Recommended Books & DVDs for the Modern Illusionist

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Updated as of 15 Feb 2014.

This comprehensive list of books and DVDs was compiled for the modern stage magician or illusionist in mind. With that, I’m speaking of magic artistes and entertainers looking to present illusions to a modern audience and to be relevant in today’s pop culture and entertainment marketplace.

It is for magicians looking to build a strong foundation in the art of illusion so that you have relevant and quality information that you can use to present cutting edge illusions that do not look like that came from the 1980s or before (unless you are intentionally performing a period piece for a specific show/ audience!)

This is not meant to be an exhaustive list of all illusion books, manuscripts, booklets and DVDs for collectors or for the sake of listing every illusion resource in existence.

If I have not included a specific title in the list, it could be because of the following reasons:

1) The information is not accurate or is not written well (including bad designs, untested overly conceptual material, wrong dimensions or just not workable material)

2) Illusions/ Methods/ Techniques explained are not authorized for public domain or are detailed without permission from relevant creators

3) Information/ Illusions are too outdated and irrelevant for the modern illusionist

4) Some books have questionable material that looks good on paper but there are no working examples of the fabricated illusions or the author has no proven track record that demonstrates that his/ her conceptual designs will work

5) I have missed out a resource or am unaware of its publication

The list is based on my professional experience as an international performing illusionist, illusion designer and author for a significant number of years.

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While it is impossible to perfectly organize titles into fixed categories to cater to all tastes, I have organized the list based on applicability for the beginner, intermediate and advanced illusionist. There will be some overlaps in the intermediate and advanced books but illusionists at this level will be able to discern which book would suit their needs better.

I have given my personal comments on most titles so that you can understand my perspective when making the recommendations.

Now, onto the list…

FOR BEGINNER ILLUSIONISTS

Before you embark on learning how illusions work and how to build illusions, it is advisable to understand the performance, staging and presentation of illusions as well as be educated on standard illusions and plots. In the excitement to learn secrets, most people do it the other way around. The books under the first section “Staging, Production & Performance” should be essential reading for any illusionist.

Staging, Production & Performance

  • So You Want to Be an Illusionist – David Seebach (Must-read for All Illusionists)

seebach

David’s book gives you an overview of his decades of experience as an illusionist. He has owned and worked with many illusions built by top builders. In this spiral-bound book, he shares his experience and tips on working on these popular marketed illusions but does not reveal exact working methods or construction details. There are also nuggets of information spread out throughout the book. This is a good book for beginners but I do feel his approach, style and material may be considered a bit dated for today’s contemporary illusionist looking for mainstream relevance. But, with this caveat in mind, this book is still an invaluable resource and a fantastic introduction to popular marketed illusions.

  • On Stage with Illusions – Duane Laflin (Must-read for All Illusionists)

on stage

Duane Laflin’s “On Stage with Illusions” is a well produced, clearly written book peppered with photos of Duane performing the illusions on stage with his cast. In a nutshell, this book is filled with sound practical advice and solid information on producing, performing and managing a large-scale illusion show. From choosing an illusion, producing different types of shows to examining what makes an illusion show work, Duane leaves little information out. He also includes many miscellaneous practical considerations that do not fall into any one category but are invaluable to any working illusionist. These tips will save you time, frustration, money and effort! These include choosing assistants, how to prepare them to work on an illusion show, how to conduct rehearsals and scripting a show.

  • The Illusion Show Business – Stan Kramien

stan kramien

Stan shares his experience, routines and advise on producing and routining a full illusion show. There is much to learn and understand from this veteran professional on how he approached his work. However, bear in mind, some approaches and techniques may not be as effective in today’s market. There is some information that is a bit dated but easy enough for someone to discern and update/modify to be relevant.

jc sum event

The Event Magician Vol. 1, is a detailed guidebook on producing a stage show specially for an event setting. However, all stage craft and techniques apply to most standard performing conditions. In fact, it is my belief that if you can consistently successfully perform in challenging event conditions, you can be successful in most “show-friendly” environments. This book was also written for the modern magician in mind. It covers all aspects of performing magic at events including understanding the nature of events, choosing material, planning the show, formatting the show, designing the staging, ensuring technical support, packing & transporting the show. There is a specific chapter dedicated to the Event Illusion Show.

