The Magic of Special Effects

Just got back from watching Avatar and was blown away by the special effects. Watching it in 3D really transports you into another world; unfortunately the storyline was only one dimensional. Some aspects of the movie are truly magical in the sense that disbelief is totally suspended. Cinematographic technology has developed rapidly the past decades and they seem to be able to create almost any conceivable reality.

Magicians have much in common with cinema in that both aim to suspend the disbelief of the spectator and create an alternative reality. The objective of any magic performance is, or should be, to create a temporary reality where magic is possible. I am sure that nobody truly beliefs that the performer has magical powers and that subterfuge and deceit are used to create the illusion of magic. Many techniques are available, including advanced technology. Magicians have, however, a strange love-hate relationship with camera tricks.

At the start of almost every magic show on television, the producers emphasise that the magic is created without the use of camera tricks. They feel a need to convince the audience that the direct actions of the magician  are the cause of the magic, not through buttons pushed by a backstage technician. As a theatrical art, magic relies on the knowledge that it requires a lot of skill and any implication that technology is involved thus reduces the perceived skill of the magician. Using camera tricks is seen as the ‘easy way out’ and is not highly regarded by magicians.

This taboo is surprising, as magicians have always used the latest available technology to create magic. The father of modern magic, Robert Houdin, often used electricity and electromagnetism. This played very well for nineteenth century audiences, but contemporary viewers would not consider these effects very magical. We all know about electricity and use appliances that to the average nineteenth century visitor would seem truly magical. Science fiction writer, inventor and futurist Arthur C. Clarke created a link between technology and magic in his famous Third Law (Profiles of The Future, 1961):

Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.

Cinema is an example of magical technology. Watching the silver screen it seems as if a moving image is projected in front of us, but our mind is actually being deceived as there are 24 still images each second flickering in front of our eyes. Cinema is actually a double illusion because any film of sufficient quality will cause us to suspend our disbelief and be transported to another world.

Magicians recognised the potential of cinema very early after its invention. The Théâtre Robert Houdin in Paris was one of the first places in Paris where motion pictures were shown and French Magician Georges Méliès was a pioneer in cinema. In the early days of this new medium, two types of magic films were popular. Films of tricks show conjurers performing sleight of hand and just like the television shows of recent decades they did not use camera tricks and relied of the manual dexterity of the performer. Trick films on the other hand employ cinematic techniques to create magical effects. To the audiences of early cinema, who were not aware of the technical possibilities, there was no real distinction between these two types of films.  Méliès is well known for his trick films, such as  Les Cartes Vivantes from 1905 and has become famous for his Journey to the Moon, one of the first special effects feature films.

To the magicians of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, the techniques of trick photography were just as secret as other magical methods. Méliès abhorred the exposure of his secrets in scientific journals of the day. To his audiences, he was creating real magic and his

Contemporary audiences are all very well aware of the methods used by film makers and do not regard Les Cartes Vivantes in the same way as Méliès’ original viewers. Méliès has most certainly lost his battle against exposure of cinematographic secrets. Most DVDs contain features that explain how the special effects were created. You might think that magicians would never contemplate exposing their own methods to the general public, but a quick visit to any of the many online magic shops will show that any secret is for sale.

The fact that people are mystified by movies, even though everybody pretty much knows, or is able to know, the methods demonstrates that exposure of magic methods is inconsequential. Only when magic is performed as a challenge or a puzzle will the audience think more about the method than the effect. Magic, just as cinema, is a story telling art where slight of hand and other techniques are used to show the spectator a world where magic is possible.

A wonderful illustration of the close relationship between magic and cinematographic technology has been created by Swiss magician Marco Tempest. His mystical amalgam of sleight of hand magic and special effects is a masterpiece in the art of magic.

Adelaide Magic Convention

Cards from mouth

Fun with cards.

The two and a half day gathering of magicians and magic enthusiasts at the Adelaide Magic Convention started with a Close-Up show. It quickly became clear that this would be a weekend of card tricks, more card tricks and even some more card tricks.

Magicians have a love-hate relationship with cards; well I have anyway. There are often complaints about the amount of card tricks during conventions and magic meetings, but everybody always gravitates back to them. Playing cards are the piano in the orchestra of magical props. A deck of cards is a piano with 52 keys that can be used to achieve every single effect in the arsenal of the modern conjurer. No other prop is so versatile. However, a lot of card magic is pretty boring because the performer forgets to place the props and the adventures they have into any context. Never ask a magician how magic is performed, but make sure to ask why those four aces keep assembling.

