Magic Blueprinting: Using MML for scripting routines

The history of magic and the history of language go hand in hand. Language started with verbal communication, supported by dance, painting and rituals. Ancient shamans passed their craft on to the next generation in this very same way, initiating their apprentices step by step through one-on-one instruction via words, dance, painting and ritual.

Writing as we know it first developed about 6,000 years ago in present day Iraq. From then on, people wrote about every aspect of their lives, including magic. But, no writing about how to perform magic has ever been found in ancient documents. It seems that the pact of secrecy between magicians prevented them from committing their knowledge in permanent form. It is interesting to note in this respect that magicians have always been at the forefront of technology when it comes to creating the illusion of magic. When it comes to explaining secrets, however, magicians are a lot more conservative. The first magic book was published more than five millennia after the invention of writing! Since then, writing has been used prolifically by magicians to teach each other about their secrets and  initiate new magicians.

The twentieth century brought new technologies and with new means of communication came new ways of teaching magic. In a span of only a few decades, magicians moved from books to video and now to DVD and on-line technologies to share their secret knowledge. This proliferation of technology in magic teaching has made it much easier to pass on knowledge, but also raises problems for the craft, as there is a fine line between teaching magic and blatant exposure of magic secrets.

Magic Blueprinting

The evolution of language is still ongoing and as our world becomes more complicated, people seek new ways to present knowledge beyond verbal communication and text. One of the most popular tools to communicate a series of actions over a period of time is ‘flowcharting’, a technique that was first used in 1921. This time, however, it took magicians only 87 years to adopt this new form of knowledge presentation, when Alvo Stockman developed the Magic Modelling Language, magic blueprinting.

Magic Blueprinting (MML). Click to enlarge.

Magic Blueprinting (MML). Click to enlarge.

Presenting a series of activities in a graphical way is used in many different disciplines and is known under many names. Some call it a flowchart, others an activity map or a process map, while marketers prefer the term service blueprinting. I use these maps in my non-magical professional work to outline processes and illustrate where improvements can be made. Some of the questions that can be asked when looking at a process map are: Are there too many steps? Are all steps necessary to reach the end goal? Is the right person taking this step? Where can this process go wrong? These are also relevant questions for a performer when developing a magical routine.

After reading Alvo’s pamphlet I immediately developed flowcharts for some of my favourite magic routines, such as A Card in Hand by Theodore Annemann (Annemann’s Card Magic, 1977). The magic blueprint for this routine does not strictly follow the specifications of MML 1.0. Firstly, the flow of the action is illustrated with lines between boxes, rather than the grid like appearance of MML, making it easier to follow the flow of action. Secondly, to distinguish between the actions of the performer and the spectator, so called ‘swimlines’ are used. These are the vertical lines across the diagram. Thirdly, the actions of the performer are separated in frontstage and backstage. Frontstage is that which the spectator is supposed to see, while backstage refers to any action, the ‘moves’ spectators are not supposed to see. Last, but not least, a fourth swimline is used for the monologue, forming a comprehensive blueprint of a magic routine.

The map shows that there are six steps in this routine from the frontstage magician point of view, while there are five steps where the spectator gets involved. The routine has one climax, which happens in the spectator’s hand. Last but not least, there are three backstage moments that require attention management.

The front-stage actions of the performer are what the spectator is supposed to see. In this particular routine, the performer needs six steps, including an introduction, to reach the end. A Climax Quotient of 1/6 seems very low, but the scripting and high involvement of the spectator help to increase tension towards the end. Other routines, such as the Chinese Linking Rings, have a very high Climax Quotient, as many magical effects happen in quick succession, but it is very hard in these type of routines to build up tension and they thus rely on rhythm, rather than scripting.

The spectator swim-line shows that he or she is heavily involved in the routine with an Interactivity factor of five. This routine is almost in perfect balance in that out of a total of eleven front stage actions, the spectator undertakes five, giving an Interactivity Ratio of 11/5 (45%).

The script has been added to the actual process map to show the relationship between words and actions. The words are like the audio track to the actions and serve a threefold purpose. The words are explanatory and support the actions. The words also aid in managing the spectator’s attention away from the backstage actions. Most importantly, the words build tension towards the unveiling of the card. I have borrowed this technique from Fred Kaps’ rendition of Homing Card, where with every failure the inner conflict of the performer becomes more intense, moving from surprise to confusion to embarrassment.

This routine has three backstage moments, which need to be kept outside the attention of the spectator. Using a magic blueprint helps to construct a routine to appropriately direct the spectator’s attention away from the backstage. In this example, the scripting is constructed in order to manage the spectator’s attention away from the backstage action.

Not every little movement is captured in this map. For example, as I say the words: “… use the top card”, I gesture with the top card to direct the spectator’s attention. This action does, however not show on the blueprint because it is a detail the spectator is not aware of. Small backstage actions are indicated in the script between straight brackets. This raised the question what the appropriate level of granularity in magic blueprints is.

As Dai Vernon once said, a routine needs to be simple and a spectator has to be able to remember the steps. Following this advice, looking at A Card in Hand from the spectator’s perspective, can be summarised as such:

I selected a card, it was mixed back in the deck, the magician gave me another card and it turned into the one I chose.

This sentence describes five of the eleven steps indicated on the blueprint. The granularity of the map, i.e. the size of the steps, needs to match the spectator’s experience of the routine. There might be more steps, but people usually forget the details of what happened in a magic routine. There is no need to have a box for each change of finger position, because the spectator will not be aware of such detail. When developing a magic blueprint, always keep the spectator’s perspective in mind.

I use process maps almost daily in my non magical professional work because they are a great way to display and analyse a process. For some reason, however, it never occurred to me to use this technique for scripting magic routines, until I stumbled across Alvo’s pamphlet on the Magic Modelling Language.

Magic blueprinting, as I prefer to call it, is a useful technique to work out the details of a routine. The maps help to visualise the logistics of the routine and can assist in designing the appropriate theatrical devices required to keep the backstage hidden from the spectators. Magic blueprints also help to see a routine from the spectator’s perspective, which really is the only perspective that matters.

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.