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Methods, Design & Building

The following 5 books offer some basic illusions with basic instructions on the construction. The prices of these books are fairly low (compared to modern illusion books) and thus, are great for first time builders or beginning illusionists looking to experiment in illusions. A lot of the designs are dated but studying the basic building plans is a good start to your illusion building education. For the modest investment, you can’t really go wrong and will have more than enough material to experiment with basic illusion performance principles like working with larger props, timing, sight-lines and teamwork.

  • Complete Course in Magic – Mark Wilson

wilson complete

  • Tarbell Course in Magic (Vol 1 – 8. Technically, Vol 1 does not contain any illusions but you might as well get the whole set as these books are a staple reference of any respectable magic library.)

tarbell

  • Victory Carton Illusions – UF Grant (Recommended for New Illusionists Looking to Spend Less than US$10)

grant victory

  • Grant’s Illusion Secrets – UF Grant (Recommended for New Illusionists Looking to Spend Less than US$10)

grants secrets

  • Modern Illusions – Tom Palmer

palmer modern

You can buy U.F. Grant’s books in the form of PDFs, as well as Stan Kramein’s ”The Illusion Show Business” from http://www.lybrary.com under the illusion category. There are several illusion ebooks/ manuscripts available in Lybrary but beware, some are not very good at all.

  • Begin to Build Your Own Illusions: Illusion Systems (Vol I – IV) – Paul Osborne

osborne build own

  • Classic Illusions (Vol 1 – 3) – Paul Osborne  (Must-read for Illusionists Looking to Build Classic Illusions in the Public Domain)

osborne classic

  • Easy Build Illusions – Paul Osborne

osborne easy

  • One Man Illusions – Paul Osborne

osborne one man

  • Professional Illusion Building for the Home Craftsman – Dick Gustafson

osborne building

Paul Osborne’s “Begin to Build Your Own Illusions: Illusion Systems” books were once the foundation texts for illusion builders. They cover many basic building techniques and illusions. But, many of the designs are now very dated in look as well as material and finish. However, the books are still a solid reference. His more recently released books have more contemporary designs and many practical illusion solutions. For new illusionists, I would recommend reading “Easy Build Illusions”, “One Man Illusions” and his “Classic Illusions” as a start. He has also several specialty books for holiday and Halloween illusions that are worthy of consideration.

  • Solo-X – Andrew Mayne
  • Illusion Book – Andrew Mayne
  • Illusion F/X – Andrew Mayne
  • Illusion Tech – Andrew Mayne  (Must-read for Beginner Illusionists)
  • The Secret Illusion Show – Andrew Mayne
  • Voodoo Box, Bisection, Sword Basket, Razorwire and other individual booklets – Andrew Mayne

mayne illusion-builder-pack

Andrew Mayne has a collection of books and booklets that are easy to read and comprehend. He offers many ideas and solutions to illusions that can be built on a budget. His first few books, “Solo X”, “Illusion F/X” and “Illusion Book”, offer more professional-level illusions although most designs do not come with building plans or dimensions. Significant prototyping is needed to build any of the illusions. His newer booklets (Sword Basket, Voodoo Box, Bisection, Razorwire etc.) offer contemporary material that is a great introduction to modern illusioneering. These booklets are modestly priced and targeted for new illusionists or illusionists on a budget. They are good way to start experimenting with larger stage effects with minimal costs, effort and time to create. While most of these illusions will not be suitable for most professional-level shows, many of his “low tech” solutions will work very well for amateur or “weekend warrior” shows.

jcsum pack flat

“Pack Flat Illusions” book is a specialty book on modern large stage effects and illusions for kids & family shows. The illusions require some basic wood-working and building skills to put together and you will be introduced to basic illusion principles applied to simplified props.

Corporate Illusions Made Easy

These are a collection of illusions for corporate entertainers and do not require prior illusion knowledge to understand, build and execute the illusions. In the first illusion book of its kind, it also includes an extensive discussion on presenting illusions for corporate events, the role of the “Corporate Illusionist”, how to go about building the illusions in the book as well as incorporating corporate messaging into the illusions.

  • Illusions In The Round – Don Arthur

illusions in the round

This is a collection of practical illusions that can be performed surrounded and are reasonably easy to build from wood. While not as dated in design as Paul Osborne’s Illusion Systems series, the illusions need to be updated in look. The illusions were designed to be performed in the circus center ring environment and feature practical methods and designs but do not have a cutting edge and modern look.

