Features Guest Column Published 8 January 2013

Screen Magic

Part of an occasional series of columns on magic and its methodology by Morgan and West.
Morgan and West

If you’re a magician working in the UK chances are the question you’ll have been asked most in recent years is not “can you make my wife disappear?” (although plenty of people do still ask this) but “can you do that thing that Dynamo did?”

In case you’re unaware Dynamo is a magician with a programme on digital television called Magician Impossible. He is young, cool, and urban, and works wonders on TV. Which is great obviously, but it’s important for audiences to recognise that TV magicians and working close-up magicians  don’t play by the same rules.

TV magicians have cameras, directors, budgets, editing suites, and post production facilities at their disposal. This is because, in many ways, doing magic on TV is much harder than performing it live. Allow us to dispel a myth: magic is not made harder by the fact you are performing it to someone close to you. If anything it’s much, much easier. If we are standing, deck of cards in hand, surrounded by a small group of people, and we are trying to execute a piece of sleight of hand, it’s far easier to keep track of where these people are looking at any given moment.

If we were to then take this same trick and perform it on to a stage to a hundred people, our task is now different. Of course we cannot keep track of where everyone is looking and what they are looking at, we cannot bide our time and  wait until an opportune moment. The rules have changed. Fortunately, the stage environment provides us with more tools; there’s more space, more things, to which we can direct the audience’s attention;  there are props and a set, objects behind which things can be conveniently hidden. The task may be harder, but at the same time our arsenal is wider.

When it comes to magic on television, the rules change again. Your audience is measured in millions rather than hundreds, who now have the ability to pause and rewind – a scary concept to any magician. There’s always going to be a small percentage who are willing to go through a performance frame-by-frame in order to try and work out what you’re doing. Every second of your act is under scrutiny and no matter how well you switch those cards, if it gets caught on camera people are going to see it. TV magicians therefore need to employ judicious use of camera angles and editing to cover up any potential give-aways.

It can be argued that this is ‘cheating’ (though this is a laughable concept when discussing magic tricks) because these techniques are not available to you when an audience watches you live.  The grand illusionist Franz Harary, who has made his name vanishing planes, space shuttles and the Taj Mahal (to name but a few) openly states that despite the huge scale of his illusions, they only work from very specific angles – which is where he places the camera. If you stood ten metres to either side, you wouldn’t get the same effect. Is this cheating? No. It simply means that he has decided who he is performing his trick is for – in this case a remote audience of viewers on television.

The magic that we perform on stage is also designed for a specific audience: those sat before us in the theatre. If you stood in the wings or at the back of the stage you’d see something very different. That doesn’t make our magic any less skilled than a close up magic act, it’s just that the constraints are different.

The same is true of a;; TV magic, from the kind that relies on a bit of judicious editing here and there to the kind that involves full blown post production and computer generated special effects. As magicians we tailor our performances appropriately. David Copperfield can fly around the stage in his own theatre in Las Vegas with appropriate lighting, smoke and audience positioning, or he can fly across the Grand Canyon with TV crews, Bonnie Tyler and no live audience whatsoever. Neither trick is more or less legitimate than the other.

And to answer the original question, no, we cannot do the things that Dynamo does, because we don’t do magic on TV. We are, however, very glad that Dynamo is doing the things he does, as good magic – performed with skill and invention on any medium – is a pleasure to watch and reflects well on us all.

Morgan and West will be hosting a Magical Menagerie at the Old Fire Station, Oxford, on 10th January 2013.

Magical Menagerie, Old Fire Station (Oxford)

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Morgan and West

Morgan & West are a duo of time-travelling magicians who have performed their magic shows all over the world. When not travelling through time and doing the impossible they enjoy theatre, circus, cookery, and drinking tea.

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