MAGIC-CON 2011 – DAY 1 – Friday
MAGIC-CON 2011 – DAY 1 – Friday
Max Maven was the host of the first Morning Session, and right off the bat we had microphone trouble, which was a jarring departure from expectations, but this was quickly forgotten with the introduction of the first performer, Helder Guimarães.
Helder began with a sandwich card effect that was not as effective as hoped because of the limitations of the room. Namely, the cards were placed on a table up on the stage and there were wasn’t a sufficient downward camera image projected on the two large screens (as there was last year). We had to make due with a zoomed image from the middle of the floor. Good, but not great.
What was great was the young audience member that Helder asked to assist. When she accidentally dropped the cards during a shuffle, and the pasteboards exploded off the table and onto the floor, her embarrassment was unintentionally hilarious as she loudly yelled, “Clumsy teenager!” Helder, the true pro, used the event as a source of humor without traumatizing the poor girl.
Helder segued into a talk on “The Mental Path”, providing illuminating insights (replete with an effective Henning Nelms quote on deception versus conviction) and touched on four important subjects: preconception, perception, induced imagination, and focus. The Mental Path, he explained, is the way this journey is followed. This delivery of information along this mental path is effected (and improved) by order, rhythm, and style (formal versus casual), respectively.
Helder cited as inspirational these three books: Tamariz’s The Magic Way (great book), Magic and Showmanship by Henning Nelms (can’t be a real magician without reading this) and Art and Visual Perception by Rudolph Arnheim (I haven’t read this yet).
In all, I like Helder. He’s a thinker, seems like a nice guy, and he intrigued me with his approach to magic. If he was more comfortable with the English language I think I’d find his talk even more stimulating, but his struggle with the delivery of certain concepts kept it in a rudimentary place for me. I’ll look forward to more from him.
Next up was Mike Caveney, who described himself as “one of the old dinosaurs”. (Side note – The Magic-Con boasts a much younger demographic than your average magic convention, and at the tender age of just 44, even I felt old.) He spoke of conventions (the gatherings, not traditions), friendships, history (of course), books and DVDs, and how DVDs enable the easy parroting of magicians, something he believes moves magic sideways rather than forward.
Caveney marveled at the ability of magicians throughout history to adapt and survive, from street performers of old, with their Gibecières, to magicians in fairs, then saloons (with their raised platforms and audiences facing forward, allowing the performer a modicum of control), and theatres (enabling the utilization of wings, fly systems, areas beneath the stage, curtains, and lighting). Each new venue offering opporunities for the magician to capitalize on the ability for adaption and, ultimately, continued survival.
Close-up came next, first formal (sitting at a table, allowing for the new advantage of lapping), to the more informal behind the bar (larger secret area behind the bar means a larger “lap”).
Then Vaudeville came along, eventually burning out (after a blazing run) and turning theatres into movie houses. This was followed by nightclubs (dance floor, magic in the round), and many magicians couldn’t adapt to this new demand and dropped out of performing. But those who adapted and accepted the challenge included Channing Pollack, Del Rey, and Marvin Roy.
Television came next, and it soon became apparent that it was too easy to use camera tricks in this new realm, forcing more adaptation (live audiences, no cutaways. And although some did use camera tricks (and continue to do so, often successfully), magicians on television became celebrated, common, and for many of us (most?), a major force in our early influence and development.
Caveney then regaled us with two fascinating anecdotes illustrating (in his opinion) acceptable forms of TV camera trickery – one with Orson Welles using the lower edge of the screen image as a servante for a Gypsy Thread routine, and the other recounting an improvised improvement to a Harry Anderson Needle Through Arm presentation that occurred in the editing room during post production. (A hint – remember Lee Majors doing incredible jumps up to second story windows on The Six Million Dollar Man?). This improvement, shown coast to coast, prompted one magician to make a live call to Harry Anderson when he appeared on Larry King Live and inquire how the Needle Through Arm trick that he (the caller) performed didn’t allow the audience to actually see the needle entering the arm. Harry quickly (and brilliantly) pointed out that the caller owned the Amateur Magician version of the trick, available in magic shops, while he (Harry) made his living with magic, and was thus able to procure the Professional Version. Very funny.
Caveney concluded his illuminating segment by talking about Bautier de Kolta, who produced a large egg (“The Cocoon”), George White, who produced a duck out of a spectator’s jacket, and Joseph and his macaw production, all examples of “adapting to your surroundings”, before he himself produced a chicken from a borrowed jacket.
This was a hugely entertaining talk.
