6 Techniques to Differentiate Your Illusion Performances

In my previous two entries on the subject of “Why Illusionists Perform the Same Illusions?” and the follow-up, I explored the ‘why’ and urged professional-level illusionists to step out of their ‘me-too’ comfort zones and not present the same illusions in the same way.

In this entry, I will focus on not the why but the how. Specifically, I will cover 6 techniques on how to differentiate an illusion performance. This is by no means exhaustive or the only ways to differentiate your illusion performances, they are suggested proven creative approaches that have worked for others & myself.

Do Not Allow Overly Common Illusions to Dominate Your Show Progam

This is the most obvious technique yet not very helpful if not delved into with more depth.

First, I would like to stress that there is nothing inherently wrong with ‘standard’ illusions. They are standards for a reason because they are audience and time tested. My only issue is that they are overly common which makes all illusionists look the same.

I suggest the following ‘formula’: For every two standard illusions you present, have one original piece or seldom-seen illusion in your show program. And when you present the standard illusions, do it differently (more on this below).

During the peak of their illustrious career, signature illusions that the Pendragons often presented in a show included The Sword Basket, Interlude and the Sub Trunk. The Sword Basket & the Sub Trunk are standards but they made them different with their style and presentation of the illusion.  Interlude (at that time) was brand new and exclusive to them for a number of years. This gave their show a very fresh and innovative feel. Furthermore, the presentation of the illusions were closely tied into their performance characters and style.

This formula will separate your show content from others. This alone will not differentiate as a totally unique illusionist to the marketplace but is an important first step.

Modify the Aesthetic & Functional Design of Your Standard Illusion

I gave specific examples on how various illusionists modify standard illusions so they look different from others off the same assembly line. Most recently, I have rebuilt and add original elements to marketed illusions “360 Sawing” and “Windshear” to make them different.

Previously, I highlighted Michael Baron’s “The Device” as an excellent modification of the Mini Kube Zag. Several people have made changes to Modern Art in an effort to differentiate the illusion; from making it a one-person illusion, to removing the ‘table’ to having the person’s head extend out of the prop.

Changing the colour of the prop is not enough. So, think about going another step in terms of changing the structure of the prop, adding elements, reducing elements, changing materials or a combination of the above.

Script the Plot of an Illusion

Think about what story you want to tell the audience. What do you want your audience to feel or experience? Are you performing the illusion to give depth and advance your stage character?

Specifically, I’m talking about thinking about a plot in depth and not just “take a girl, put her in a box, put swords through the box…”.

Thinking about the plot will often give motivation for the illusion and help you add elements to the performance to tell the story. These additional elements include costuming, dialogue (verbal or non verbal), smaller props and music.

Every good story has a defined beginning, middle and an end, although not necessary in that order. Illusion performances are no different. Apply basic storytelling techniques and plots from good movies. Imagine if you could use the plots from “Memento” or “The Usual Suspects” to an illusion performance.

Probably the best example of using plots to differentiate their illusions (and routines in general) is Penn & Teller. Practically every act they perform is a master class of plot and scripting. While it is unlikely that you could create a whole show with this technique (because you are not Penn & Teller), just having one such illusion presentation in your show can make all the difference in the world.

Add a Kicker to the Illusion

This, of course, does not apply to all illusions but is part of the idea generation process. Some purists do not like to put kickers into an act because it becomes all the audience remembers and they forget the actual details of the act. But, the fact is, audiences love kickers if they are not telegraphed.

Think about what possible kickers can be added to a standard illusion you perform. Costume changes and the appearance of a surprise person/ object and transpositions to the back of the performing venue are common kickers in illusions. What else can be done?

Do the Opposite of What has been Done

This is a common creativity technique used during brainstorming. Think about how you can transform, change and radically do something different with a standard illusion prop, presentation or handling.

Make a list or mind map of what is normally done with the standard illusions and see what you can do the complete opposite of in every aspect.

Don’t limit yourself, have fun and come up with the most ridiculous and wild ideas. This is the idea generation part of the creativity process so forget limits at this point. Think about how you can make a standard illusion bigger, smaller, faster, slower, funnier etc.

Some simple ideas to jumpstart your brain:

  • Instead of putting a girl in a box, who/ what else can be put inside? Does it have to be just one person/ object?
  • Instead of a rectangular box, can it be round, cylindrical, hexagonal or just a frame?
  • Instead of making a girl, car or motorcycle appear, what else you be produced that makes sense in your presentation context?

