Culture

When Seeing Isn't Believing

A long as we've had screens, magicians have used them to share their work, and audiences have questioned what they're seeing.

by Eric Thurm; illustrated by Daniel Zender
18 March 2019, 9:07am

This story appears in VICE Magazine's Truth and Lies Issue.

Ever since magic first started being shared on the big and small screens, its audience and its makers have grappled with what, exactly, they’re seeing.

In the first episode of Magic for Humans, the series that debuted on Netflix in August 2018, the host magician Justin Willman goes to a session of goat yoga, which ends with a photo op you probably wouldn’t see at even the weirdest, most Instagram-friendly class: He starts to levitate off the ground, with a goat still firmly planted on his back.

The goat yoga trick is representative of the gently satirical tone of Magic for Humans, in which the good-natured Willman does magic in between riffs on how technology complicates the human need for connection. (In one segment, he walks up to people outside a frozen yogurt shop, hands them a container of yogurt, asks them to pick a topping, and then spits the chosen food out of his mouth into the yogurt.)

Magic for Humans is quite endearing. It is also, for many self-identified magic obsessives, infuriating. Online conversations about the program are full of people complaining that the show is “faked.” No one is claiming that Willman is outright lying about floating with a goat. Instead, the posters accuse Magic for Humans of using “camera tricks”: deploying editing and filmmaking to create the illusion of an illusion.

A disclaimer precedes the first episode of Magic for Humans, clarifying that there are no camera tricks. (In a statement to Bustle about the online controversy surrounding the show, Willman again denied that Magic for Humans deployed them; Netflix representatives declined my requests for an interview with Willman or another member of the production.) But it’s not the only show that has tussled with how it presents magic to its audience. Several episodes of SyFy’s 2014–15 competition reality show Wizard Wars opened with the host, Ellen Fox, reminding the at-home audience that there were no camera tricks. Even David Copperfield’s famous 1983 Statue of Liberty disappearance was prefaced by such a statement. There was a small number of people there in person as a curtain rose in front of the statue, then dropped to reveal empty space, but the vast majority of the audience experienced Copperfield’s trick on television. “David’s magic is performed with absolutely no camera tricks,” a woman’s voice said. “The illusion you are watching at home is exactly the way he’s doing it now.”

Why is this insistence on magical authenticity such a big deal? You might think that editing and camera placement are merely additional tools to create a final effect—not better or worse than smoke, mirrors, and wires, just different. The reality is a bit more complicated: While editing magic is in some respects its own art form, the often-unspoken code around what magicians are and are not allowed to do on camera—and who gets to make the rules in the first place—can be quite strict.

Most early televised magic focused solely on translating a magician’s stage act to the screen. Take HBO’s 1979 special Abracadabra! It’s Magic, hosted by Dick Cavett. The special featured a series of magic performances showcasing some classic tricks: a woman being speared by swords, a series of riffs on three-card monte, levitation. But eventually, TV became the venue for bigger illusions like the Statue of Liberty disappearance, things that could only be done on TV. Popular TV magicians work within those bounds—David Blaine’s Street Magic requires an audience in an everyday location, while Criss Angel’s series Criss Angel Mindfreak used the more spectacular tools of TV production. All these approaches grew out of the central concept of magic: The audience knows something is happening to deceive them, they just can’t figure out what.

The problem of Magic for Humans might, in fact, have been that the magic was too implausible. Kyle Marlett, a magician who worked on Magic for Humans as a producer and consultant, described to me a televised magic “impossibility problem.” Though Marlett recalls working 18-hour days to prepare for some of the more complicated tricks on the show, it’s hard to translate that work to the screen. “If the trick is so clean and so amazing and so visual and does look like CGI, but there’s no explanation for it, or no way for you to try to guess how it works,” he says, “it’s too impossible. You immediately think it’s a camera trick.”

Why is this insistence on magical authenticity such a big deal? You might think that editing and camera placement are merely additional tools to create a final effect—not better or worse than smoke, mirrors, and wires, just different. The reality is a bit more complicated

Marlett notes that the issue is, in part, that viewers assume no one would actually spend 18 hours a day creating magic tricks. When he does mind-reading, you might think his target is a stooge who’s in on the trick, but “you might not know that I’ve secretly researched every audience member in the theater.” When he has a meeting with a producer or someone who might invest in one of his magic shows, “I might show up an hour early, load the table with fake saltshakers, and then leave and come back and blow their minds.” This level of preparation, which often includes elaborate props, tiny mechanisms inside household objects, and finely honed timing, is often responsible for what people interpret as “camera tricks.”

