Trapped in lockdown, this filmmaker had a Blackmagic Pocket 4K and a spooky idea. Now he’s living the dream!
A few years back, Julian Terry flunked out of Columbia College in Chicago. He was teaching kids to swim and reading No Film School, wondering if he could ever possibly fulfill his dream of being a filmmaker. Then, one day, he was caught up in a drive-by shooting outside his apartment.
When he woke up the next morning, he decided he wouldn’t put his dreams on hold any longer. He packed up everything he owned and drove to Los Angeles.
And it paid off.
But only after he started making shorts—low-budget horror shorts that he posts directly online. His first short won a contest and got noticed by David Sandberg. His second horror short got a deal from Amblin after none other than Steven Spielberg saw it.
And now, his latest short Don’t Peek was shot in his bedroom and is getting him a feature deal with Timur Bekmambetov and BAZELEVS.
All it took?
A Blackmagic Pocket and a Nintendo Switch. (The Switch served as Terry’s key light.) And a crucial understanding of how to build suspense.
Terry spoke with No Film School about the making of Don’t Peek and how he got to where he is now.
No Film School: How did you get the idea for Don't Peek? What was going on in your life to make a horror short involving a cute game like Animal Crossing?
Julian Terry: We were trapped in lockdown. I was with my girlfriend and my best friend Alex, who produced all these horror shorts I did in the past. I was in a weird place where I had two features cooking up. But then, obviously, the pandemic happened. No one knew what to do. Like, I built a LEGO Millennium Falcon that's now on the shelf. We watched Lord of the Rings, the extended editions, all in a row. We were just like, “Okay, we're losing our minds. How do we continue?”
I downloaded Animal Crossing on my Switch, and I was playing it a lot. And then, one night, I was sitting right there, and like a lot of people during the pandemic, I couldn't sleep. My girlfriend was asleep, and so I was trying to not turn any lights on. I'm sitting there, just playing, and I thought I saw something just sitting at the foot of my bed. I was so freaked out, I sat there staring for a while. After a minute, I realized, it was some sort of pile of clothes right behind my bed.
And I started thinking, what if you had heard something, and then you got confirmation of that in your game? Something fun that sprouted from that idea.
Originally, I was going to shoot with my phone because everyone was shooting their short films in lockdown on phones. I want to jump in on it, and I thought it would be really fun to do something with Animal Crossing. I tried writing a script for it, and I just ended up throwing it out the window. I just ended up just storyboarding the whole thing.
Terry: Having a girlfriend who is an actor helped, obviously. And then Alex, my roommate, he ended up filling in as the monster, as well as pulling focus, as well as gaffer. We were all doing a bunch of jobs.
Alex had a Blackmagic Pocket 4K just sitting there, he hadn't even used it yet. And he had that with two Intellytech lights. The good thing about the Blackmagic 4K is it has a dual ISO situation, so it will shoot at 1250 and not have to worry about destroying the image. At first, we were trying to put a little panel on the Switch to really give [the main character] a boost of light. And I was like, “Ah, it looks like junk.” It looked like a spotlight's hitting her face. So we actually used the Switch. After the first shot, we realized the walls were too bright. So we painted her house a peach color. It gave her more warmth on her face. Otherwise, we were choosing lights in Animal Crossing, to change the lighting.
I did add a lot of gels to the lights, so it pushed the blue to really blue, and pushed the warmth to really warm. Pretty much the way it looks on YouTube is what it was on set, because I'm not the greatest colorist. I'd rather color on set and just add a little contrast to it.
It allowed us to get really experimental because it's just my bedroom. It's just a camera, and we had a little $100 Ikan slider from years ago, so it's a little wobbly. We had a super-wide lens, so it made my bedroom look huge. But it was really fun to just get creative with it. It was done for free, making it with what we had in the apartment, and that was it. And that's what gave it this fun feeling.
NFS: Had you shot on any Blackmagic before, and was there a reason it worked for the look you wanted on Don’t Peek?
Terry: I love old films. I really love movies even just from the '90s even. Film used to crunch the black levels to such a low level. And if I tried that with 8-bit DSLRs, it gets crunched instantly. You lose the shadows, and everything gets ugly, and it's a mess. So what really helped was using BRAW in Blackmagic. Then I was able to really crunch it down to the point that I wanted, to really let the shadows go to black. And I feel like that's genuinely creepy. I don't like when things are kind of this murky, lower-level. I like seeing contrast.
Terry: And the BRAW allowed us to really crunch down the black level. I was really having fun coloring this thing. I'm not the best colorist, but it made it very easy to crunch it down to levels I wanted to. I really like seeing the black levels match the letterbox black. It's one thing that I just don't see anymore with the digital cameras these days.
And because the Pocket was so tiny, Katie was able to literally put her arms around it. She just had the camera right there with the lens and played the Switch for all our perspective shots.