Combine Different Artistic Elements with the Illusion

This is probably one of the most difficult techniques to differentiate an illusion performance because it requires a mastery of another artistic skill or, at the very least, an in depth understanding of how to combine illusion with the other artistic skill.

If not done well, the whole performance can look contrived. Many try to integrate dance into illusions (Copperfield influence from the late 80s) but it has become way to cliched now and unfortunately most can’t dance or look good trying.

Darren Romeo adds singing to illusions as the “Voice of Magic”. Nathan Burton adds comedy to illusions which is not as common as comedy to stand-up magic. Criss Angel’s “Believe” is a combination of Cirque’s take on the circus with Criss’s illusions. Lee Eun Gyeol does one of the most beautiful illusions with shadowgraphy and Chris Murphy’s “Evolution” illusion.


To end this entry, here is an example of a transitional/ filler illusion we use in our show. The purpose of this example is not for promotional purposes but to demonstrate that these are techniques we actually employ in our professional work and have spent time, money and effort on.

We call the act ‘Spiker’ which is actually Jim Steinmeyer’s “Audience Acupuncture”. The techniques we employed in creating this presentation include:

  1. Script the Plot of an Illusion
  2. Do the Opposite of What has been Done
  3. Combine Different Elements with the Illusion

Script the Plot of an Illusion

This purpose of the plot of the illusion was to showcase ‘Magic Babe’ as a strong character and as an equal on stage to her partner; not a pretty female assistant. She is the protagonist in the performance. She is in control from start o finish.

Do the Opposite of What has been Done

“Audience Acupuncture” was originally designed to be used with an audience member (typically a female or a kid) and to be presented light-heartedly or comedic in style. This is also the way it is presented by several illusionists around the world.

We did the opposite by performing it straight without comedy. We also do not use a spectator. Instead of the female being spiked, Ning spikes me. The role reversal adds interest and a psychological difference to the presentation.

Combine Different Elements with the Illusion

Ning’s skillful twirling Japanese sais is a prelude to the illusion. The sharp sais complement and set up the illusion with the steel spikes. And ultimately, it is great entertainment value and variety. What is not to like about an attractive lady manipulating deadly weapons?

You can watch our performance of this illusion here:

I hope this entry gives you food for thought and use whatever applies to you to differentiate your illusion content.

If you enjoyed this article, you can check out my original books/ plans/ DVDs HERE and use this Promo Code “5OFF2014” upon Checkout to receive a 5% discount off all books, sets, DVDs, plans & downloads.

List of Illusion Builders & Designers

Here are a list of reputable illusion builders and designers.


Magic Ventures – Bill Smith

Magic Makers – Gerry & Leonora Frenette

Owen Magic Supreme

John Gaughan and Associates
5223 West San Fernando Road
Los Angeles, CA 90039

Show FX Inc. – David Mendoza
5800 Bandini Blvd.
Commerce, CA 90040 USA
(323) 724-2279

Splashes Creative Services

Wellington Enterprises

Daniel Summers

Doug Malloy

William Kennedy 
Magic Effect

Owen Redwine
12248 Dowling Road
Bowling Green, Ohio 43402 USA
(419) 874 8544

Craig Dickens
520 W. Wilson Ave. #101
Glendale, Ca. 91203
(818) 545-9608

Entertainment & Design Fabrication
8210 Lankershim Blvd.  Unit 12 1/2
North Hollywood, CA 91605

Dan Wolfe
Smokey Mountain Magic

Thomas Clark
Magic Sax

Rich Hill
PO Box 732
Nashville, IN. 47448

Tim Clothier
Illusion Projects

Richard Sherry
Richard Sherry’s Magic & Escapes

Bruce Chadwick
Bruce Chadwick Illusion Fabrications


Mark Parker

Andrew Mayne

Illusion Entertainment International/ Adamant Design & Fabrication

J C Sum


If you have a recommendation to make or would like to be included in the list, please email me at jcsum(a)conceptmagic.biz.

Building An Illusion from a Set of Plans

Illusions are an expensive investment and one solution for new illusionists (and seasoned professionals) is to build the illusion yourself as opposed to purchasing one from a professional illusion builder.

Now, there are many benefits from purchasing from a professional builder and it is well worth the asking fee, simply because the builder brings expertise and experience to an illusion. And, if he has built the illusion before, he would know what works and what does not.

However, when budgets do not allow you to spend much on new illusions, building your own can be a cost-saving approach to adding scale to your show. I hope to share some basic tips on how to build an illusion from a set of plans.

