Horror is for the people. One of the main reasons that the horror genre has seemingly exploded over the past few years might simply be because horror does the best job of offering both filmmakers and audiences a way to express themselves. Horror is a way to connect and explore the deepest and darkest fears which we all share.

As a filmmaker, one of the goals of any horror project is to find a way to connect with your audience and meet them where they are. Which, for better or worse, is nowadays on their phones.

We chatted with filmmaker Julian Terry about his recent short film DANIEL WANTS TO PLAY, which is shot and featured in the vertical format to better showcase the viral smartphone horror game that the film presents.

Shot vertically with Blackmagic cameras and with a unique storytelling approach, this short is a great example of why filmmakers should consider shooting their next horror shorts vertically as a way to connect with—and absolutely frighten the heck out of—their audiences.

Daniel Wants to Play - Horror Shortyoutu.be

No Film School: Tell us a little bit about the inspiration for DANIEL WANTS TO PLAY. Is this based on a real game?

Julian Terry: Ha! I certainly hope there’s no real game like Daniel’s game! It was kind of made up on the spot. It was originally just a vertical camera test. The idea of not "turning left” was just a fun idea to emphasize a simple camera pan. Every pan becomes super impactful in the vertical format.

What intrigued me as a filmmaker was the idea of a protagonist texted from someone they’ve wronged in the past. A character who is desperate to right a wrong.



Credit: Julian Terry

NFS: The short film is presented in a vertical format, could you tell us a bit about why you chose this style and if there were any unique challenges to shooting vertically?

Terry: The camera test was just made to try out vertical shooting. I was in prep to shoot a commercial spot fully vertical and wanted to mess around. I was able to test a lens I had been dying to try out, the Sigma 14mm. I also got to play with some Aputure lights I had been dying to test out. The real kicker was testing the Invizigrain Deviance Resolve plugin. It was a bit of a wombo-combo of a test.

It created a look I hadn’t seen on a vertical film before. This made it even more compelling for me.

NFS: And speaking of shooting, what camera did you use, and why?

Terry: I just shot using my trusty Blackmagic 6K Pro. The camera now utilizes the gyro data to rotate the menu vertically! It’s pretty sweet.

I am in a very lucky place as a filmmaker. I have a lot of friends who I worked with in the past who now own cameras. I have friends who own the ALEXA 35s and friends who have 16mm film. Everyone wants to shoot. It’s tempting to shoot with the highest-level gear all the time. What intrigued me was when we shot Don’t Peek in my bedroom during the pandemic with what we had lying around. When it went to SXSW and other festivals everyone just assumed it was ALEXA. No one would’ve thought it was a pocket camera.

I see a lot of Blackmagic haters online (which I have no idea why). These cameras are cheap to get your hands on for a day. Pennies compared to an ALEXA 35. I just want to shoot on the stuff everyone can get their hands on. I don’t hire cinematographers. I just do it. I urge young filmmakers to make their own shorts no matter what camera they have lying around. I think it would go against my message if I started shooting these shorts with giant crews and big cameras.

The best thing to do is to find that one friend who will fight to the very end. The one willing to jump on every project with no questions asked. That friend for me is Alex Anderson. Not only is he my best friend but also, he’s my roommate. Anytime we make a new project he climbs aboard no questions asked. On Don’t Peek he was pulling focus and playing the monster! He recently directed a horror short which I got to produce and help out.

We’re like brothers who banter on set and keep it fun. That playful energy is infectious. The other friends usually jump in on the jokes. It’s the best way to run a set! We love the creature revealed at the end!


Credit: Julian Terry

NFS: Can you tell us about how you created this hyper-realistic makeup and VFX design?

Terry: Well, all the thanks should go to Mario Torres! He made this fantastic mask that covered from the chin to the nose. It was super eerie on set. In fact, our star, Jordan Kelly Debarge freaked out and jumped off the couch when she first saw it. I loved the reaction so much that I kept it in the edit!

The VFX clean-up had to stitch together the mask to Kevin Keppy’s face. Side note, Kevin is an absolute treasure. He was the creepy creature in a little horror movie, Smile (2022). He came in for a few hours and scared the hell out of all of us! I wanted to see if we could come up with a defining characteristic for Daniel. Kevin started making this laugh that was absolutely frightening.

I knew it had to be in the short.

NFS: Your film really serves as a great example of horror pacing done expertly, how were you able to find such a precise balance in your presentation and editing?

Terry: Horror pacing is always tricky. I usually try and hold onto a moment as long as possible. What would it feel like to be in such a terrifying scenario? How long would you peer into the dark? I love taking my time and letting moments breathe. The longer you stretch the suspense, the harder the punch.

I usually edit to where it feels creepy for me. I usually feel a chill up my spine the first time the edit is working. You lose that chill after the first 5 playbacks of the edit. It’s something you feel when the light hits your monster just right. When it stops being a friend wearing a mask. When it starts to feel truly scary.

The entire 'DANIEL WANTS TO PLAY' cast and crew

The cast and crew of 'DANIEL WANTS TO PLAY'

Credit: Julian Terry

NFS: If you could give any advice to any aspiring horror filmmakers for their own short projects, what would it be?

Terry: I would say keep it simple. This was shot over the span of a few hours with everyone working for free because it was super simple. No woods. No running. Just Jordan on the couch, feeling scared. It feels more honest that way. I grew up watching scary movies with my mom. We were both too scared to leave the couch. I wanted to capture that feeling. That feeling of being frozen.

I also love making it up on the spot. It reminds me of filming in high school with friends. No script, just friends and a camera. It taps into why we make short films in the first place. It’s to have fun creating. No client over the shoulder. I’m not making this for some feature pitch. It was just hanging out and making something scary. I love playing spooky music on my sets and keeping it to a handful of friends. It taps into that inner filmmaker in all of us.

I still get scared by horror movies. I am the first to jump. I love finding something particular that scares me. Something different that I haven’t seen. If it scares me, I find it will scare others!