Practical Magic Week Part 5: Youtube Magic in the Real World

One of the first things that showed to me that the online magic community was full of shit was when you would hear people -- mainly on The Magic Cafe -- say, "It doesn't matter that this can't be examined. If you're a good magician the audience won't be interested in the props." You hear this a little less now, but back in the early days of the Cafe this wasn't even debated really, it was just taken as a fact. You would hear it from well established names in magic. And I kind of believed it at first myself, but then I noticed something. The more interested and captivated the person I performed for was, the more they wanted to see the props. It was only when someone was indifferent to what I was doing that they would give a polite, "Oh, cool," and then move on. 

And the better I got at performing, the more I experienced this problem, not less. On the Cafe people continued to beat the drum that if you're talented enough, people won't be interested in the props. And I can see that being true in some circumstances. If you're doing something with a gimmicked clipboard then the audience shouldn't be clamoring to see the clipboard. But if you're doing something where the effect is a state change in an object (it changes color, grows in size, links to something, etc.) then isn't wanting to see that object the most natural, positive reaction for a spectator to have? Even if Jesus himself came to earth and picked up a green leaf and changed it to red, my inclination would be to want to see the leaf. Not because I question if he really did it, but because the human response is to want to see something that has undergone some kind of transformation. And if I reached for the leaf and he immediately put it in his pocket and said, "Let me show you something else." I wouldn't think that was good audience management, in fact I'd go from thinking he was the son of god to thinking, "This asshole has a trick leaf!"

That's when it dawned on me: These people are all shitty performers and they're trying to reframe the lack of interest by their spectators as something positive. "I'm such a good magician my audience couldn't give a fuck about what I show them!" That is some grade-A rationalization.

I love a really beautiful, visual trick. But so many of them can't be examined and/or require your audience to be at a very particular angle. These tricks are often derided as "youtube magic," because a lot of people think they're only good for putting up on youtube. But that's not really the case, you just need to create a situation where you can naturally control a person's viewing angle and remove the notion of an immediate examination of the props. 

Here are three ways I do that.


Okay, this one is perhaps too obvious, but it bears mentioning. Performing for people live over skype is a great way to perform your visual/non-examinable magic. Skype and Facetime are normal methods of communication these days. There's nothing gimmicky about it. Step into the Now, grandpa. 

My favorite thing to do is to text someone late in the evening and ask if they're free to stop over. Because it's late the answer is usually "no," which is what I wanted in the first place. I didn't want them coming over and eating my chips. When they say they can't I act disappointed and ask if they can hop on Skype for a few minutes because I have something I want to show them. I then show them a trick taking advantage of all the benefits of performing magic to a webcam: the static angle, the ability to drop stuff off screen, switching things out of frame, secret assistants just out of view. I take advantage of ALL of this. My friends are less likely to think of these methods because the implication is that I wanted to show them this effect live and have only settled for doing it over Skype.

One of my favorite Skype performances involved calling up my friend on her birthday and talking to her from my bedroom. Behind me was an easel with a covered painting on it. I told her it was her gift but I wasn't sure if she'd like it and before I gave it to her I wanted to ask her some questions about gifts. So I asked her what the best thing she got this year was. I asked her what the best gift she'd received in the past. And I asked her what would be the best gift she could ever imagine receiving in the future. When we were done I said that I thought she actually might like what I made for her. I brought my laptop over to the easel, uncovered it, and it was a funky, impressionistic painting of her and the three gifts she mentioned in our conversation. How? I had a friend laying behind my bed painting the picture as we talked (it was done with paint markers, actually). He painted my other friend before the Skype call even started so there was plenty of time to do her, but he still did it in a somewhat simple style to match the rest of the painting. As I talked with her he would paint each thing she mentioned, and I would just keep her talking about each gift until he gave me the sign to move on. A good artist can paint something that is at least representational of, say, a toy stuffed elephant, in a minute or so. When he was done he just slid the painting up under the sheet that was covering "the canvas" and hung below the frame of the video. (There actually was nothing under the sheet except a rod to give it the shape of something being there.)

Through the Looking Glass

As is true in a lot of cities these days, you can't smoke in bars in NYC. I don't smoke myself but I always step outside with my friends when they do because I like being outdoors. My one semi-regular hangout is a bar populated by mostly by actors and comedians. The front of the bar is head to toe windows. One chilly fall night I was outside with some friends and while they were smoking I was looking through the window at some other friend who were still inside. I had my messenger bag on me and inside was a trick I'd just received in the mail earlier that day. I'd been playing with it as I rode the subway into Manhattan. The trick was The Poker Test. A trick that looks great but pretty much demands to be examined when it's over or else the obvious explanation is "tricky cards." I pulled the cards out of my bag and tapped on the window to get the attention of my friends who were inside the bar. When they turned towards me I performed the trick. They were definitely into the performance and fooled bad by the trick. Had I planned for this I would have had a duplicate set of cards to have in my hand when I walked back in, but instead I just put the cards back in my bag as I went in. Because they weren't seeing me in the immediate aftermath of the trick, the impulse to examine the cards had blown over.

In the time since then I've performed dozens of tricks this way. I actually find it very esthetically pleasing to perform magic outside, through a window, to a group of people inside. It's also interesting visually to be outside -- possibly in the rain or snow -- lit by a street lamp and doing something impossible. It's a different thing for me because I'm performing silently, which is obviously a big change from the verbose presentations I usually have. I like to incorporate the window itself when I can. For instance I'll draw a circle on it in dry-erase marker and have objects in my hand change in some way as they're seen through the circle, then change back as I pull them outside the circle.

This might not be the most practical suggestion but it works for me and some of you might find value in it.

Camera Obscura

This, on the other hand, is a very practical suggestion for any time you want to perform something one-on-one that is particularly angle sensitive and might have issues.

It's a very simple idea but I use it all the time. It gives your spectator a sense of getting an insider's peek at your process (which, as I've mentioned before, is something I find people really enjoy), it gives them a different context to view an effect, it anchors their perspective, it creates a potential souvenir of the moment, and it gives you a natural offbeat to switch or ditch gimmicks. It's simply this: I just ask them to use my phone (or theirs) to record the trick. You tell them it's something your working on and you'd like to get it on film. When you perform they generally watch the screen of the phone and aren't trying to get in potentially bad angles. At the conclusion of the trick you get a moment to relax and ask, "How did that look? Did you get everything?" etc. And in that moment you can switch out your gimmick (if possible) or at least defuse their inclination to immediately examine something in a way that seems natural because you've given them something else to think about without rushing them on to another thing entirely. And if the trick looks great on video you can send them a copy as a souvenir. At the very least you have a copy for the purposes of self-critique. It's like a win-win-win-win-win-win.