  • Darwin’s Inexpensive Illusions – Gary Darwin  (Must-read for Illusionists Interested in Black Art work)

darwin book

For Black Art work, this is a very good resource and easy to read. All illusions are based on two basic methods but Gary gives you a lot of variations and explains all the illusions with hand drawings that are easy to understand. This book is excellent for the first-time illusionist or even seasoned illusionists looking for ideas to add material to a theatre show. Note: You will need a proper proscenium, stage curtains and control over lighting to present these illusions. There is a separate DVD that compliments the book.

  • Conjuror’s Optical Secrets – S. H. Sharpe (Must-read for Serious Students of Illusion)
  • Conjuror’s Pneumatic/Hydraulic Secrets – S. H. Sharpe (Must-read for Serious Students of Illusion)
  • Conjuror’s Mechanical Secrets – S. H. Sharpe (Must-read for Serious Students of Illusion)
  • Conjurers’ Psychological Secrets – S. H. Sharpe (Not directly applicable to illusion design and performance but is part of the set of four)

sharpe

Sharpe’s series of books provide important technical information and fundamental principles that will provide an important foundation for more sophisticated illusioneering. These books may feel a bit dated in terms of the writing and presentation but the material is timeless and quite technical.

  • Magic of Robert Harbin – Robert Harbin

harbin

A classic and collectible book on illusions & large-scale stage effects from an acknowledged genius in illusion design and presentation. Among other illusions, it contains the plans and routine to Harbin’s famous “Zig Zag Girl” illusion. While hard to get, it is a good read and shows how ahead of his time Harbin was.

  • Secrets of My Magic by David Devant

devantsecretsofmymagic

This is a big book and contains many illusions with methods that are precursors of current classic illusions. Besides multiple illusions, there are also many stage routines and plots that are also the starting point of routines performed by modern magicians of today. It is currently available as an e-book from Miracle Factory for less than $10.

  • Magic On STAGE by Wally Reid

wally reid

I think this is an underrated book and not widely known. It contains a section on a few illusions that are practical, workable and fairly easy to build. Besides illusions, the rest of the book is filled with stage apparatus magic routines and props that I think fit the stage magician looking to increase the scale of his/ her show. As the book was written 30 years ago, you will need to dress up the props to look modern and contemporary.

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FOR INTERMEDIATE ILLUSIONISTS

  • Device & Illusion – Jim Steinmeyer (Must-read for All Illusionists)
  • Technique & Understanding – Jim Steinmeyer (Must-read for All Illusionists)
  • The Complete Jarrett – Guy Jarrett, Jim Steinmeyer  (Must-read for All Illusionists)
  • The Magic of Alan Wakeling – Jim Steinmeyer (Must-read for All Illusionists)
  • Conjuror’s Anthology – Jim Steinmeyer
  • Modern Art and Other Mysteries – Jim Steinmeyer

steinmeyersteinmeyer modern art

ALL of Steinmeyer’s books should be in any serious illusionist’s library. He is the undisputed most prolific illusion designer of this generation. He has created more modern illusions used by professionals worldwide than any other designer in history. His vast collection of books includes hundreds of illusion designs that will educate on all levels – design, method, psychology and presentation. His work will be most appreciated by intermediate illusionists and above. Even experienced professional illusionists learn new things each time they reread his books.

  • The Base Book – Rand Woodbury (Must-read for All Illusionists)

woodbury base book

  • Illusionworks (I, II and III) – Rand Woodbury

woodbury book

  • Diversions – Rand Woodbury

woodbury diversions

Rand filled a void of modern illusion content in the early 1990s. His designs and concealment methods are contemporary and still hold up to this date very well. His book, “The Base Book”, is a must-read introductory text on this essential tool. The rest of the books contain dozens of cutting edge illusion designs that are suitable for the intermediate to advanced illusionist. You will find many ideas to inspire your own illusions and his modern approach to aesthetic deceptive design should appeal to the modern illusionist. His Illusionworks DVD (Vol 1 & 2) compliment his books perfectly.

