Do You Believe in Magic? An inside look at the art of deception
Author: Linda S. Hopkins
An ancient entertainment staple long before the emergence of moving pictures, cable TV or the World Wide Web, magic is making a comeback. Thanks to popular illusionists such as Criss Angel and David Blaine along with a host of magicians popping up on mainstream television shows such as America’s Got Talent and Penn and Teller’s Fool Us, a new fascination with an old art form is revolutionizing the world of modern wizardry.
Magic is doing the seemingly impossible for the entertainment and amazement of an audience and leaving them with no idea how you did it. Whether it is producing a quarter from behind a child’s ear, predicting a card selection, restoring a cut rope, breathing fire, escaping a straight jacket, levitating over a sidewalk or making a building disappear, the simplest to the most complex effect is only as “magical” as what the spectator believes.
The fraud of perception
The question on the tip of every tongue is, “How did he/she do that?” If you’ve ever watched a magician perform and walked away scratching your head, you may have spent the rest of the day—or the rest of your life—trying to figure out what you didn’t see. Chances are your best guess (it was up his sleeve, he had more than one, the deck is marked…) is nowhere close to the truth or the whole truth. “People will always come up with theories of how a trick is done, and the best magicians build this into their routines, ruling out potential explanations as they go,” said Georgie Kirk, whose website we-love-magic.co.uk is a primer for anyone with an interest in experiencing or creating magic.
Stephen Macknik, researcher at the Barrow Neurological Institute in Phoenix, Arizona suggests that magic is a more sophisticated mind game than you might imagine. He and his colleagues are seeking to illuminate the mental loopholes that make us see a woman get sawed in half or a rabbit appear out of thin air, even when we know such events are impossible.
“Tricks work because magicians know, at an intuitive level, how we look at the world,” Macknik said. “Even when we know we’re going to be tricked, we still can’t see it, which suggests that magicians are fooling the mind at a very deep level.”
Most modern-day magicians are happy to see the media focus and renewed interest in their art; however, they point out some differences in what is possible to perform before a live audience vs. what can be produced for the screen. While all magic tricks require a level of deception, certain illusions are dependent upon staging, lighting, camera angles and special effects and cannot be duplicated impromptu. Spoiler alert: If you happen to run into David Copperfield on the streets of New York, he will not be able to disappear the Statue of Liberty or fly on demand, nor will Criss Angel be able to levitate over the airport in Las Vegas without a crane, wires and a fake audience.
“Don’t compare a live performer to a magician on TV,” said local professional magician Gary Maurer. “On TV, you only see what the camera allows you to see,” he explained. (Yes, some acts which appear to be filmed live are pre-arranged and/or pre-recorded with multiple takes and plenty of digital editing.)
Maurer also pointed out that the current generation has grown up with special effects, which may further blur the lines of reality and inflate expectations. Still, day after day, he stuns live audiences of all ages with a variety of mind-blowing tricks that leave them believing in the magic of the moment.
“The difference in a live performance is that you get to experience the whole thing,” Maurer said. Using an example of a simple trick performed with balls that seemingly multiply in the spectator’s hands, he added, “If you see it on a screen, you can’t be sure it’s ‘real.’ But if it happens to you live, you will believe.”
How to know good magic when you see it
Many of the magic acts you see performed on television are variations of standard effects that have been around for centuries, and magicians and students of magic will immediately recognize the modus operandi. This is not to say that the performers are not talented. They are, because knowing the mechanics of the trick is entirely different from being able to pull it off flawlessly.
Some magic effects rely on props that are virtually self-working. Anyone can walk into a magic store or visit an online magic site, purchase a variety of gimmicks and learn a few tricks of the trade. This can, in fact, be a good way to get started. But what elevates the performance, lends the “wow” factor and bumps up believability is the magician’s technical skill combined with acting ability and persona.
Magicians who compete for national and international titles are judged on stringent criteria, and a tremendous amount of time and energy goes into choreographing, scripting and perfecting every nuance. The quality of the act is not based entirely on the difficulty of the trick, but on how well the techniques are executed.
Any performing magician you encounter has likely spent countless hours—or a lifetime—conceptualizing, developing, practicing and finessing his or her act, infusing it with passion and personality. You might see multiple magicians do a similar trick, but each one will impart his or her own style and way of interacting with the audience, which is what keeps it all interesting.
Bottom line? “If you walk away and can say that you were entertained, you have seen a good magic act,” Maurer said. And that is every magician’s challenge and delight: to captivate the imagination and generate joy.
Don’t ask, don’t tell
While magicians are sworn to secrecy (they actually take an oath not to reveal how the trick is done except to a fellow magician or student of magic), in today’s world of instant video, you are quite likely to succeed in finding an explanation of the effect that bedazzled you. But beware! According to Maurer, “YouTube is possibly the worst place to learn magic, because many amateurs are teaching improper technique.” If you sincerely want to learn, he suggests reading books and watching videos written and produced by professional magicians and/or joining a local magic club, where you can interact with experienced magicians who will teach you the basics or help you advance your skills. With practice, practice and more practice, you may be able to pull off a few tricks of your own.
If you have no interest in learning to perform magic, resist slinking around the Internet and possibly spoiling your own fun. Perhaps the greatest trick of all is the suspension of disbelief. Next time you see a magic show, sit back, relax and let your mind go along for the ride. You know you’re being deceived, but so what?
Real magic is a miracle you choose to believe.
Linda S. Hopkins has been known to keep company with a certain mysterious conjurer who also masquerades as her husband. The couple has recently returned from the Blackpool Magic Festival, the world’s largest magic convention, held in Blackpool, England, where they mingled with approximately 3,600 wizards and wannabes, attending demonstrations, lectures and gala shows featuring the world’s most talented magicians and rising stars. Although now privy to many inside secrets, Hopkins says she still chooses to believe in magic.
Magic in the Lowcountry: Join the Club
Many magicians get started, expand their magic repertoire or boost their careers by joining a local magic club. The International Brotherhood of Magicians (IBM), one of the largest magic organizations in the world, has a “ring” right here in the Lowcountry: The Society of Lowcountry Magicians, Ring #349. Local club members, which include professional working magicians, retired magicians, and internationally renowned judges of magic as well as area hobbyists and amateur performers, meet the first Monday of each month at Lord of Life Lutheran Church in Bluffton to talk magic, show off their latest tricks, pass along techniques and share performance tips. For more information, to attend a meeting or join the club, call Gary Maurer at (843) 815-7708.