Saturday, November 05, 2005

On Stooges, Camera Tricks, and Strong Magic

In a comment to my last post, Mike from The Wizards Ball remarked:

The key difference with [Cyril's] tricks and the Angel window stunt (and his levitations) is that half the spectators are not stooges. To my mind that is really lazy magic.

Notwithstanding the fact that, to my eyes and experience, almost none of the spectators in the Angel video are stooges (or need to be), I have to take issue with Mike's general point. I used to parrot the standard magical purist line, that using stooges is somehow "cheating," or "lazy magic." A related viewpoint with regards to magic on television, is that the use of camera tricks -- or what has euphemistically been referred to as "creative editing" -- is unacceptable to "real magicians."

I have now come to understand that all magic is cheating; in fact, a pretty good definition of the magical arts (with apologies to Darwin Ortiz), would be the judicious and subtle use of cheating to create the illusion of impossibility. If you're a magician, cheating is your job! Assuming you accept that premise (and if you don't you're going to have trouble with that "illusion of impossibility" thing), it becomes obviously silly to try to make some determination about what is and is not acceptable cheating.

As far as I'm concerned, anything is permissible as long as it helps create the illusion of impossibility. Camera trickery, stooges, an entire fake set -- everything is okay as long as it contributes to the power and believability of the illusion. The great mentalist Ted Annemann once said (I'm paraphrasing), "If you need to use nine stooges to fool a tenth person, then go right ahead."

"But," he added, "it had better be one hell of a trick."

This brings up a more serious concern with the use of stooges and creative editing; there is an increasing risk that your audience will catch on and cease to trust you. Ironically, even though they know you are cheating to create the illusion, if they catch you, or even suspect you, you're dead in the water as far as your effectiveness goes.

The risk that my audience might lose faith in me is one reason why I never use camera trickery; the other reason is that I never perform on TV.


Mike said...

I think that by the end of this post you've pretty much come round to why I am disturbed re stooges & editing.

On the point re Angel I could be wrong but I think the guys holding the paper have to be in on the window stunt as well as the person inside ( add to the fact that this just looks like a disused office space). On the levitation stunts there are a number of times when ( using the icarus type effect) the angles for some of the spectators are just wrong and there is also obvious wirework in there as well which the spectators standing 10 feet away would see.

But back to the main point re lazy magic. My feeling is that you have to be trying to do tv magic as if it was in the real world and, once the vast majority of the specs are stooges or editing comes to play you are not in the real world. If anyone catches on to this approach, you're busted.

The tv magician I mentioned in my post at the Wizards Ball had a terrible time with this. He once did a trick where he had a tv set in the studio with a pre-recorded piece from himself on it. It was a really clever idea where, with suitable timing he was able to hold a two-way conversation with the recorded version of himself. At one point the tv recorded version hands the "live" version an object ( done by judicious palming). I thought it was a great trick. The viewing public were not so impressed,misunderstood entirely, and thought the whole thing was down to camera trickery. It gave David a terrible time as they started labelling every unexplainable trick as camera trickery.

Now he didn't really use camera tricks at all but still suffered; If word got out today that tv magic was just one big special effect (or that none of the people involved in the trick were real) then that could be the end of the road for tv magic. The question is them whaty kind of affect that would have on the working pro's out in the real world.

PeaceLove said...

Thanks for the long comment! I don't think the folks holding the paper need to be stooges, although given the budgetary and time constraints of making a TV show there are obvious advantages to having your friends do the holding and reacting.

I have no trouble with accepting different behind-the-scenes rules for TV magic and live magic. The ONLY issue, for me, is whether or not you risk blowing your credibility. This has nothing to do with ethics or "real world" morality; it's entirely practical.

I agree that the camera trickery issue is a slippery slope. On the other hand, I've always felt that magic on television is AT BEST a fraction as effective as magic done live. Given this disadvantage, you need all the help you can get to try to make your TV tricks as powerful as possible. Blaine figured out how to do this with close-up magic (do it over and over on the street to real people and show the best reactions you get) but I think it's much, much tougher with big illusions. These really need to be experienced live, in my opinion.

Maybe magic on TV will always have a credibility problem, and maybe that's why, for the most part, no one but other magicians seems to particularly care about it.

Jeff said...

People have always suspected "camera tricks" with magic on TV, way before computer graphics were easily available to create anything. The whole concept of doing tricks outdoors is to show, without saying so, that it's really happening and not a camera trick.

But the audience is still pretty good at catching onto things that are fishy. The levitation at the end of the first Blaine special, while spectacular, is the first thing people would mention to me as a "camera trick" when they talked about it. In Blaine's case, the rest of the special was so good, and Blaine was so charismatic, that they forgave him for that one.

I guess that means that if most of your TV special can actually be accomplished live, and you toss in one or two moments like that, you don't lose credibility, since the audience is already on your side.

PeaceLove said...

I'm not arguing FOR camera tricks; for the most part I think they're more of a risk than they are worth. With the first Blaine special, he showed the reactions of many different people to the levitation before he actually showed the levitation. I think that the rise he did was extremely strong, at least for many of his spectators. It would, however, be hard to convey that to an audience at home. So the "cheat" in a certain way conveyed the essence of the effect -- even though it showed a levitation that was in fact impossible.

Given the choice, I'd still have preferred if Blaine hadn't cheated, for the reason Jeff cites above. On the other hand, I don't have any TV specials and Blaine has had four.