One red Solo cup, anchored inside a ceramic mug, stands across the spacious room. The Hulett brothers — standing behind a large, gray couch — take turns flinging cups into the air, hoping to sink one into the target.
Off-target shots litter the carpeted floor. Winding up and flicking his wrist, David takes what feels like his millionth attempt in four hours. Plop. Bullseye.
“That shot started it all,” David said.
JMU student David Hulett and his brother, Christopher Newport University student Daniel Hulett, post their trick shots under the username @dndhulett on TikTok.
When the pandemic hit in March, they created their account as a way to entertain themselves and their friends during quarantine at their home in Great Falls, Virginia. They spent dozens of hours devising and perfecting increasingly complex tricks to improve upon their first shot: sinking a single Ping-Pong ball into a cup.
“I think the big reason we kept going as long as we did ... was our close friends and family,” David, a sophomore quantitative finance major, said. “The few people that would follow us would give us so much hype.”
On June 6, a 30-second compilation of their 10 best trick shots changed everything.
“That one went, like, mega-viral,” David said.
The clip has garnered over 27 million views and 4 million likes. This caused their follower count to soar to 1.3 million in less than nine months.
“People would just be like, ‘This makes my quarantine,’” Daniel, a senior finance major, said. “It honestly blows my mind.”
ESPN, Sports Center and Sports Illustrated have reposted their content across different platforms. They were also featured in a Buzzfeed video titled “Viral Trick Shots We Can’t Stop Watching.”
Their trick shots primarily involve Ping-Pong balls and household items like pots and pans, glassware and red Solo cups. But viewers can also see items like old street signs and a grill incorporated into their shots, filmed at their college apartments.
“We were just basically in our basement of our house with, really, any items and stuff we could find,” Daniel said.
JMU physics teacher-in-residence Lynn Lucatorto said there’s a science to sinking a trick shot. Starting velocity, ball spin and air friction must be taken into account, but the object’s parabolic path — or its arc — is the biggest factor.
“Gravity’s going to act on that object, and if you don’t arc it, it’s not gonna get to where you want it to go,” Lucatorto said. “It’s kind of like ‘Angry Birds.’”
But Lucatorto stressed that a deep understanding of physics isn’t needed to make trick shots. Trial-and-error is key.
“If it takes a path and it doesn’t go in, you automatically adjust it,” Lucatorto said. “They did science because they kept adapting and changing.”
CNU senior information sciences major Justin Wilson is a friend of the Huletts and is Daniel’s roommate. He’s followed the brothers’ account since it was created and witnessed their rise to fame.
“I’m living with a real-life — in my eyes — a star,” Wilson said.
But being TikTok-famous isn’t without its challenges.
Sinking a shot can take five minutes to four days, depending on the level of difficulty. Add schoolwork and extracurricular activities at separate universities, and time management becomes “tricky.”
In one particular shot, pots and pans are arranged in meticulous order in a curved line on the floor. The brothers sit on the couch, each holding a Ping-Pong ball. Simultaneously, they bounce them across six different pots, both landing in the same cup.
The footage usually shows them in loud bursts of celebration with arms raised.
“That was actually [filmed] over JMU finals,” David said. “So I was doing it for a little bit, but then I had to go back to study. And [Daniel] did it through, I think, like, [2 a.m.]”
Filming presents another set of difficulties. They never know when they’ll sink a shot, so every attempt must be recorded — resulting in hours of footage.
“We both had to get upgraded storage,” David said.
Without the proper equipment, they had to get creative.
“We would have a cone, and we cut a slit in it so we could fit the phone in,” David said. “But now we have a tripod, so that’s a lot easier.”
In addition to TikTok, the Huletts post content on Instagram and YouTube. Neither was particularly active on social media beforehand, so they had to learn the dynamic quickly.
“I don’t know entirely what to do with social media because we’ve never really done it before,” Daniel said. “Now, like, posting all the time and being seen by so many people is, honestly, almost stressful for me.”
Exposure from media conglomerates has opened the door to business opportunities. They’re sponsored by the tangy orange drink company SunnyD and are hoping to find more sponsorships to pursue trick shots as a career.
“That’s our goal, like, to make this our job,” David said.
Wilson remembers being skeptical when they first created their account.
“I didn’t really see the extent to where it was gonna go,” Wilson said. “I didn’t see their vision.”
But he credits the brothers’ determination, time management and creativity as the catalyst for their success on the app.
“It’s absolutely insane, the amount of hours they put in and the level of creative art,” Wilson said. “If they gotta stay up until 5 [a.m.] doing a trick shot or writing a paper, then they’ll do it.”
Wilson said he believes their celebrations and eccentric personalities resonate with their viewers, especially during a pandemic.
“They put themselves into their work, and that’s what makes it entertaining,” Wilson said. “They really made the best out of an absolutely horrible situation.”
Lucatorto said their ability to gauge the height, speed and distance needed to sink a shot is already impressive. But with more practice, she said she believes they’ll only get better.
“I never want to play mini golf with these guys,” Lucatorto said. “Because they will take all my money.”
What’s the next big trick for @dndhulett?
They’ll position two mirrors in a V-shape with five shot glasses lined up at the base of the “V.” Throwing five Ping-Pong balls at once at the top, they’ll bounce back and forth against the mirrors, creating an optical illusion of hundreds of balls falling. If all goes accordingly, each ball will land in a different shot glass at the bottom.
As their trick shots become more elaborate, and their following continues to grow, their goal remains the same.
“We’re making people’s days,” Daniel said. “[And] that’s worth it.”
Contact Amy Needham at firstname.lastname@example.org. For more on the culture, arts and lifestyle of the JMU and Harrisonburg communities, follow the culture desk on Twitter and Instagram @Breeze_Culture.