The day ended early because the lecture by Laurie Kelly lecture was cancelled and I decided to have an early night in preparation of the big day on Saturday. The day began with the close-up competition. My personal favourite was Simon Taylor’s session. He was able to place his material in a suitable context, creating interest and also showing some good skill. The main reason I like his work is because we share an interest into adding an intellectual perspective to magic without losing sight of the entertainment aspect.

The first lecture for the day was by American Geoff Williams. I was delighted by his presentation and am working on incorporating some of his ideas in my close-up work. He is, as he puts it himself, no great inventor of magic but works on improvements of known routines. I like his offbeat style, calling a trick I Hate David Copperfield, is a great way to attract attention to what is basically a reworked classic that performed many years ago. Unfortunately, however, he was not able to delight at his performance in the Gala Show later that night.

In the afternoon there were six performers battling it out in the stage competition. Joel Howlett presented his wholesome manipulation act. He ignores the trend towards Derren Brown, David Blaine and Chris Angel type material and follows in the footsteps of Cardini and Fred Kaps. Magicians appreciate this type of material because they respect the amount of skill involved. Almost every magician has at some stage practised front- and back-palming cards, but not many (including myself) have the guts to perform this type of material because it is so hard.

Magicians work extremely hard to hide half of their performance from the audience. Some of the most demanding actions take place while the attention of the spectator is diverted away from the action. However, some really good magic can be performed that barely requires any complicated sleight of hand. One of my favourite card routines I perform at the moment is a souped-up version of the 21-Card Trick. This classic is the first card trick that many people learn and magicians usually loathe as not being deceptive enough. But, the amended version I use requires almost no sleight of hand and get greats reactions when I perform it. Why spend time learning  second dealing, Faro shuffles and other complicated stuff when people can be amazed by the simplest tricks, using nothing but a good script.

I also met an anthropology student with an interest in theatrical magic. We discussed the possibility of writing an ethnology of magic world. To an outsider, a meeting of magicians sounds like a very strange thing indeed. Magicians have their own rituals (initiations and the broken wand ceremony springs to mind) and their own rules of behaviour, specially regarding secrecy.

Second lecture for the day was by English children’s entertainer Terry Herbert. He first showed his well known children’s act, for which a small group of kids was invited. After his performance he talked about his ideas on entertaining children. It was great to hear somebody with decades of experience talk.

I bought his DVD on performing magic for children under five. It is quite difficult to do this because to a child under the age of five everything is magic. Their minds have not yet been conditioned to know that certain things are impossible. A simple game of peekaboo is a magical event for a baby. Most illusions created by magicians are cognitive illusions, i.e. the brain gets tricked into assigning wrong causal relationships to what the eye perceives. But, the brain needs to be trained first to understand what normal causal relationships are and that takes a few years.

Magic without tricks

Magic without tricks

Day two ended with a Gala Dinner with performances from four magicians. The two highlights of the Gala Dinner were a Belgian contact juggler who creates visual magic with with perspex balls and Raymond Crow’s famous hand shadows show. It became apparent to me that both in performances magic is created without using deception. This is interesting to note because as I wrote above, magicians hide most of the effort that is required to create illusions, while in these two cases, all the effort is shown in full view.

Geoff Williams spoke in his lecture about the fact that magicians are basically liars. Ricky Jay was recently interviewed about lying and mentions Jerry Andrus, a magician who never lied in his performances. When he said: “I will place this card in the middle of the deck” than this was always a true statement. In almost all magic, lying is a regular occurrence. But when creating magic without deception there is no need to lie and no need to hide most of the work required to create the magic.

The last day started with a church service. This is the first convention I have attended where a Church Service was on offer on Sunday morning. None of the attendants I spoke to took up the offer so I wonder how many people attended. Those who have read more of my blog know my a-religious stance. But come to think of it, there are very close links to magic and religion and anthropologists still have a hard time distinguishing one from he other. Magic and religion share the same origins – nevertheless I gave the church service a miss.

Magic without tricks

Magic without tricks

My last session for this convention was the Paul O’Neill lecture about the marketing of magic. When he started to explain in detail how to create a website, I left the room and made my way to the airport to catch our flight back to Melbourne.

In an earlier Facebook/Twitter post I wrote that the convention was not so inspiring. Well, maybe not from a magical technical point of view, but I guess the above post shows that magic never fails to inspire. To share some of the wonder I experienced when watching Raymond Crow, here is a Youtube video of his hand shadows.

Sometimes mystery is more important than knowledge

I have recently been introduced to, a great website that features “riveting talks by remarkable people”. One of the talks that I found fascinating is by J.J. Abrams, one of the creators of the TV series Lost. One of the most thought-provoking things he says is:

Sometimes mystery is more important than knowledge.