3 Ways to Build Your Own Illusion

There are three ways to go about building your own illusion:

  1. Build it yourself with your own tools.
  2. Get a friend with workshop tools, a carpenter, stage props or exhibition stand builder to build for you under your direction and supervision.
  3. Get different parts built yourself or recycle different parts from other places (furniture) and assemble the illusion yourself.

I have done all three ways before but mainly do a combination of the second and third methods along with buying illusions from pro builders.

What You Need to Know

Whether you intend to build your own illusion or supervise the build, you need to gain technical knowledge on the building process, tools and materials.

Specifically, you need to be familiar with types of wood, metals, plastics and their thickness and availability in your location. Hang out at lumber yards, metal shops and plastic sheet suppliers to see what is available and talk to the people there if they have time.

You need to understand basic building methods such as cutting, joining and finishing. Different materials needs different tools to cut and there are multiple ways to join parts depending on the material. Finishing includes painting, laminate or vinyl/ carpet covering.

Only when you have a grasp of the above should you embark on your first build. It helps greatly if you have an interest and knack for building things.

I remember my first build project was when I built my first skateboard street ramp when I was 11 years old. I got scrape wood from all over the neighbourhood and used nails and a hammer. I had no tools or knowledge of how to cut curves but created the curve of the ramp using the flexible nature of the plywood nailed onto support bars of 2″ x 1″ lumber nailed at different angles to create a curve. It looked crappy but it worked! I executed many jumps off that ramp.

That probably was a starting point for me in illusion building. Subsequently, all my technical knowledge was acquired in school (technical module which I aced), observing builders of all kinds and examining finished props – from furniture to illusions to exhibition stands.

Choose the Right Illusion

When building your own/ first illusion, you will be constrained by budget, time and resources so you need to choose an illusion within your means, as well as within capabilities of the builder.

You have to choose the right illusion project. Here are some tips:

  • Start with a manageable illusion first. Something without too many moving parts or requires too many different materials.
  • Avoid illusions that require complex metal work like metal forms, bending or welding.
  • Avoid anything with electronic or remote control elements.
  • Avoid anything that requires a full D******** B***. If you do not know what that is, you should not be building it.
  • Being a first illusion, you probably want something manageable in size and weight.

Look for a Set of Illusion Plans

Now, you have to look for resources to build that illusion.

Please note that not all illusions have illusion plans available. Many illusions are licensed to professional builders and the creators never released building plans to the “public” magic community. If no plans are released, it is an ethical unwritten rule that that particular illusion is off limits for you to build or have built, unless by the authorized builder.

However, there are hundreds of illusions that have building plans that are described in books or sold as individual illusion plans.

Most works by Jim Steinmeyer, Rand Woodburry, Mark Parker, Tim Cloutier, Milan Forzetting, Paul Osbourne and… cough cough… J C Sum are essential for an illusionist’s library. Check out my recommended books and DVDs for the beginner illusionist in my list HERE.

Having said the above, not all illusion books or plans are very detailed or comprehensive. Sometimes building instructions are not as detailed because it is assumed the builder is experienced in building props. Some designers also do not give dimensions or specific material lists as they feel that each illusion is custom to each illusionist, hence dimensions are not useful.

Personally, in my books and plans, I always give dimensions and material lists as I feel it is an important guide for builders to get a sense of the illusion.

An experienced builder will be able to assess the size & weight of the illusion and based on the material lists & plans can get a sense of the amount of time & money it will take to build the prop.

I feel dimensions and material lists are even more important for new builders as they need all the help they can get to guide them through the process. However, even in my plans, I do not go into the basics of how to cut a piece of material, embed a T-Nut or apply a plastic laminate finish. I do assume the builder possesses these basic fabrication skills.

It is best for you to research on a set of plans or book before purchasing them. If you intend to buy a book or set of plans for your illusion education and knowledge building, exact dimensions and material lists may not be as essential. However, if you intend to build the prop, then specifics are critical. Ask around or leave a comment on this blog if you want feedback or clarification on a particular set of plans or book.

Understanding the Plans

Once you have the plans, the first thing to do is to understand the effect of the illusion, followed by the method. This should be explained clearly in the write-up of the illusion plan. Most of the time, the plans of the physical illusion prop will only make sense if you understand the effect and the method.

When you interpret the illusion plans, try to visual how the illusion works. If there are moving panels or components, understand how those components move together.

