“Visual magic tricks are killing magic. Now that is a bombshell I am dropping right here, right now!”
'Ben Williams came into the shop the other day and said these exact words. These words were something I never imagined him to say. We laughed as we thought it was a joke, but when Ben began to explain his point of view, we began to think he may have a point…' – Mark Henderson
Visual Magic Tricks are Killing Magic
I can already feel the backlash against this statement. So I will begin to explain my reasoning for this bold statement.
I was driving to work one day and thinking about the plethora of magic tricks that are released nowadays and how much emphasis is put on the ‘visual’ aspect of each magic trick sold. It seems the more visual the magic trick, the better the ad copy and description is received by the public. Initial interest in these products goes sky high and causes quite a stir within the magic community.
Magic has been given an amazing spotlight on TV over the past decade. Huge thanks must go to David Blaine, Derren Brown, Dynamo, Ben Hanlin, Barry and Stuart and Troy and their teams who collectively have inspired a generation of young magicians to learn the art form. There are a few problems that have arisen due to this explosion of interest in magic tricks.
Seeing is Believing
The world of magic is craving magic tricks that are more and more visual. For a street magic trick to be deemed as amazing street magic, it must be visual. The fashion is to show the moment of magic in all its glory. I don’t know whether this stems from the saying,
‘You have to see it to believe it.’
Surely you would think that seeing the magic happen would make it better, more impossible and ultimately a more magical experience for the spectators? I think though, that if you are doing something super visual you should follow some basic rules like, you should be able to hand them the object in question should they wish to check it, also the method should not really be the obvious answer, or if it is the most obvious method then this should be eliminated from the spectator’s mind be disproving it. By making all of your magic tricks as visual as possible you are robbing your spectators somewhat, rather than gifting them with something special.
By making our magic increasingly visual, you are removing more and more mystery from the spectator.
Mystery is the core product you are selling as a magician, why would you want to filter it out of your performance?
Magic only happens in the mind of a spectator. Your fingers are not magical, your wide eyed stare is not magical, magic is a feeling or experience that a spectator gets inside. If you show them the exact moment of magic and then take it away because it is heavily gimmicked and they cannot check anything then, the magic will be lost no matter how visual it is. Their belief kicks in when they feel the props and know that there is no trickery behind them. For example, if you perform the Kozlowski $100 Bill Switch then, you can instantly, with empty hands hand them a banknote that has literally changed in front of their eyes with no funny moves. They can see there is nothing hidden in your hands, they can feel the note and know there aren’t two stuck together or anything strange. This is the moment it becomes a true mystery and your spectators experience the feeling of magic. With gimmicked notes that you have to switch out, (depending on your performance and routine structure) a spectator will lose that feel of magic as soon as that banknote goes out of view. I will stress that this is not ALWAYS the case. With a careful look at how you structure your routine and patter, etc., for example if they have checked and were honestly 100% happy with the props you are using before the magic happens; then you may have a situation where the spectators are not questioning the props just after the magic. However, this is only achieved with great care and attention to detail with respect to your routine.
Remember though, just because your spectators have seen it does not mean they will ultimately believe it.
The Instant Access Generation
Another problem is that young aspiring magicians are being thrust into this world and learning magic tricks that are sold on visual appeal. The visual of each specific magic trick is the main selling point and not the performance.
The magic tricks are usually able to be performed instantly out of the pack with a gimmick that does all of the work. Either this or they watch a video on YouTube that teaches them how to make a prop or perform a magic trick.
These magic tricks may be visual, but they lack the teaching of how to make it magical and not just a clever prop that anyone could use. There is a distinct lack of tutorials that include performing advice and the real work on astonishing your spectators.
Not long ago you had to get someone to tutor, or coach you and read books with the odd VHS tape to help out. It was this method of passing secrets on that allowed all the finer details of why magic works to be shared. Now there is very little of this. Tricks are sold and it is up to the customer to make it magical for them. This is why a lot of people feel like the magic tricks are not amazing when they receive them. They see magicians getting huge reactions on a video demo for a product that is sold as easy to do and the gimmick does all the work for you yet they fail to get the same results, this is usually down to performance. This is one reason why visual magic tricks are killing magic. They may well be clever props and ideas, true, but they lack the relevant instruction to help make the student better at performing them.
Too Perfect Theory
There is a theory in magic called the Too Perfect Theory. This means that if the effect is too perfect it ceases to be magical. For example, if you had a signed playing card vanish and then reappear on the Moon. The spectator could look through a telescope to the surface of the moon and clearly see their playing card, with their signature written upon it. This would seem to be too perfect, your spectators will not truly believe their card is there, even though they can see it through a telescope. Even if they flew to the Moon to get it and it was there they would have to concoct a theory that the telescope was a fake telescope and you simply had someone fly up before them and place it there (which in all likelihood will be the exact method employed). If, however, it was a signed card that appeared inside a sealed envelope that has been in full view (but within reach) all the time it suddenly becomes more magical and more believable.