In a departure from the printed schedule, Derek Hughes was next. He defined “coincidence” for us – a seemingly impossible concurrence of events – and then performed a triple prediction effect (a city, a name, a word) to good effect.
He told us of his admiration for W.C. Fields, at one time the highest paid act in the world (!), and a silent act, no less (at least during his Vaudeville years), and, as an homage to this legend – caught a ping pong ball on the end of his nose.
He then produced a deck of cards from his fly, and a chosen card from his butt crack (calling it his “ace in the hole”).
I laughed. He’s funny, and has been very successful on the college circuit (no surprise there).
But (butt?), it was very evident to me (and others I spoke with) that Derek must be a huge fan of comedian Dane Cook, because that’s who I felt I was watching, and this isn’t a compliment. I’d much rather see who the real Derek Hughes is, and if he really does speak and think and inflect and write like Mr. Cook, then I apologize for my errant assumption. But, as I suspect, if he’s as different from Dane as I am from Al Pacino, then there’s a whole different performer that I predict is very original who I have yet to see, and look forward to seeing soon.
Derek Delgaudio was next (I wish he was more involved with this convention.) and he introduced us to Glenn Kaino, a conceptual artist who recently exhibited a solo art show that focused on magic (slides of various pieces were shown – hands cast in poses from Erdnase, newspaper cutouts that spell the phrase, “In a world that is truly upside down, the true is a moment of the false”, and, with John Gaughan’s help, 33 conceptual wands commemorating other conceptual artists that I’ve never heard of, and even a large portrait of Ricky Jay made entirely of cards seemingly thrown into a wall. Obviously, my descriptions don’t do these pieces justice. You really have to see them.).
Together, they presented a “Collision of Art and Magic”, a retelling of an ambitious conceptual art piece presented at the ArtLA International Art Show (Imagine Derek pulling pieces of art off the walls as Glenn yells through a bullhorn, “My house will be called a house of art, and you are turning it into a den of thieves!” After which, the pieces of art are suspended in a box high over the patrons’ heads, and then vanish.)
A few anecdotes were also shared, including a recounting of an amazing coincidence in which a mirror purported to be used by famed conceptual artist Marcel Duchamp is now owned by none other than John Gaughn, much to Kaino’s surprise. (A short music video that featured the unusual mirror was also shown.)
Derek and Glenn also spoke of their new “conceptual magic shop” in Hollywood, California (“Real magic for fake money!” is their motto.).
This talk was one of several spread out over the convention that explored topics other than magic (in this case, conceptual art), in an attempt to bridge the creative gap between magic and other disciplines (Rubik’s Cube, origami, neuroscience, visual perception) and to remind us of how magical other subjects can be. This is a refreshing approach to a magic convention, one that Syd Segal and the Bucks (there’s a band name if I ever heard one) established last year.
But, as with any such ambitious endeavor, it’s going to be hit and miss with some attendees. Interestingly, I found that the best moments of these departures from magic came, not from the introduction of new information or concepts, but from the revelations, surprises, and insights that the participants chose to reveal.
For example, Derek Delgaudio, for all his comedy chops and intelligence, really shined when he shared a personal struggle that he recently went through, a sort of crisis of meaning, and his desire to find relevance in his chosen field. His conclusion? “The only way to provide meaning to all of this is to believe in magic.” Something he had neglected to do for some time.
Real insight, real truths, shared openly. That’s what I came here for.
He then concluded the talk with the story of China, a pretty, young assistant who helped the boys in the grand opening of their magic shop by being cut in half and then laying in the separated box outside the front door, forcing anyone who wanted to come inside to walk between her torso and legs. The conceptual twist? The discoveries that await you inside are only possible if you broaden your horizons. Thus, you get to walk through China. Get it?)
But Derek noted with irony that as he stood by watching the smiling patrons enter the store (through China), the only ones who weren’t joining the fun, taking the creative leap, and investing the necessary openness to new experiences, were….
To those willing to learn, it’s a great lesson.
David Regal was next, and he performed a standard set (beginning with his Sudden Deck and ending with his Cups and Balls and Cups and balls.) Unfortunately, it became substandard due to what he later called a series of misfortunes, but what I simply call not being present in the moment. He just wasn’t all there, and it felt like we were watching somebody do something for the thousandth time (maybe because he was.). There was no sense of spontaneity, or joy, or intent (which is perhaps why David chose to speak on this topic later in the convention.)
