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And for our next trick…

June 11, 2009

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.

  1. Well written. I agree completely. As you know, I’m all for a spectacle movie on occasion, but if they are all like that, it will become tiresome, and quickly.

    I love learning how effects are done, because that is my passion, but at the same time, it’s sad that I can guess how almost every shot was done, and I even find myself examining the CG when I should be engrossed in the story.

  2. Loved this post. I too was really into magic as a kid and I attribute my interest in film and vfx to that childhood fascination. And I definitely agree that awesome *feeling* of being truly awed by something (and having no idea how it was done) is becoming rare in films and filmmaking. Audiences become less enraptured and more dismissive. Like you say, “oh, computers.”

    It’s interesting that as visual effects become more and more invisible (as in convincing), audiences are becoming more and more aware of them.

    Anyhow, I hope you’re right– I hope we’re moving generally away from spectacle, of visual effects for the sake of visual effects, and moving more towards the use of visual effects as storytelling tools…

  3. John K permalink

    Great post and I completely agree with you. People aren’t fooled anymore. When Superman flew for the first time it was amazing because nothing like that was seen before, but when he flew again in Superman Returns we had seen it before, knew how it was done, and wasn’t that interesting.

    I think a big problem is we are relying on the visual effects too much to tell the story when the story should tell itself. The visual effects should rarely be in the forefront leading the story. A story isn’t a series of vfx shots linked together by dialogue. Of course, there are movies that will be, and need to be, vfx heavy, but the story also must be compelling to draw the audience in.

    Bottom line is, as you said, people just aren’t drawn in by the visuals alone. They need a reason to be drawn to the visuals. They need emotion.

  4. One part of me wants to agree with you, but a bigger part of me is such a VFX geek that I will buy movies I do not like if the DVD has extras covering the visual effects.

    However, I wouldn’t mind having to seek this information up, so if I had to join a VFX equivalent of the Magic Circle to get that info, and hide it from Joe Public, I’d do it in heartbeat.

    But, yes, we’re past the point of no return, as VFX are now an integral part of the marketing of VFX heavy movies. It’s kind of sad, but it’s doubtful if I’ll be losing any sleep over it.

  5. Wow, crazy, sounds like our upbringings and foray into filmmaking are damn near identical. It started out as magic with me too, and I still love that sense of creating an illusion. Great post, I’m sharing this on Facebook 🙂

  6. sorry to contact u this way. can you email me? I am on an expensive adventure much like your RVD2 stuff and need some advice.



  7. King Kool permalink

    I hope I’m not the only person who’s interest in magic started WITH the Masked Magician, since he provided me with the small corpus of knowledge to want to learn more about it. When I knew nothing, I was dazzled, but it wasn’t until I had that tiny bit of understanding that I wanted to do it myself.

    I can’t really defend the Masked Magician past that, and I would never dream of revealing secrets myself, but that’s how I got started.

  8. All I can say is: I have never believed that CGI in live-action films should ever make a scene. Too often, lately, I have seen complicated shots or creations that scream “computer!” I know full well what computers can do. (I have worked with them for many years.) I am not impressed. Couple that with my extremely limited attention-span and I get bored quickly from that kind of computer-use.

    I feel computers can, however, enhance a scene. Yet in that sense, the scene must already exist.

    As for using behind-the-scenes stuff for the promo of a movie not yet released… where does this happen?

  9. Very interesting post. I was also into magic when i was younger, and i can definitely see the roots of that in creating a spectacle with film making, specifically VFX in my case.

    Interestingly, a close friend of mine never watches the behind the scenes, and i quote, “because it ruins the magic”.

    • Heh, speaking of people not wanting the magic ruined, when we did Ninja vs Ninja last summer, Leigh didn’t want to see anything until it was done. Even though she was part of the shooting and knows how it’s done, she refused to watch the cut before the effects were done, and didn’t even want to see finished screenshots.

      She would even freak out and cover her eyes if I had FCP open when she walked into my room 😛

  10. I started with magic as well. So let us not forget that 90% of magic is the performance. Just because an audience knows how something is done does not necessarily “spoil” it if you present it in a unique or creative way.

    The effects in Firefly, well, suck. But no one cares because the actors all believe it, and they believe it in a unique and funny way.

  11. Lisandro Di Marco permalink

    49 Hr Film Project : Hi,my name is Lisandro,actor, martial artist, magic enthusiast ,fan of your work. I would love to be of help. DM me.
    Hi michael I tried to send you this message on Twitter but some technical issue got in the way. My follower name is “Galaxyfighter”. I hope to hear from you. Good luck.

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