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“Illusionary Departures” contains 35 illusion designs & presentations and covers a wide genre of illusion effects designed for the modern beginner to intermediate illusionist. It contains full building plans, dimensions and material lists and is a good resource for illusionists looking for ideas and practical illusions, regardless of the scale of your show. Most importantly, the 2012 edition of the book contains an approach to base designing and fabrication that is different than traditional base building. The resultant prop is very deceptive, easier to construct, lightweight but extremely strong and durable.

  • Paragons and Paradoxes – Milan Forzetting

forzetting

This is the only book from Milan and it contains many innovative ideas to get you thinking. The building plans are sufficient for the intermediate illusionist to understand. Milan is a builder as well and his solutions for various mechanical devices are clever and not too complicated, such as collapsing spring-loaded panels for the sides of illusion props. He also shares his personal insight on the art and business of performing illusions which is yet another valuable perspective of being a professional illusionist.

  • The Black Book – Paul Osborne

osborne black book

  • Illusions: Evolution and the Revolution of the Magic Box – Paul Osborne

osborne illusion book

Both these books are critically acclaimed books and filled with ideas to inspire and fill shows. While not complete blueprints, there is enough information for intermediate illusionists to figure out how the illusions should be built. You will get a wealth of ideas to stimulate your own create thought or find material to add to a show for a relatively affordable building cost.

  • The Illusion Paradigm – Paul Osborne

illusion-paradigm-by-paul-osborne

This is a collection of different contributions from established professional illusion designers and builders and the book focuses on the fabrication of illusion props. As it was published in 2013, the fabrication techniques are up to date and the semi-experienced illusion builders will find value in the collected knowledge.

  • Grand Illusions by Jonathan Pendragon (CD-Rom)

pendragons cd

This CD-Rom contains a PDF file of interview transcripts on Jonathan Pendragon’s thoughts, approach methods and general tips on illusions, performance and presentation. It can be viewed as a written alternative to his DVDs and contains valuable information for the contemporary illusionist. However, if you can, get the DVD set recommended below.

  • The Great Illusions of Magic (2 -books) – Byron G. Wells

great illusions of magic

These books are a bit dated but complete with very detailed blueprints to many illusions. You will need to have some experience in building to understand and be comfortable building the illusions. I have not actually built anything based on these technical drawings so I cannot verify how accurate the dimensions are. I do think they are a great reference for many popular illusions but I personally see this set as more of a collector’s item.

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FOR ADVANCED ILLUSIONISTS

These books contain technically advanced illusion designs that will require an experienced builder to build. Most of the designs require a knowledge of fabrication with wood, metal and plexi-glass. The techniques, methods and staging are also more sophisticated and complex.

The books cover illusions of all genres including vanishes, productions, mutilations,  escapes, transpositions, teleportations and even large-scale illusions with motorcycles and cars. The material would fall under the “modern” illusions category in terms of design, aesthetic design and materials. Any one of the books will be of good value to the modern illusionist and I recommend you look at the contents of each book and read reviews to see which ones interest you.

  • 4e Illusion Design – Mark Parker

parker 4E

  • Vivify – Mark Parker

parker vivify

  • Advanced Illusion Projects – Tim Clothier

illusion projects

jcsum urban

jcsum equilateral

jcsum ultimate

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SPECIALTY ILLUSIONS

These books cover a specific genre of illusion or a specific illusion. Each book is dedicated to the method(s), designs and presentations of a specific illusion and are worthy of study if you intend to perform that genre of illusion. Due to the specific nature of the books, they are more suited for the intermediate illusionist & above.

  • Two Lectures on Theatrical Illusion – Jim Steinmeyer

twolecturesonillusion

This book combines two of Jim Steinmeyer’s titles: “Discovering Invisibility” and “The Science Behind The Ghost”. In Steinmeyer’s usual scholarly approach, he details the history and workings of two specific illusion techniques; namely, the use of mirrors in magic and “Pepper’s Ghost”. It will take you multiple reads to digest this information.

  • Walter Jeans Illusioneer by Peter Warlock – The Million $ Mystery

walter jean

This fairly thin book focuses on the history and workings of the Million Dollar Mystery. It goes into the full history and background of the effect/ principle as well as explains the workings and method. However, there are no exact building plans. The reader has to draw up plans in order for the whole apparatus to be constructed. It is a simple concept to understand, however; building the actual prop itself is very tricky and staging it is not straightforward either.