I know that we all have our bad days, and while this may have been one of them for David, and should perhaps be dismissed with a casual, “He’s a great magician. It wasn’t a real audience. He was performing for us. He’s entitled to one bad show.”, I’m not quite ready to let him off the hook so easily, and I think there are some lessons to be learned from him that can serve magicians well. I had a revelation while watching his set and I’m crafting an essay to expand on it called “The Singularity of Magic”. I’ll post it here on the blog soon. (I’m actually grateful that David was less than great today, because otherwise I don’t know if I would have come up with this new concept. Thanks for the lemon, David. I’m going to make lemonade!)
Bill Kalush came up next and essentially did a pitch for Gibeciere. As he was responsible for the gift issue that we received at registration, I suppose he was entitled, but it wasn’t entertaining or educational – just promotional.
After lunch, R. Paul Wilson took the stage, a bit absent from the Los Angeles magic scene lately due to his extensive television production work in England, and he spoke about his experiences as a producer with a talk entitled, “The Perception of Magic & Magicians.” It was very similar (with the exception of a couple newer stories) to a presentation he gave at last year’s IBM convention (also in San Diego), but was nevertheless enjoyable. In a nutshell, Paul relayed how lowly magicians are perceived by many producers. We’re seen as “desperate, ignorant, unprofessional, lacking in integrity, cheap, disposable, and interchangeable.” Producers believe that we are unscrupulous and will stab each other in the back. These are, Paul added, not assumptions, but experiences.
One magician actually tried to get Paul and his associate fired and promised that he could do a better job for half the price.
Paul also told of one unfortunate chap (getting into the English vibe, there) who arrived for an audition with an old, raggedy headshot who had to sneak out the backdoor in order to avoid paying a taxi driver who was still outside waiting for him. Later, he posted on his Facebook page that he was ninety percent sure he had landed the job.
Another bloke (how’s that?) was outraged that he was not selected and angrily demanded that he be allowed to audition again.
These guys, Paul said, are out there representing us, and their stories are all too common. Many of them do the same old tricks (Invisible Deck, Bill to Lemon) and once producers realize that these tricks can be purchased at any magic shop, the only thing that will resonate with them are personality and character.
Paul also told a tale of refusing to allow a producer to use a variation of Copperfield’s Motorcycle Shadow Box concept. This lack of integrity, he said, is everywhere in the TV world.
Paul argued that magicians can be very creative and inventive, but where’s the evidence? In today’s world of entertainment, if somebody sees a bad guitar performance, they don’t tend to dismiss music altogether. But see one bad magic trick, and it’s enough to turn people off to magicians entirely. By the same token, you don’t buy a guitar and call yourself a musician. But often guys buy magic tricks and call themselves magicians, and people will believe it if the trick was good. And there happen to be a lot of good tricks out there. Paul quoted Teller, who said, “You can buy a shitty miracle for ten dollars, but even a shitty miracle is still a miracle.”
Paul concluded by quoting Bob Kohler, who said, “If you perform for lay people and they don’t think you’re the greatest in the world, you’ve failed”, and to this, Paul added, “the problem occurs when you start to believe it.”
A lot of food for thought, here, and Paul’s low-key, low-energy delivery was more than made up by the wealth of information he offered.
A presentation of a very different nature was next, when neuroscientists Susanna Martinez-Conde and Stephen Macknil took the stage. They’re the authors of the recent book, Sleight of Mind, and began their talk by showing a video of Apollo Robbins performing a simple vanish of a coin, and used this demonstration as a starting off point to pose questions and delve into much deeper insights and observations, such as:
- What is the nature of illusion? (It’s subjective)
- Illusion is when our perception does not match the real world. We either see something that is not there, fail to see something that is there, or see something different than what is there.
- Aristotle documented the first illusion (Waterfall and the persistence of vision).
- 3-D is itself an illusion – a brain construct.
- The Palazzo Spada by Francesco Borromini (in Rome) appears 121 feet long, but is actually spans only 26 ft.
- Scientists study illusions to learn more about the brain, artists use skills of perception to create illusions, and magicians are the artists of perception and awareness. We manipulate perception. (Makes what we do seem a bit more important, doesn’t it?)
- Here’s a great link to a GREAT ARTICLE.
- Illusions can be categorized as Special Effects, Secret Devices & Mechanical Artifacts (gimmicks), Optical illusions, Visual illusions, and Cognitive illusions, (Interesting differentiation between Optical & Visual – Optical happens in the real world, such as the refraction of light illusion when you place a pencil into a glass half filled with water, whereas visual illusions happen in the brain.).
- Cognitive illusions can be broken down into four categories: Misdirection of Attention, Memory Illusions, Illusory Correlations, and Choice Illusions.
- Misdirection has two types: Overt (such as redirecting someone’s gaze) and Covert (when we draw attention away from the method but do not redirect their gaze.)