It really gave it this authentic feel, because I didn't want to just cut to the screen. I wanted to show her fingers and the outside of the door and stuff like that. It made it feel a lot more real, and I don't think I would have been able to do that with two people's arms on either side of an Alexa. The idea of being able to be so nimble with such a small camera really helped us. I was able to fit it in weird places here. It's just my bedroom after all!
And again, the low-light sensitivity really saved our butts. What's funny is our little Intellytech lights, we literally had to have them at 1% and 2%, otherwise it spilled across the whole room, because the white walls in LA apartments just explode light everywhere. So the low-light capabilities allowed us to shoot with literally the Switch as Katie's key light. It feels way more authentic.
I just hate when I watch these studio films where it's like, is that a magical skylight hitting their bed randomly here? I don't know. It works for certain films, but for this, I wanted it to feel like anybody playing a Switch in the middle of the night, in bed. So many people in the comments go ahead and say, "Oh my God, that's me right now, watching a YouTube video in bed." And that's what I want it to feel like. It was a lot of fun to make it work that way.
I absolutely am blown away by the Blackmagic cameras. The fact that everyone thought that that was shot in Alexa is a big sign. I kept telling everyone, "No, it was shot with a Blackmagic and a Zoom, a little Sigma Art zoom." It was a nice way to experiment and just do something. The fact that I had a few weeks to kill before dropping it online meant I'll just make a pitch deck, and it'll be a lot of fun.
NFS: You made a series of creative shorts, and just uploaded them to the internet. Now you’re blowing up, with people like Steven Spielberg and Timur Bekmambetov greenlighting your features. You're basically living the dream. Do you recommend this path for others? What’s your advice?
Terry: The thing with Don't Peek is, it started getting some attention. And then the Bazelevs came aboard, and they were super excited. Timur Bekmambetov loved it. They dug the pitch deck for it, and yeah, basically, they came aboard pretty quick. They liked hearing the pitch for the feature because it's very different. It's very exciting because we shot this just with nothing.
And now, here we are, getting a movie deal. I'll be directing that feature, and it's very exciting. We're working with a screenwriter. I can't wait for the next big announcement on it.
I think it's funny when I talk to people... there's a friend of mine. She was like, "Oh, I'd love to make a short, but I just don't have $15,000, like I did when I made my thesis film."
And then I'm like, "Yeah, I don't have $15,000 either."
I think this is what's beautiful about having the cameras now and the computing power now, is you can throw it all together with nothing, literally. It isn't a money excuse. It was just a time and effort excuse. That's what was so beautiful about Don’t Peek, it was literally shot in my bedroom. It was shot with the gear we had already.
When I got close to finishing up Whisper, I was so hesitant to release it. I really did not think it was great. Same thing with Don't Peek. You're about to put it up online, and that weird voice in your head starts up, "Oh, this isn't great. What are you doing? Why are you putting this out there for people?"
I think it's very easy to just go ahead and listen to that voice and say, "Oh, it's not ready. I'm just going to hold onto it." I think it's so important to just release it, whatever you got. Even if it's not perfect, at least it's out there and out of your hands.
I look at Whisper, and it was done with nothing. I literally had to return the Amazon Echo back to Best Buy because I didn't have the money to keep it. And I remember it was midday Halloween, and I was like, Oh God, we've missed the deadline. No one's going to watch this thing on Halloween. It's going to be November when people watch this thing. And I felt like a total failure.
I didn't want to release it because I also was like, "Oh, David Sandberg watched The Nurse. Is this even good enough for David Sandberg?" It's easy to have those stupid thoughts that just bury in your skull. And I have friends that have shorts that are just sitting on their hard drives, dead. Haven't released it at all.
And it breaks my heart because I'm like, that's so much work! If you had talked to yourself before you even started writing, it would have been so exciting. You would have been so excited to release it, but now you look at the short, and you're like, “Ugh.” You see all the problems and mistakes with it.
Let it free! It’s so easy to let it die on a hard drive, and that's the worst. Just let your projects free, and do your thing, and move on to the next thing.
But I'm so glad that I released Whisper because I had no idea that it'd literally impress Steven Spielberg, my hero. I have a Jurassic Park poster there.
Here the voice in my head is saying, "Oh, it's not good enough," but Steven Spielberg is saying, "Oh, let's make this into a movie. It's super cool." So it's important to overcome that voice and just put it out there, whatever it is.
It's funny. Now I'm represented at CAA now, and that came come just doing horror shorts—cheap, no-budget horror shorts. I think it's a great skill to also work on, is building suspense, because you need that for every genre. And then you can go ahead and talk to the heads of Paramount, all because you made a goofy horror short in your bedroom.
Check out Don’t Peek, shot on the Blackmagic Pocket Cinema Camera 4K, and keep an eye out for some kind of feature announcement soon!