And for our next trick…
Like many people of my upper-middle class 1990s Californian upbringing, I ran through a number of hobbies/fads growing up in lieu of having friends. And amid the pogs, Tamagotchis, Nintendo systems, ventriloquism and yo-yos, I had a long period immersed in the world of magic.
Every time a magic show was on TV, I watched. Every time a variety show that had the possibility of including magic was on TV, I watched. I wanted to be the next David Copperfield, the next Lance Burton, the next famous illusionist.
Unfortunately, my parents couldn’t afford giant fans and levitating cars. I had to make do with decks of Bicycle cards and silver dollars. When it came to high school, and then especially college, I had to prioritize my time. My magic books went into boxes, and my skills first got rusty and then corroded completely.
But I never lost interest in the idea of showing the audience something amazing — or at least, creating the illusion of showing it to them. So it’s no wonder that filmmaking in general, and visual effects filmmaking in particular, captured my imagination. I like to think of myself as still working to fulfill my dream of being a big-time illusionist, but one of the screen instead of the stage.
The first cardinal rule of magic, as I imagine anyone in the world probably knows by now, is that you do not tell your audience how the trick is performed. Some magicians have broken this rule as part of their act, to varying effect and purpose — the Masked Magician does it just to be an asshole; Penn and Teller, while still assholes (in a lovable way), do it to make a point, usually about critical thinking and not taking things at face value. But most magicians have kept to the rule, for two reasons:
The first, obvious reason is that if you tell your audience how you do the trick, it’s not very much of a trick. They know what you’re doing and they can’t ignore the fact that they know what you’re doing. They may appreciate the skill involved in pulling it off smoothly, but they can’t get swept away in the illusion itself. You’ve spoiled your trick for them.
The second, less-obvious reason is that despite the countless magic tricks in existence today, big and small, they actually all rely on a small handful of fundamental principles. In giving away your trick, you’re also giving away a thousand or more other tricks that rely on the same kind of sleight or deceit.
Stage magicians don’t tell their audience how they do their tricks; and while the audience will ask “How did they do that?” for the most part they don’t actually want to know the answer. They like not knowing. They like feeling like they’ve experienced something real, even when they know that they haven’t.
Contrast this with us, the screen magicians, who in the past decade or so have developed the baffling habit of telling the audience how we do our tricks.
I don’t want to sound like I’m looking a gift horse in the mouth, here. If it weren’t for the availability of information on how these things are done, the willingness of even the big dogs in the industry to openly share the techniques and technology they develop, I wouldn’t be where I am today, nor likely to get where I’m going. I’m a huge supporter of fxguide and fxphd and Cinefex and other professional outlets of information. Let’s definitely share that information with each other, and with those who seek it out.
But I don’t like the fact that we continue to show the lay-audience, more and more, exactly when and exactly how we palmed the ace.
It’s not like we simply make that information available. If you want it badly enough you can find out how any magic trick in the world is done, and if you want to get into magic that’s the only way to do it. It’s not a closed system, and that’s fine.
But in stage magic, the audience has to take the effort to step behind the curtain. When it comes to screen magic, we’re just throwing the curtain open entirely.
Do “sneak peeks” at a film really need to show the giant bluescreens and explain what they’re for? Does it really help the film if the casual moviegoer is told, without asking, exactly how Rorschach’s mask was achieved? Or how complicated and astonishing Gollum is? As I keep saying, I’m all for sharing that information with those who are interested, but to use it to promote the film, to use it to create the interest, seems painfully backwards.
Unfortunately, I think we may have passed a point of no return in one sense. Even if we stop telling audiences how we’ve done it, they know the gist, and it’s a single word: computers. Even when it’s not computers, they will probably think it is. The mystery is blown, and I can’t think of any conceivable way to get it back.
But in another sense, it may not necessarily matter, because magic is the same way. The answer to how magic is done can also be boiled down to a single word: misdirection. The audience knows they’re being fooled. They know you’re going to make them look left when you’re doing something to the right. But they go with it. They want you to fool them, so much so that they can get angry if you blow it. They want to be fooled, however briefly, because they enjoy the sense of wonder.
I think movies have the potential to move into this realm. The audience is no longer interested in how the trick was done. They know how, in a general sense. What the audience cares about now is why.
If we react properly, this could actually be the best thing that has happened to this storytelling medium since the computer. For years now movies have steadily become louder, ever more superficial spectacles, competing in a kind of visual arms race to show the audience something they’ve never seen before. That will be the selling point, they seem to think. That will get the butts in seats.
But the audience has seen behind the curtain and become inured to the fact that literally anything is possible. They’re no longer impressed by “the impossible.” It’s merely sound and fury signifying nothing. They don’t care about what they see if it isn’t something that makes them feel.
They’ve seen that we can do it. Now, I believe, they want to see what we can do with it. Let’s not keep them waiting. We’ve got the spectacle out of our system, and now we can get back to the business of truly making magic.