Masters of cinema, such as Georges Méliès and Orson Welles, were also master magicians. Magicians are storytellers that harness the science and art of constructing captivating illusions. And storytellers have the ability to leverage these secrets of magic when creating all forms of content.
My experience with magic began in preschool. I learned firsthand both the thrill of watching the impossible become possible, as well as the thrill of understanding how it can be done. My grandfather is Henry Gordon, an acclaimed magician and debunker whose career spanned over thirty years and is a fascinating story in and of itself. He appeared on various media platforms, such as a range of CBC programs, through to The Oprah Winfrey Show. He often performed or taught the art of magic, or unapologetically debunked those using it to take advantage of people. He authored regular articles for publications such as the Toronto Star, as well as multiple books. And he would lecture for those fully immersed in the skeptic and magic communities, including at the iconic Magic Castle—the private clubhouse of The Academy of Magical Arts, in Hollywood.
It is at The Magic Castle where I met David Kwong a few years ago. Kwong is arguably the most influential magician when it comes to applying the art of magic to a range of current on-screen stories. He was involved in developing the film Now You See Me, and applied his insights as a magician and puzzle creator to TV series such as Blindspot and Deception (which he also produced), and films such as The Imitation Game and Ant-Man.
But at the root of it all, what is magic? Kwong explains: “What the audience experiences when watching a magician is magic.”
Here is how storytellers creating film, television or even short-form digital content can captivate audiences, using magicians’ insights.
Control the narrative
“The number one thing about a successful magic show, and a successful illusion, is the ability for the performer to control the narrative,” explains Kwong.
Let’s elaborate on this by highlighting that a magic show is not a series of tricks. It is a combination of stories that have the power to create unique, meaningful and unforgettable illusions. Therefore, narrative and the magician’s ability to seemingly effortlessly control it is the most essential part of a performance. David Copperfield is as much a master storyteller as he is a grand illusionist. Harry Houdini was a maestro of building suspense on stage, appearing to struggle with his escapes even while he had already secretly unshackled himself.
Magicians know that regardless of the nature of the story, whether it takes place in a supernatural world, or one that mirrors current life, the story must maintain a plausible narrative. In my grandfather’s autobiography Henry Gordon’s World of Magic, he explains that “it is important when presenting magic to appear to be shattering the laws of nature. But the audience should be allowed a psychological out, some sort of possible explanation for the effect, even if it is incorrect.” This avoids any disruption to the audience’s immersion in the story.
Kwong applies his knowledge of the art of magic at multiple stages in a production. For example, at the story development stage, he is “able to help writers craft the story that can control what audiences are expecting and paying attention to, and then subverting that.” He advises on more than just hit films and TV series that involve magic in the plot. He explains, “I advise on a lot of action movies where the director wants a clever illusion to the fight scene or the heist scene…because I possess some insights into this special world of misdirection and manipulation.” He even advised on a clever way for the heroes of Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation to sneak into the opera house with concealed weapons. Why spend money on costly post-production effects when an expert on magic can create the story’s illusion live?
“I think a good puzzle operates much like a magic trick,” explains Kwong, who also creates puzzles for The New York Times, Los Angeles Times, and The Wall Street Journal. “There is misdirection and a twist to make the solver think something else is going on, and then a reveal at the end. That ‘aha moment’ of what was going on the whole time. Of course, in magic, we don’t want you to arrive at the solution, but the process of leading your audience on a small journey is the same. Puzzle-making is the art of controlling what your audience experiences, just like magic, just like storytelling.”
When developing puzzles, it is important to ensure the puzzles will engage but not confuse audiences in a manner that would distract them from the story playing out. Gordon wrote, “You are attempting to fool an audience and to entertain them at the same time.”
Puzzle development can be used to develop the overall story plot and the complexity of a character’s perspective. Well-constructed puzzles in storylines can generate a sense of interaction with the story, even when an audience is simply watching the content on screen.
Give audiences the sense of interaction
“A puzzle engages your audience directly to work out the solution. And a good story does the same thing,” says Kwong, adding that it “might not explicitly pose a mystery to the viewer, but if the plot is engaging, it will activate the viewer’s innate desire for completion, the emotional conclusion to the story. The key to being a good storyteller is commanding your audience’s attention and experience, whether it be through the movement of a camera, the reveal of a playing card, or creating an aha moment in a puzzle.”
“The best movies are ones that give the audience agency to figure out what is going on.”
Kwong’s latest live show The Enigmatist offers his trademark blend of puzzles and magic, allowing him to do magic with people, not at people. This feeling of interaction can be offered through on-screen content as well. He feels that “the best movies are ones that give the audience agency to figure out what is going on, and experience things actively instead of just being told what is happening.” The same can be said for all forms of linear works. This can be done by integrating “keys” to the answer in the story, in script, camera angles, audio, and even physically integrating “keys” into the set of the scene at a time when the audience’s attention is directed elsewhere. Kwong explains that that “makes it more fun for everybody at the end… when the audience realizes that they are smart enough to have figured it out if they knew what to look for… but the writer, the magician, the performer was even smarter and… was one step ahead of them the whole time.”
Create On- and Off-Beats
Magicians and directors use tricks to direct audiences’ attention. The art of misdirection is essential for magicians to master.
“We have on-beats and off-beats in magic,” explains Kwong. “It’s all about controlling the frame. You grab a glass of water, or you brush some lint off our sleeve, or you tell a joke, or you’re relaxing your posture and looking away from the table… The off-beat is when all the [secret] moves happen.” In linear content, the off-beat could represent a key being integrated into the story.
“We have on-beats and off-beats in magic. It’s all about controlling the frame.”
An off-beat can also be created through cognitive misdirection. For example, a magician’s narrative may overwhelms the audience with an emotion such as joy, sadness, disgust or fear. The emotion can range from being fearful of something horrific to being fearful of missing some action. Comedy is often used to create moments of levity in storylines and magic shows.
In Kwong’s performances, there are moments when he tells a joke to elicit laughter while grabbing a secret object. “It’s very hard for an audience to think critically when they are laughing,” says Kwong. “It’s the perfect time to execute a little bit of subterfuge.”
It is important to also highlight that not all misdirection is good for the narrative, even if it helps to create an off-beat to cover up a key. Kwong explains that “a bad example of misdirection is if I’m performing on stage, I have my assistant come out and drop a platter full of pots and pans on the stage…That’s bad because it breaks the narrative. It interrupts what’s going on. But if you can give the audience something of interest that works seamlessly within the story you’re already telling, that’s the perfect misdirection.” An example of poor misdirection in a film is a jump scare.
Raymond Joseph Teller of the iconic magic duo Penn & Teller has said, “The core of a successful trick is an interesting and beautiful idea…that taps into something that you would like to have happen.” The example he used to explain this is turning water into cascades of money. Transformation—when someone or something is changed into someone or something else—is just one of the many effects that magicians create.
Narrative is more important than the effects themselves, but the type of possible effects are still valuable for content creators to understand. This is because the effects relate to the impossibilities that magicians’ stories are based on, ranging from invisible transposition of people or objects, to the ability for a magician to take physical control of someone or something. There are countless methods to produce them, across all forms of magic, but once storytellers understand what effects have been engaging audiences for centuries, the effects can prove to be possible inspirations for overall plots or characters’ physical or mental abilities.
To learn more about the classic effects of magicians, you can explore the 19 basic effects that Dariel Fitzkee shared in the 1940s.