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.