- We (humans) often experience Change Blindness and Inattentive Blindness. (Check out this WHODUNNIT video – very interesting. And also, Dothetest.CO.UK, The Amazing Color Changing Card Trick, and this video HERE.) However, these types of blindness are sometimes not errors of perception. Quite often they occur because we are doing what we’re supposed to be doing (in a given task), namely, being attentive and suppressing other details.
Next up was Derek Hughes (again), who performed his 3-Rope routine, and then presented a talk about acting in magic. He offered a “correct” translation of the well known Robert Houdin quotation, “A magician is an actor playing the role of someone who can do miracles”, recommended the very well regarded Uta Hagan book, A Challenge for the Actor, and encouraged us to develop a habit of script analysis (Derek scripts all of his routines to read like a movie, even writing down actions for the magician and spectator.)
Derek then offered us the famed 8 Questions that Uta Hagan posed in her book for actors to query when doing a scene or play, and encouraged us (magicians) to use them for deeper analysis of our magic character/act/routines.
- Who am I
- What time is it?
- What is my relationship to my environment?
- What are the given circumstances?
- What are my immediate objectives?
- What is my overall Super objective?
- What are the physical and psychological obstacles?
- What are my physical and psychological actions to overcome my obstacles?
Derek reminded us that our audiences want a live, real, experience (much like the theatre offers). They want us to be present. Not stale.
In addition to two quotes by Al Baker and Henning Nelms (that I’m purposely omitting because you should read every word they’ve ever written), he gave us two nuggets from those great American Philosophers, Louis Anderson and Joe Rogan.
“No matter what you say, mean it.” (Louis Anderson)
“Figure out how you really, really, really see the world, then fight to communicate it so others see it the way you do.” (Joe Rogan)
Mike Caveney retook the stage after lunch and through the demonstration of three of his best routines, taught us that originality can be had in finding tricks that already exist and making them your own through a new presentation or by disguising the props. He then illustrated this with his wonderful Benson Bowl routine (done with a plumber’s helper/plunger), his Impromptu Linking Coat Hangers (boy, does this look good), and his variation of Powers of Darkness (one of my all time favorite routines – and a trick that is often too hip for the room).
After Mike came Richard Kaufman, who spent considerable time detailing his handlings of the Riffle Pass, the Jiggle Pass, the Turnover Pass, and a Vernon Pass. I think I agree with John Carney’s assessment that the pass is not the most efficient way to get a chosen card to the top of the deck when compared to a side-steal replacement. That being said, Richard is one of the world’s best performers of this sleight and it was nice watching him do it live (with close-up views of his hands projected on the two large screens).
After dinner, at 9pm, a special event took place. Unfortunately, due to the details being printed in the program schedule, it wasn’t a surprise (I really wish it had been). A video from thirty-eight years ago by The Professor himself, Dai Vernon was shown. This rare recording hasn’t been seen (according to host Max Maven) in about eight years, and only then by about thirty people. What’s more, it may never be seen again (due to some unspoken reason).
As Maven said, Vernon is to magic as James Joyce is to the novel, and Einstein is to physics, and it was a joy to watch this (approximately) ninety-minute video. I can’t imagine any of the attendees never having seen Vernon on tape, DVD, or YouTube, but if there was anybody who had yet to experience His Royal Orneryness, this must have been a great delight.
The lecture took place in 1973 (I was six!) in Washington, D.C. and showed Vernon performing his seminal cups and balls routine (Regarding loads, the best line of the night, “Always a lemon! A lemon is funny! There’s nothing funny about an apple or an orange!”), and his Han Pin Chien coin effect. He spoke of Persistence of Vision (retinal impressions), did his Kangaroo Coins effect, Linking Rings, Ramsay’s Cylinder and Coins, and a couple of card tricks, including the Tenkai Palm Color Change and a Top Change.
Magic just doesn’t get better than that.
Rounding out the night with a lecture at 11:00pm was Helder Guimarães, who was determined to share ideas, rather than give a “buy my stuff” lecture. He named his presentation, “Conception of an Effect – Magical Method” and detailed his wonderful routine wherein Aces transpose while resting in a glass and a triple selection sandwich effect that revolved around a police procedural story, and ended with a very clean Cards Across routine.
By this time is was close to 1:00am, and I was struggling to be fully alert and comprehend Helder’s strained English. He was very open and clever, and I wish this lecture had taken place earlier.
Well, that’s it. Day 1. Pretty extensive, I think. I’ll do my best to get Day 2 covered very shortly, and I promise to get to Day 3 soon. I hope this gives you a taste of what it was like to be there.