Try to visualize the size of the prop. You may need a tape measure to help you out. This will give you an idea of the space you will need to perform, rehearse and transport the illusion.

An example of one of my illusion drawings is given below. It is not drawn as a schematic but as an easy to understand drawing.

Examine the list of materials needed and the building methods. For example, if the prop requires welded parts, you must be able to weld metal together. If not, you must figure out an alternative method of joining the material.

Ensure that you will be able to obtain all of the materials needed to build the prop.

Have the Right Materials & Tools

Once you have chosen your illusion and decided to build it. Create detailed lists of what you need to buy. You will need to combine total measurements to calculate how much material you need to buy. For example, if you are building a prop that requires four legs made from aluminum tubing, each 2ft long, you will need to buy 8ft of aluminum tubing. But, also note that if you buy an exact length of 8ft of aluminum tubing and cut it into four lengths, each length will be a few millimeters short of 2ft as you will lose material when you make each cut. This is important if you need a precise amount of material.

Once you have calculated all the material, you will also need to know how many connectors you might need, like wood screws, rivets or bolts & nuts.

Ensure you have the right tools for the job. For example, if you are cutting both metal & wood, you need two different saws or at least two different blades. If you need to drill through thick steel, you will need a different drill bit and drill than drilling through thin aluminum.

A measuring tape and pencil/ marker is a must! Measure twice & cut once. Wrong measurements can be costly as they can result into material wastage.

Build the Illusion

Follow the building instructions to build the prop. If no specific build order is given, I generally recommend building from the main base, table or structure of the prop and build the “box” part or other panels/ doors after.

Always build some kind of mock-up with cardboard cartons and duct tape. Follow the dimensions in the set of plans and build at least the shell to ensure that it fits your assistant or yourself.

After you build the illusion, ensure any small sharp edges or corners are filed and sanded smooth. Splinters or metal burrs are very dangerous and can hurt someone during rehearsal or performance.

Well, that is a basic guide on how to build an illusion from a set of plans. I know, its is easier said than done. But, every illusion prop begins with the first cut of material. So, best of luck and work safe!

Product Image Design web

If you are interested in my illusion plans, check out my webstore page here or click on the individual links below:

Use this Promo Code “5OFF2014” upon Checkout to receive a 5% discount off all books, sets, DVDs, plans & downloads.

Package #1 – Car Appearances

  • The Phantom Car Appearance
  • Bluff Appearance
  • Light Pillars Production System

Click here for more info. US$75.

Package #2 – Motorcycle Appearances

  • Ultimate Full Throttle

Click here for more info. US$75.

Package #3 – Fan Illusions

  • Revollusion
  • Wind Passage

Click here for more info. US$75.

Package #4 – Metamorphosis

  • Crystal Metamorphosis
  • Fortress

Click here for more info. US$50.

Package #5 – Appearances

  • Benchmark
  • Singular

Click here for more info. US$35.

Package #6 – Penetrations

  • Visual Displacement
  • Steel Displacement
  • 6 Inches

Click here for more info. US$35.

Package #7 – Box Jumpers

  • Squeezed & Skewered
  • Seven by Half V2.0

Click here for more info. US$35.

Package #8 – Base Work

  • Deceptive Base Design & Philosophy
  • Crystal Striptease
  • Light & Space

Click here for more info. US$35.

Package #9 – VIP Appearances

  • Backdoor Appearance
  • Simple VIP Production
  • VIP Trunk

Click here for more info. US$35.

Package #10 – Illusions with Multiple Girls

  • Fourth Dimensional Exit
  • Ghost Cabinet
  • 12-Girl Cabinet

Click here for more info. US$50.

Package #11 – Unique Penetrations

  • A Walk through the Winery
  • Slicing Through

Click here for more info. US$35.

Package #12 – Comedy Illusions

  • The Vanishing ‘Tiger’
  • Hiding In Plain Sight
  • Sweepstakes
  • Twisted Conclusion

Click here for more info. US$35.

Package #13 – Inexpensive Illusions

  • Super Saver Delivery
  • Ultimate Victory Cartons
  • Chain Reaction

Click here for more info. US$35.

Package #14 – Classic Sub Trunk

  • ATA Sub Trunk

Click here for more info. US$25.

Package #15 – Box Jumpers 2

  • Multi-vide
  • Wall 2 Wall
  • Dekolta’s Dilemma

Click here for more info. US$35.

Use this Promo Code “5OFF2014” upon Checkout to receive a 5% discount off all books, sets, DVDs, plans & downloads.