The absence of knowledge by its very nature characterises a mystery. It is used in all narrative art forms, but none more so than in magic.

We are all educated to strive for knowledge, to remove the mystery from our lives and seek explanations. Having knowledge is rewarded in life, and we are conditioned to favour knowledge over mystery as soon as we go to school. Every problem has an answer, is the adagio of our society.

This striving for knowledge is the reason that magic as a theatre form can be frustrating to people. We are used to possessing knowledge and in contemporary society, knowledge is more democratised than ever before. We no longer tolerate mystery in our lives. Max Weber called this the Entzauberung (disenchantment) of our world.

When people see a magic performance and have absolutely no idea how the trick works, they sometimes just call out whatever solution enters their mind. Magician Tommy Wonder wrote beautifully about this. Finding a solution, no matter how improbable, reduces their cognitive dissonance. This state of mind is a tension created in the spectator’s psyche, caused by the mystery they are confronted with.

I recently performed a magic show for a group of children where this issue was beautifully illustrated. The oldest boy in the group, he was about ten years old, came to me before the show and said:

Are you the magician? … Magic is all fake isn’t it?

I was a bit taken back by his direct approach and replied:

But it is fun isn’t it?

During the show, he was always ready to point out that he knew how the trick was done. He was trying to reduce his cognitive dissonance and also showing the other kids that he was smarter than me.

One of the most difficult aspects of performing magic is not producing the actual effect—anyone with enough stamina can learn the most complicated sleight of hand. The art of magic is in the presentation and contemporary magic also ensuring that the spectator does not leave with a feeling of frustration. I have therefore constructed my magic show for children so that the focus is not on the mystery, but on what happens before and in many cases I act as surprised as they are.

It is the task of the storyteller—and magicians are also storytellers—to let the spectator experience mystery without increasing their cognitive dissonance. This challenge is the key to making magic entertaining.

The Linking Rings of Hanoi

The Linking Rings are an amazing pieces of magic. A linking routine is a ballet of rings and only needs a minimal amount of monologue. As a work of performance art, linking rings remind me of Bach’s Die Kunst der Fuge, a repetitive, multi-layered string of magical actions. The linking rings are a ballet of sounds and shapes, which is beautifully expressed in Vernon’s Symphony of the Rings. The rings speak for themselves and the sound of the rings touching each other provides a perfect sound scape for the illusion.

Strolling along the beautiful Hoan Kiem Lake in Hanoi we met a group of Vietnamese students who were interviewing foreigners to practice their English as part of a university assignment. They asked us about our experiences with being in a different culture. After the interview I performed one of my Linking Rings routines for them.

I believe that the Linking Rings are the ultimate magic trick. Although the method is easy, the deceptive qualities of a well-constructed routine is very high. I once performed trick and the spectator said: “I bought this trick in a toy store, but my rings can’t do what yours do”. This is a fascinating comment because the methodology of all linking rings routines is essentially the same. The reason he did not recognise his own rings in my routine is because the intricate choreography that adds to the deceptive quality of this classic magic trick.

And because I love this routine so much, here is a different rendering at the Suq in Luxor, Egypt:

The end of magic?

discoverieI have recently purchased a facsimile copy of Reginald Scott’s The Discoverie of Witchcraft (originally published in 1584). This is an important book in the history of Western civilisation as it is the first ever book in which methods for creating magic are explained. This might seem an overstatement, as magic is nowadays a trivialised from of theatre which barely has any influence on the way we think.

Scott’s book is important because it was the first time somebody openly challenged the belief in witchcraft and supernatural powers by exposing conjuring methods. The book contains some interesting magic; there are pictures of trick knives that make it seem like you are cutting your nose or finger. The picture on the left shows a contraption used to create the illusion of somebody’s head being severed. There is also a description of a Magic Colouring Book, which is still used in children’s magic shows and many other tricks still performed by contemporary magicians.

The book was published in the Renaissance, a period which heralded Western culture as we know it today. Although many people see the renaissance as a period where Europe emerged from the Dark Ages, some do not see this as a positive development. Dutch historian Johan Huizinga, for example, questioned whether the renaissance was a positive change and argued that it was a period of decline from the High Middle Ages, destroying much that was important.

One of the important cultural phenomena that was destroyed was the sense of magic commonplace in humanity. The Discoverie of Witchcraft illustrates helped this development by dispelling magic as tricks. It might seem strange for an engineer/philosopher like myself to argue that dispelling a belief in magic would not be a good thing. Magic is, however, more than a simplistic belief in supernatural forces that control our lives.