Visual magic tricks follow the same theory, I believe. You can make a trick too visual, so visual it just ceases to be believable as possible. I do understand that we as magicians are supposed to do the impossible, but, you want the spectators to be on that ride with you and carry the impossibility all the way through to the end. You do not want them to switch off and think,
‘well it must be a magic prop and I could do it too if I had that magic bottle’ (or whatever prop you are using).
Let's take a look at the pen through banknote. If you could push a pen slowly and 100% visually through a flat banknote so the spectator could see everything then, it would be un-mistakenly magical. But the props would need to be checked in order for the spectator to truly believe what they saw and conclude it was a magical experience for them. If you performed this miracle all a spectator would be thinking is that can’t be real, that cannot be a real banknote. If you had to, (even for a moment) take the note out of view to switch it then the magic would be lost. However, if you perform the version where you fold the note and the penetration happens under the cover of the fold. The spectator then cannot see the exact area or how it was penetrating the note then there is a lot of mystery clouding the routine. The spectators have a ‘blank’ they have to fill in themselves, ideas of slits or holes can be ruled out as the note can be handed straight to them with the pen or pencil and there is no evidence left over to give them any more ammo. This is the moment they concede and give in to the magic.
A flat banknote with a pen slowly pushed through in full view begs the spectator to look for a hole, it is almost a challenge situation you are setting up for them. Unless you are doing real magic, there will be a hole in the note, there has to be. Unless you can hand the exact same note directly to the spectator and have them examine it with no worry of the method being discovered, the spectator will know there was a hole there as they saw the pen go through it. Even in this case you run the risk of them conceding that, in this case, you have an ingenious method for hiding a hole on a banknote, not magical skill.
Spectators are not Stupid
Spectators may be polite, but they are not fools. We have all seen magic props that look like magic props, but spectators still think things that look like everyday items are special magician’s props. I cannot tell you how many times people have thought a bent coin was really a special coin. I have had to remind them that I borrowed it from them in the first place AND had them sign it to prevent switches, only then do they accept it as a real coin.
A lot of spectators will also be too polite to say anything about your prop you are using; however, they will certainly go away thinking, that cup must have been a special as it is the only method they can think of. Unless you cancel this method out that is exactly what a spectator will think. If it is a special cup (or prop) then you have essentially fooled no one. A spectator will have a method in their mind for what you are doing, the more visual the magic trick, the more you will lead them (in most cases) straight to the method, maybe not the exact workings but it will lead them to the general idea.
For example, looking at Envylope, a magic trick where a deck of playing cards instantly and visually turn into an envelope. The spectator's signed card is inside the envelope, fantastic magic trick! I perform Envylope all the time, but I perform the change on the off beat, when no one is looking. One moment I have a deck with their signed card in it, the next I have an envelope with their signed card in it. It happens very quickly, but I do nothing whilst the spectator’s eyes are on it. I get much better reactions performing it this way, rather than performing the change visually in front of them.
Performing it on the off beat means they credit the deck as being normal and the envelope as a normal envelope but they credit me with the skill of being able to do it so quickly without them seeing anything. When I have performed it visually, I see people looking at the envelope, wanting to ask to look at it before I put it away or take it out of sight to switch it. The thought process the spectators have is that as they saw it change, although they don’t know how it worked exactly, they know it was not a real deck of playing cards or a real envelope, it was simply a special magic prop. By removing the visual moment in the magic trick I retain the mystery, and not only the question of ‘how’ but also the question of ‘when’ plays on the spectator’s mind. The fact that they cannot believe they didn’t ‘see’ the move happen instantly creates a moment of astonishment and mystery that is unsolvable for them.
Well, thank you for listening to my wild ramblings! These thoughts on visual magic tricks are, of course, my opinion and subject to interpretation and even plain outright denial! I have been changing the way I perform over the past year of two and I have been trying to find out what a spectator truly feels is magical and I have certainly found that by clouding the visual nature of my magic with cover or misdirection to retain the mystery certainly has my spectators reeling and questioning reality a lot more than when I perform something ultra visually.
Another by-product is that the spectators think about the magic more, the bug that eats at them continues to do so for much longer. They cannot make any sense of what they saw (or didn’t see) and I have eliminated the thought that the prop could be a magic prop by reframing the presentation.
So in conclusion I have had a look at how and why I believe that certain visual magic tricks may be detrimental to our art-form. Maybe try out performing a visual magic trick with less emphasis on the visual part of the effect, see how it goes.
Do you agree or disagree with me? What's your opinion? Let me know in the comments section below