Instead, the question of when you can and cannot cut away from a trick depends largely on how much room the illusion gives the audience to guess at the secret. Rick Lax, a magician who has worked in TV for years and helped create Wizard Wars, gives the competing examples of a box trick and a straitjacket escape: In the former case, where something new appears in the box, cutting away from the trick introduces an obvious problem for the audience, that the object could simply have been placed inside the box between cuts. The straitjacket escape, however, would look boring in one long shot, and loses nothing from the momentum of fast-paced editing.

In some ways, figuring out the structure of filmed magic is even harder than live magic, precisely because of the camera. The journalist and magician Ian Frisch, the author of the new book Magic Is Dead, told me, “There are very basic sleight-of-hand moves that, if I’m doing them to you in front of your face, you’ll never be able to see them—but if a camera is set up a certain way with a certain angle, it’s going to be very obvious what I’m doing.”

Many magicians fear being spoiled by an edit; Marlett admits that he’s been caught once or twice by the camera, though he refuses to identify the offending tricks. Julius Dein, a social-media-famous magician with more than 5 million followers on Instagram, recalls an incident in which he performed a trick on Good Morning Britain in which hundreds of thousands of viewers saw a piece of string attached to the pair of glasses he was levitating. Though it was an unfortunate professional gaffe, Dein laughs remembering the scope of the fallout: “Some people said they might have seen me use a string. Now, there was no proof of that—you can’t see it on the TV show—but lots of different press outlets covered that situation.”

Of course, there are certain things you can do on TV that are impossible anywhere else, most obviously on scripted shows. Consider Now You See Me, the 2013 Louis Leterrier magic-heist film in which magicians played by Jesse Eisenberg, Isla Fisher, Woody Harrelson, and Dave Franco steal a ridiculous amount of money from an insurance executive played by Michael Caine because they’re just that good at illusions (their hijinks continued in the movie’s sequel, Now You See Me 2, and a third is in the works). The magician David Kwong, who consulted on the first Now You See Me, describes this as an opportunity to widen the range of the possible in magic: Rather than using stage-based misdirection, “The audience is only looking where the camera is pointing.” Kwong recalls working within the frame on the film by using off-screen objects to help Morgan Freeman’s character miraculously perform tricks.

Kwong also helped create Deception, a short-lived ABC series in which a magician teams up with the FBI to solve crimes. In one episode, the show’s protagonist has to vanish from under a sheet, but the production team’s original pitch, which would have been revealed during the episode, was too similar to the way magicians typically do the trick. They ended up settling on a simpler method of disappearance, in which the character is quickly replaced with a mannequin. In this case, the viewer’s attention is again focused by the shot instead of the stage.

You can’t talk about the importance of camera placement in magic without bringing up one of the most infamous series ever filmed: Breaking the Magician’s Code, which originally aired on FOX from 1997 to 1998 and is currently streaming on Netflix in the US and other territories. In it, The X-Files’ Mitch Pileggi narrates the secrets of magic as performed by a masked man–slash–dime-store luchador nicknamed the Masked Magician. The first Masked Magician special drew 24.2 million viewers, but some magicians were less than thrilled about it; the Masked Magician, a.k.a. Val Valentino, was sued by several magicians for harming their livelihood, and became persona non grata in the tight-knit magic community. As Christen Gerhart, a magician and magic critic who appeared as one of the judges on Wizard Wars puts it, “That was helpful for the people that were involved in the show, but it’s one of those things where if you destroy the magic, you destroy the magic. And what do we all get out of that?”

The specials are silly as hell, but they highlight how much magic depends on perspective. The trick in which the magician plunges a bunch of swords into his assistant, trapped in a basket, is explained by a camera showing how the assistant dodges the swords. Magically interlocking rings appear miraculous until you can see the gap that allows them to fit together. A tiger only seems to materialize in a box if you’re square in front of the fake wall hiding it. One of Willman’s tricks, a mystically floating silver ball, is really a soup ladle with the handle hidden in his sleeve; seen from head-on, it looks like something out of Doctor Strange.