Read more about the end of magic in: Perspectives on Magic: A book about scientific views of conjuring

Read more about the end of magic in: Perspectives on Magic: A book about scientific views of conjuring

Magicians have been part of human civilisation for as long as there are records—and possibly as long as human culture exists. There are many anthropological accounts of medicine men and shamans using conjuring skills as part of their healing and rituals. Most magic history books interpret this use of sleight of hand as an attempt by the shaman to obtain power mischievously. But there is much more to magic than one person gaining power over others. Magic is a means to understand our position in nature. Although some might argue that magic has been wiped from contemporary culture, it has never actually disappeared from our psyche.

Simple acts, such as writing your name on a wall are in fact magical. To some this is a simple act of vandalism, but that is not the real motivation for people to do this. Writing your name on a wall makes the wall becomes an extension of yourself and you become part of the wall. It is a way to exert our self onto the world. This is I think the deeper psychological reason for the popularity of tagging. Tagging is a way to impart part of your self onto the environment in which you live. This is in essence an act of magic because it is a way to connect the inner world (psychology) with physical reality. There is no rational reason to write your name on a wall

There are many more examples of non-rational behaviour; why do we prefer one brand over another? Why we choose one political party or football team over another? When analysing motivations in every day choices we see that people often cross the horizon of reason and this is the realm of magical thinking. Magic, as a psychological force, is still alive and kicking in a hyper-modern world.

Read more about the future of magic in my book Perspectives on Magic.

From Shaman to Showman: The origins of the theatrical magician

From Shaman to Showman: The origins of the theatrical magicianEarlier this month, I attended the Centenary Convention of the Australian Society of Magicians. This convention has reignited my passion for performing magic, albeit in a different direction.

The amazing Jeff McBride used the phrase “from shaman to showman” several times during his performances and lecture. The shaman, or medicine man, used to perform a central function in prehistoric and primal cultures and incorporated the philosopher, healer and entertainer. In contemporary culture, these functions have, however, been separated and the philosopher, healer and entertainer are different people and the magician usually only functions as the entertainer, working for children, performing close-up in restaurants or more traditional stage acts.1

Performing magic can be a powerful experience for the spectator as well as the magician and is, in McBride’s words, a “mood altering device”. Experiencing well crafted magic releases positive chemicals in the brain and magic becomes, following Eugene Burger, a way of transcending the human condition, even if it is only for a fleeting moment. In this way the magician becomes a healer.

The magician becomes philosopher by providing meaningful context to the magical experience. The philosophy expressed by performing magic is not about providing a solution to the life’s problems. In magical thinking the world is not a problem to be solved, but a mystery to be experienced. By providing the spectator with a sense of mystery, magicians can integrate the philosopher back into their performances.

  1. Kirby, E. T. (1974). The shamanistic origins of popular entertainments. The Drama Review: TDR, 18(1), 5–15. 

Magic and Philosophy

Magic in the seventies - not yet aware of magic philosophy.For as long as I can remember, performing magic has been a part of my life. To be more precise, I am an occasional conjurer and use sleight-of-hand and other forms of deception to feign being a real magician. I started adding magic to my life as a schoolboy in the Netherlands, devouring books from the local library and collecting magic sets from the toy shop, attempting to amaze friends and family.

When I started a degree in philosophy, I became disillusioned with magic as an art form. I was no longer able to see the meaning of conjuring beyond the trickery and clichés employed by magicians. Much of magic has a “look at me” aspect and can be an egocentric performance art, without not much intellectual depth.

It was only years later that I realised that my interest in philosophy was strongly related to my interest in magic and that magic is an inherently philosophical performance art. Some of the books on the history of magic I read years earlier describe the connection between magic tricks and divination and other esoteric practices. I began to realise that the ancient shaman, the tribal philosopher, was also a conjurer, a master of sleight-of-hand.

Magic Philosophy

Both the magician and the philosopher have arisen from the same archetypical and historical figure of the shaman. The anthropological record shows that shamans use technical and psychological principles, similar to those used by contemporary stage magicians, to aid their spiritual work.1

I became interested in philosophy as a teenager by reading books about the history of magic that refer to the shamanistic origins of the craft. Snowballing my way through literature, I eventually stranded at philosophy itself—although somewhere along the way the connection between magic and philosophy was lost. My journey has gone full circle, and I am back at studying magic tricks, and this part of my website is dedicated to the quaint performance art.

  1. Collier, D. (1944). Conjuring among the Kiowa. Primitive Man, 17(3/4), 45–49. Hurt, W. R., & Howard, J. H. (1952). A Dakota conjuring ceremony. Southwestern Journal of Anthropology, 8(3), 286–296.