  • The Magic of Yogano Levitation Systems

yogano

Yogano shares his original levitation and suspension systems in this book translated into English. It features his famous levitations and includes construction plans of these mechanical wonders. I have not actually built anything based on these technical drawings so I cannot verify how accurate the dimensions are. I do know magicians have built some of the systems from the book but I’m unsure if the plans were from the English version of the original French version of the book. You will require an experienced builder as well as metal and electronics worker(s) to build these illusions.

  • Encyclopedia of Suspensions & Levitations – Bruce Armstrong

suspensions

As the name implies, this is a comprehensive tome on the subject with a listing of all known methods of the illusion (as of its writing in 1976). You will have a wealth of information on hand but actual detailed construction plans are not included and you will have to work it out yourself. In most cases, you will need a good metal worker to fabricate the parts/ apparatus needed. To make the “encyclopedia” complete, S.H. Sharpe covers the history of the levitation. A valuable resource on the subject.

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GENERAL READING

The books in this section are for general reading on the subject of illusions and/ or illusionists. No exact methods are detailed as they are not explanation books but are enjoyable reads that will give you insight into the history and personalities of the illusion genre. Many were written for the general public and not just for the magic community.

  • The Master Illusionists – Mark Walker
  • Magic Of Lee Gabriel – O. Mcgill
  • Art and Artifice – Jim Steinmeyer
  • The Glorious Deception – Jim Steinmeyer
  • Hiding the Elephant – Jim Steinmeyer
  • The Last Greatest Magician in the World – Jim Steinmeyer
  • Ralph Adams A Lifetime in Magic (Book and video)

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DVDs/ VIDEOs

There has been very limited information shared on DVD when it comes to grand illusion. For every one thousand DVDs on close-up magic, there is probably only one DVD on grand illusions. One reason is the cost of filming and editing a meaningful illusion DVD. With close-up, you could film a DVD in a small studio with some footage on the streets. To film an illusion, especially in a live setting, you would need a full stage set-up with a live audience and all the technical requirements that go with an illusion show.

Furthermore, the barriers to entry into the professional illusion market is much higher than all other genres of magic. The high investment cost is why many illusionists are less compelled to share their knowledge, expertise and experience. So, it is understandable why illusion DVDs are hard to come by.

I have organized illusion DVDs into three categories.

Performance, Presentation & Approach

In my opinion, any serious student of illusions must watch the DVDs in this section and get a good understanding and appreciation of illusion performing, routining, presenting and thinking from the experiences of different performing professionals. They augment the information in the books recommended in “Staging, Production & Performance”.

  • The Magic of the Pendragons (4-Vol Set) – The Pendragons (Must-watch for All Illusionists)

pendragons

At their peak, The Pendragons was the top illusion team in the world. In the 1980s and 1990s, their approach to illusions was fresh, modern, physical and enthralling. This DVD set, released in 2009, gives you an insider’s view of their incredible body of work with detailed explanations to their “Broom Suspension”, “Sword Basket” and famous “Metamorphosis” illusions. Considering these are staple illusions for many starting-out professional illusionists, this information is already worth five times the price of the DVDs. While the mechanics are not explained in full, they also give insight and history on “Clearly Impossible”, “The Levitation”, “Blammo”, “Impaled”, “Shadow Box” and “Interlude”. Throughout the explanations, they shared nuggets of information that can only be earned through years of professional performing.

  • Behind the Illusions (2-Vol Set) – J C Sum & ‘Magic Babe’ Ning (Must-watch for All Illusionists)

jcsum behind

As the name implies, this DVD explores approaches in design, presentation, performance and routing of modern illusions. It uses ten stage illusions as examples to highlight different teachings and covers all aspects of performing illusions. The material is contemporary and the presentation/ feel is modern so it is highly relevant to the current performing illusionist. As a big bonus, you are taken behind the scenes to a live mega illusion stunt. Note: No detailed secrets or building plans are included in the DVD as that is not the focus or objective of the DVD. Look for reviews on the DVD set as there are many available online.

