremely beautiful cinematography, but I prefer ‘the heart’ of the message over the ‘technicality’ of an image,” Maes explained. “Evidently, my preferred cinematographers work on the extreme poles or underwater.”

Life lessons
One of the biggest lessons Maes has learned through cinematography is to stay calm when things do not go the way he would like.

“I guess the uncontrollability of nature has made me lose many expectations and just enjoy the moment, enjoy what is happening, out there and in life.”
In the same vein, his focus on what is important has been refined. “Don’t get lost in the overload of unimportant details and scatter. Observe, absorb, listen, enjoy and don’t be such a perfectionist.”

| To see ‘Epiphany’, the feature documentary he created with his wife, Ellen Cuylaerts, visit

Ellen Cuylaerts and Michael Maes

Quick bits
What items do you never leave home without?
My smartphone, mostly to take unexpected snapshots.

What superpower would you like to have and why?
The ability to make people happy. It touches me to see people happy, especially loved ones. Being happy changes one’s view on the world.

What is your favourite food?
Asian, preferably fusion.

What’s the worst job you’ve ever had, and what did you learn from it?
Working for someone who had a completely different mindset and work etiquette than I do. The experience taught me to do what you believe in; follow your heart and learn from your mistakes.

What’s your favourite ‘90s jam?
I preferred the ‘80s, but something I liked was ‘Gangsta’s Paradise’ from Coolio.

Sharing knowledge with the younger generation.

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