Though magicians have figured out how to film their own work, producers on other TV shows like Good Morning Britain often throw them under the bus, accidentally or otherwise. In Magic Is Dead, Frisch describes the ideal televised magic as “flashy, headline-grabbing, one-off illusions only seen on a screen, the concepts for which were approved by bigwig executives focused more on ratings than the quality of the magic being created,” as with Copperfield’s Statue of Liberty vanish or the aforementioned aggressively over-the-top series Mindfreak, which was commonly rumored to use stooges. In another passage, Frisch describes a friend’s difficult experience on America’s Got Talent, in which a last-minute production decision to move the location of the live audience totally derailed a planned escape.

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Live TV, which can be easily rewound to hunt for clues to the secret of a trick without leaving any room to edit out bad angles, is by far the most punishing venue for filmed magic. Kwong describes the drawbacks: “On television—and especially live TV—the frame is so tightly focused, people are looking at your every single movement.” From this perspective, the balancing act of filmed magic—an audience looking for the slightest crack in your illusion, cameras that are decidedly unforgiving in capturing your movements, producers who might ruin your careful preparation—seems cold and unforgiving.

For most televised magic, that difficulty is offset by a substantial amount of behind-the-scenes work done by consultants—magicians or magic-inclined people who act as, essentially, producers on live shows. As Frisch describes it in Magic Is Dead, “All big-time stage performers and TV personalities have a secret crew of illusion-savvy consultants helping them develop their routines.” This cottage industry is part of a long history of magicians using technicians, inventors, and other outside help to develop the infrastructure that goes into creating an illusion and a sense of authenticity in magic.

That sense of authenticity is, increasingly, migrating to a smaller screen. Lax, who frequently performs on Facebook in videos that garner millions of views, describes the ideal social media trick as being “hypervisual,” largely because the magician can’t assume that the viewer will have the sound on. (Frisch also uses the word “hypervisual” to describe social media magic.) Dein largely constructs Instagram tricks using the “rawness” of phone cameras without cuts or sound while assuming his audience won’t be watching for that long—most notable is a trick in which, on command in front of Drake, he transforms a lollipop to look like Batman.

But when it comes to Instagram magic, only the type of screen is new. Magic has long relied on celebrity, puffing up the legends of figures like Jean-Eugène Robert-Houdin, John Henry Anderson, and, of course, Houdini. The advent of television made it easier than ever for people to worship individual famous magicians. Nowadays, however, some older magicians say social media threatens to “expose” magic like the Masked Magician did. Magician Xavior Spade, whose popularity has exploded in part because of YouTube tutorials teaching any interested party how to do the basics, isn’t having it. “I can learn how to fix a car on YouTube, but my mechanic isn’t crying about business,” he says. “Gordon Ramsay gives free tutorials on how to cook, but his restaurants aren’t struggling. The problem isn’t that tutorials are being done, the problem is that a lot of magicians think that magic is theirs, that they own it. And they don’t.”

Though the live performance of magic occasionally feels like an odd fit for the screen, Spade positions it squarely as one of the many, many art forms democratized by TV and the internet. “There are some people who will never get to go to a magic convention and will never get to meet many of the people I’m introducing them to in these videos because of where they are in the world, or because of financial issues,” he says.

Gerhart explicitly connects the expansion of social media magic to a greater degree of inclusion for people who have historically been left out of the art form: “We’re now able to have new branches of magic with more women, and we’re able to include people who don’t really love card tricks, so it’s not just a deck of cards or a piece of rope or a top hat and a coat with doves hidden in it—it’s more. Magic can become whatever it is that that magician, or whatever that performer, wants it to be.”

And as the current titans of magic—Copperfield, Blaine, Penn and Teller—continue to age, the new crop of superstars is likely to come largely from social media. Spade points out that Shin Lim, a 27-year-old magician who appeared on Penn & Teller: Fool Us and recently won America’s Got Talent, learned how to do magic from YouTube.

In this light, the openness of Magic for Humans feels like an effort to capitalize on the aesthetic qualities common on or influenced by social media. The show frequently uses goofy graphics, slow zooms, and segments that appear heavily influenced by Tim & Eric. Even in its most mystifying moments, at least some of the reaction remains skeptical. But for some magicians, those attitudes are in constant, productive tension. As Marlett puts it, “Netflix licensed the show exposing magic, and then they produced a magic show.” And for all that magicians work to determine what is and isn’t acceptable in a filmed performance, the decision of what to believe is up to us.

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