  • Enigma Tech (2-Vol Set) – Franz Harary (Must-watch for All Illusionists)

harary enigma

Franz has one of the biggest illusion shows in the world and is also one of an elite group of illusionists who only perform their original illusions. The first DVD of this set is a conglomeration of different content from Franz’s Magic Planet series. But, it includes a commentary where he gives some back-story and basic philosophy behind some of his designs and productions. Vol 2 is the valuable education as it is basically an entire live show performed in sequence as opposed to chopped up segmented edited performances. This allows you to see how the show was produced and flows. Any illusionist, new or experienced, will learn a lot from watching this alone and listening to his commentary  You will get ideas to see how you can improve your show production or avoid some elements which you think will not fit your style.

  • Rand LIVE Celebration Tour ’91 – Rand Woodbury

woodbury live

This is a great video to see Rand Woodbury in front of a real crowd performing both illusions and some stand-up material. I am always interested to see if magic authors practice what they preach and in Rand’s case, he does. He is the consummate entertainer and this shines through in his live performance  You will see some illusions detailed in his first “Illusionworks” book. He also films some “to-camera” segments sharing his approach, dealing with situations on stage and general performing of illusions. As in the case of any video that shows world class professionals at work, it is always an education to see what helps make them successful. Even though the footage is from almost 25 years ago, the illusion designs still hold up although, naturally, the music and costuming will feel dated.

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Illusion Plans/ Building/ Method

  • Illusion Works (4-Vol Set)  – Rand Woodbury  (Vol 1 & 2 are Must-watch for All Illusionists)

woodbury dvd

Illusionworks is probably the first ever video series on modern illusion design and is an education for any serious illusion student. Volume 1 & 2 especially are a must-watch as Rand actually goes through the building process of steps and bases and then the performance of the illusion utilities applied to actual illusions. However, take note that dimensions given are not accurate and it is always advisable to make a mock-up out of cardboard or waste plywood first. When the videos first came out, it was the first time innovative cutting edge illusion secrets were revealed and the techniques are still relevant today. The information on these DVDs is invaluable and you will learn a lot.

  • Building Your Own Illusions, The Complete Video Course – Gerry Frenette (6 DVD Set) (Must-watch for All Illusionists)

gerry building

This is a great set of DVDs and the only instructional video of its kind that teaches you everything from handling tools, materials, building techniques and painting. A must-have if you are new to illusion fabrication. Even if you do not build the illusions yourself,  educating yourself on building techniques will help you supervise builders who you may commission to build for you. This is especially if you are not having a professional illusion builder build an illusion but a cabinet maker, carpenter or prop maker.

  • Illusion EFX – Andrew Mayne. (Recommended for Beginner Illusionists)

mayne efx

In typical Andrew Mayne style, this DVD offers many illusions for the new illusionist with economical illusion designs and ideas that you can experiment with. Most illusions can be built within a day and there is enough variety to build a mini show out of the material shared. If you like Andrew’s style of simplistic illusion design, you can also look at his assorted DVDs on individual effects such as Bisection, Levitator and Shrinker among others.

  • Inexpensive Illusions – Gary Darwin

darwin inexpensive

This DVD is a compliment to Gary’s book recommended above.

  • Mark Wilson on Illusions (3-Vol Set) (Highly Recommended for Beginner Illusionists)

wilson illusions

Mark Wilson is the founding father of magic on television and he presented a tremendous amount of magic in his television series in the 1960s. On these 3 DVDs, he shares the techniques for many of the illusions including suspensions and levitations. The first DVD features illusions that can be made from cardboard or plastic corrugated board as Grant’s Victory Cartons-style illusions. He also shows the application of illusions for the television camera. While these are not camera tricks per say, they use the fixed perspective and size of the camera frame to create remarkable results with “easy” illusions. As all the material shown is from Mark’s illustrious professional career, you will need to apply your own creativity to update the illusions to look modern and fresh for today’s audience.

  • Doll House…Plus! – Dennis Loomis

doll-house...plus-

I have to admit that I have not watched this DVD before but I have read and heard only good things about it. It gives you comprehensive explanations and plans to the “Doll House” illusion as well as the “Sword Temple” (also known as the “Temple of Benares”). The Sword Temple is an excellent first illusion for a new illusionist, as I highlight in my essay here; so that alone is worth looking into the DVD. The “Doll House” split-load method is also a standard hiding position in magic that is used in many illusions. Understanding the dimensions and how the “Doll House” is built to be deceptive is a good introductory education to the application of other illusions as well.

