Magic, Movies and Stories
Something interesting happened this week whilst I was watching one of this years biggest horror films “A Quiet Place”. It's a movie where monsters with hypersensitive hearing are hunting humans, so everyone has to live in silence. Naturally, most of the film is in silence. A few short minutes into watching the film, the worst thing possible happened… I sneezed!
Now, you may think this is a bit of an exaggeration (rightfully so!), but for just a second I feared for my life. My instant reaction was that the monsters are coming for me now that I had made a loud noise. It made me think about how just a few minutes earlier I was taking my seat and watching the adverts, and now I am actually fearful that monsters are hunting me down.
When we watch a fictional film, we are aware that what we are seeing is not real. It’s an artificial environment, with people pretending to be other people, doing things that we know are not real. However, within a few short minutes we completely give ourselves over to the lie. We quickly invest emotionally in the person that a few minutes ago we were aware is an actor; we suspend disbelief. When this person tells us that a ‘Zombie virus wiped out most of the world’, we involuntarily react emotionally to the very obvious lie. Magic is no different. When a magician tells people we can do things that are impossible, the natural reaction is ‘No… you can’t’. And they are right! We can’t! We are like the actors on TV; we are the zombie virus that they know is a lie. Yet somehow, just like TV and film, within a few short minutes they are reacting strongly to the very reality that they just rejected. How do we do this? Performing Magic, just like making films, is an art form. Directors and writers use pacing, storytelling, character and narrative to create such a strong suspension of disbelief that we are absorbed into the world that is being presented to us. As magicians we should use these exact same tools to manipulate the emotions of our audience so they give themselves over to the story that we are telling. When we swallow needles to retrieve them with thread, our audiences’ first reaction is to doubt that we are going to really swallow needles. If we use the strong imagery of placing the needles into the mouth, along with a narrative of how and why we are going this, and deliver the effect with the same confidence that Daniel Day-Lewis delivers his lines, then we will have the audience believe in the story and what we are telling them.
This of course doesn't mean that we have to bring our own lighting to our performances, take acting classes, hire scriptwriters, or even have a script. Some of the most impactul performances from actors and magicians alike are delivered through facial expressions and thought out movements, not through speech or patter. Hannibal lecter is most frightening when simply looking into the camera, speechless. Some of David Blaine's most impactful moments happen when simply looking the spectators in the eyes and biting a coin in two. As performers we could learn a great deal from watching classic performances and studying how all of these elements come together to bring the spectator into their world… their story.
Whilst doing research for this article, I was reminded of a memorable and entertaining magic performance by, strangely enough, Chris Pratt. Chris is a Hollywood mega star, starring in movies such as Jurassic World and Guardians of the Galaxy, but it appears that he is an amature magician. Chris Pratt performed a very simple card trick on the Graham Norton show, with Will.I.Am as the spectator. Most magicians may see this performance and cringe at both its simplicity and casual delivery. I for one was thrilled with how an amature magician could truly captivate a television audience, studio audience and fellow guests for over 6 minutes with something so simple.
How did Chris do this? Well, Pratt has been acting professionally for over 20 years. So when it came to play the part of an entertaining magician, he rose to the challenge. “You have to be very careful practicing in the dark arts. This is a whole new deck, I haven’t seen this deck, you haven’t shown me this deck.. Captivated yet?” Chris jokingly asked his guests whilst culling some key cards to the top of the deck. It appears that years of delivering scripts and scenes in movies, and learning to pause in the right places, for the right time, for comedic or dramatic affect allowed Pratt to deliver an entertaining performance.
Even if your routine doesn't have a set script, there is still a great deal of benefit to be had just by making some notes about the journey that you would like your spectators to experience during an effect. Successful movies put an equal amount of thought and care into the journey that the viewers experience on their way to the big ending of a film, than they do the actual ending itself. If David Fincher only cared about showing you what was in the box at the end of the film “Seven” and rushed the story up until that point, then we as viewers wouldn't share the same enthusiasm and shock as the writers and director intended. The story would fall flat, as we as viewers wouldn't have received the build up to make us care what was in the box.
So when we place a card box on the table, that is ultimately going to have the spectators signed card appear inside of it in a few minutes time, we should consider how we are going to tell the story, how we are going to make them care at the end of the trick that the card is in the box. We should build the story, and suspend the spectators disbelief before we get to the big magical ending.
Perhaps one of the arts that have a bigger challenge than magicians in creating suspension of disbelief is, arguably, Puppetry. These artists have a seemingly impossible challenge of creating the simulation of life; true magic. We are expected to not see the strings creating the illusion of movement within the character, or the apparent human with his arm half entangled within a pile of cloth and cardboard. Yet somehow, seemingly against all odds and logic, a simple puppet can have its own character, movements, mannerisms, fears and heart. Some of the greatest examples of humans completely suspending disbelief can be seen when simply observing an audience watching a puppet, be it a string puppet or hand puppet, in the hands of a master puppeteer.
What I find interesting about the seemingly impossible task of convincing a grown adult to believe that a pile of wool and cloth can be alive is that, in reality, it's surprisingly easy. As Jim Henson said:
“When I hear the art of puppetry discussed, I often feel frustrated in that it's one of those pure things that somehow becomes much less interesting when it is over discussed or analyzed.”
Perhaps the same thinking could be applied to discussing why spectators believe we can do real magic. As children we naturally believe in magic. Afterall, everything seemed like magic! In scale of amazement, peekaboo was one of the greatest illusions I have ever seen! One moment the room was empty, then the next, a woman appeared in the grandest of appearances. Now, as we get older we realise the world is not quite as magical as it first seemed. Suspension of disbelief becomes a rarity, only experienced when we voluntarily give ourselves over to something that allows us to experience that same sense of magic we experience every day as a child.
As magicians we encounter spectators who both voluntary and involuntary surrender themselves to believing in the magic. They either open themselves up, making an snap agreement with themselfs to go along with the performance and believe that they are witnessing actual magic, in the same way that a theater audience allows themselves to be absorbed into the world of the characters, sets and music; Or, they close up, seeing the strings on the puppet, seeing nothing other than Johnny Depp and not Captain Jack Sparrow. But even these spectators find themselves forced to suspend their disbelief when faced with what can only be described as a miracle. If you struggle with these spectators, if they are only seeing slight of hand and not magic, if they are not being sent back to that wonder of childhood, then take a second to imagine that same spectator being captivated by The Muppets, or feeling the heartbreak of a animated character on the screen, and remind yourself that everyone can suspend their disbelief when all elements of your performance allow them to do so.
Magic seems like a unique art. We simulate miracles, do the impossible and ask our audience to believe it (or at least entertain the idea), lie to the people who may or may not want to be lied to, and do so with complete confidence. Perhaps then, in this aspect, magic isn't a unique art. What we are asking of our audience and what we are trying to achieve isn't unique. In asking our spectators to believe we really bent a coin in our hands, we are doing no more than Christopher Reeve asking us to believe that he can fly around the world and reverse time. Perhaps by asking a spectator to believe that we can read their mind, we are asking no more of them than a puppeteer asking them to believe their marionette is alive. Allowing our spectators to suspend their disbelief isn't always a matter of bashing them with double lifts and color changes. It's also thinking about our performances, and exploring what we can take from other arts that are trying to reach the same goal. After all, the magic of peekaboo never left any of us.