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The magician and the camera

Published March 15. 2014 09:00AM

If you have ever seen a live magic performance, perhaps at a birthday party, on a stage or close-up in a restaurant by a skilled performer, it should have created a sense of wonder or awe. After all, that is the purpose of magic to create a sense of astonishment in the minds of those watching the magician seemingly bend the laws of nature to his or her will.

The important feature of a traditional magic performance is that it is there in your face, so to speak. There is no denying when the magician changes an indifferent card into your selection that the magic has occurred. When the magician lays four coins at the corners of a mat on the table and with a flick of the palms causes them to travel to one of the corners, one coin at a time, most people will swear the magic occurred right in front of them.

This feat becomes much more complicated when the indirect nature of television is introduced to the art form. Unlike music, which can be performed and translated in a variety of mediums, magic needs much more care to be performed in different mediums, especially those that remove the live performance from the equation. Why? It is because without the live performance, the television camera introduces a complexity and a scapegoat into the art.

Granted, magic specials are not what they once were, but in the golden days of modern television magic, performers were very careful to inform the audience that the show was being filmed in one continuous shot with no edits.

When it came to big illusions, the television magician specifically pointed out to the home viewing audience that what they were about to see was going to be performed with no edits and no cutaways from the effect. This was to impress upon the home viewer that what they were witnessing was exactly what the audience member in the theater was seeing.

I have performed on local television programs on a very small scale over the years, and my personal belief is that magic performed on television should be able to be performed for an audience live. If I cannot perform the same effect for you in person, then I believe that I should not be using television's features to pull off the effect.

I have a similar philosophy on card magic. Most laypeople know about the trick decks that have been sold in department stores for years. They go by names like the "Stripper" deck and the "Svengali" deck or the "Mental Photography" deck. These are special decks of cards that allow the magician to perform specific effects.

I am not going to get into the effects here, but the one feature they have in common is the deck is gimmicked to make it easier to perform the effects.When I perform card magic for people, I personally decided a long time ago that I would only perform effects that could be done with a borrowed deck.

Why would I do that? Obviously that makes some magic much harder because I cannot rely on a gimmicked deck to perform an effect. I do this because I want to be able to perform whenever requested and it is poor form for a professed magician to say, "I would perform but I'm not prepared to do that card trick."

I do not want to be in that position, so the card magic I perform can be done anytime, anywhere, with anyone's playing cards. This ensures that I'm never caught without a "special deck" and I can always make magic with whatever is available. With that said, I will not say "never" to using a special deck of cards, but if I use it, it must have entertainment value and be unique enough that it catches people off-guard and entertains them more than puzzles them.

For example, one effect I do occasionally is called "Cardian Angel" in which a person thinks of a name and selects a card. As I riffle the backs, one of the angels flies off the bike and produces a playing card from the circle in flip book fashion. It is a delightfully entertaining effect, but one that a reasonable audience, I believe, recognizes is done with a special set of cards.

In contrast, I like doing most effects with a normal deck of cards. I perform a trick in which I produce the four aces from a shuffled pack or I tell a story about some burglars only to have the knaves assemble themselves in the middle of the pack. Those stories and effects can be performed with any borrowed deck. I think it is really important that my magical repertoire for the most part can be performed on demand with what is available. To me that is what makes a magician "magical."

This leads me back to the idea of the camera, television and magic. For years, magician Mark Wilson was a strong advocate of the position I believe in that magic on camera should be able to be performed live with no visible difference. Illusionist Jonathan Pendragon debated Wilson about this point. His belief was that if the camera could be used to advantage without the audience's knowledge, then this was allowable in his philosophy.

Both believed that the audience should be oblivious to the use of the camera in the effect, but Wilson was a purist in his belief the camera should play no role, while Pendragon's view saw no harm as long as the viewer was not aware of the deception.

Today's magicians have bent this precept further, and while most of them will still only perform effects on camera that can be performed live, more have beliefs closer to Pendragon, namely that if the audience is unaware of the camera's role, there is no harm done. Magic has always taken advantage of science and technology before the general public was aware of the advancements, but in this case, I still am purist and believe that if you cannot do the effect live, then you should not use technology to fake it for a magical camera effect.

What do you think?

Till next time …

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