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Performance Only

While the DVDs in this section do not explain any illusions or methods, I think they are an excellent education for all serious students of illusion. Many of the DVDs include commentaries or interviews with insight or background information on the illusions/ shows. One route of learning is through observation and modeling after excellence (as well as not modelling mistakes), so these DVDs make good references.

  • Magic Planet (Vol 1 – 6) – Franz Harary

harary magic planet

  • Live in China – Franz Harary

harary china

  • Theater of Illusion – The Spencers

spencers

  • Magic Circus (Vol 1 – 6) – Mark Wilson

wilson magic circus

  • Illusion – David Copperfield (with commentary)

copperfield

  • The Lee Grabel Archival Project (4 DVD Set)

Lee Grabel

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If you have a recommendation to make or would like your book/ DVD to be included in the list, please email me at jcsum(a)conceptmagic.biz. However, I reserve the right to include/ exclude any publication based on my personal subjective criteria for the list.

Buy some of the books/ DVDs highlighted above HERE and use this Promo Code “5OFF2014” upon Checkout to receive a 5% discount off all books, sets, DVD, plans & downloads.

The Successful Illusionist

Anyone thinking of embarking on a career (whether full-time or part-time) as an illusionist will no doubt dream of bright lights, their own stage, in their own theatre or perhaps their television special. In short, making it big as an illusionist.

The ‘luck factor’ plays a significant role to becoming successful. For purposes of this discussion, let us suspend our belief and exclude luck as a factor.

So, what makes a successful illusionist?

Here are my thoughts on the subject:

Illusions

The basic techniques and methodologies of illusions, are less likely to be huge factors. But the presentation and application of the illusions will be. There will be new innovations and discoveries but that has always been the case.

One constant that I think (hope) that will come back with the next thing in illusion is motivation and good story-telling in illusion performance. (I don’t consider ‘cheesy’ plots where the magician is ‘captured’ by bad guys and put into a box etc necessarily good story-telling unless it is performed WELL in the right context and the right theatrical environment.)

Good close-up workers (not necessarily the new-age ‘Street Magicians’) strive for credibility and motivation for all the actions. There is story-telling, from subtle to elaborate, in practically every effect. All illusionists should read Darwin Ortiz’s ‘Strong Magic’ and apply it to their illusion performance craft. Of course, I recognize the need for ‘no-brainer’ visual bubble gum in the context of a larger show. But, I do not think 50 illusions performed in succession make for a good presentation of illusion.

Target Market

This is the single most important factor in making a particular style/ presentation the next thing in magic. If you are working only out of a small market segment, no matter how original and commercial the style is, it is unlikely it will catch on. The ‘next thing’ means it has to be seen by many and then perceived to be good and the rage.

Like it or not, mass media markets (Television, Internet, Movies, Radio?) are generally what make the style of today. If you are going for any mass media market, being right up there with the latest in pop culture and trends is a must. Predicting what the next trend will be a lot trickier. Movie and music genres/ styles can give an indication of what might work. Examining financial successes over the past twenty years might allow for some educated guesses. Entertainment trends, like fashion and business, are cyclical.

However, it is also highly possible to establish oneself in other mainstream markets first, then crossover to mass media markets. This is generally the route many have taken as well.

What is your target market for your type of illusion show? Cruises, Showrooms, Music Concerts, Resorts, Special Events? What are the hottest shows (out of magic) in your respective market? Can magic emulate those formulas or use magic to elevate that formula?

Take advantage of the medium to create something different. In recent years, that is what has happened with magic on TV. The medium has been used to great advantage (or deception) to create an apparent new type of magic.

Many successful magicians all over the world have become the best because they created the ‘next thing’ within their respective market segments.

Differentiation

This will help narrow what the next thing will be; as it is a certainty that the next thing will not be a ‘me-too’ act. The ‘me-too’ syndrome is just as prevalent in magic, as it is in other entertainment forms. The true fact is; there are so many illusion clones out there. I personally do not understand the phenomena but I accept that it happens. Ethics aside, I find it difficult to see how one can except to get wide success by being a dime out of a dozen. It think there is a market for one clone of another act but multiple clones?

Again, please understand that I’m speaking from the point of view of working outside a small market – as this is relevant to the quest of creating the next thing in grand illusion. If you are working for laymen within a fixed population threshold, yes, it makes no difference if you look the same and perform the same stuff as another person outside this market. However, if you are looking to make an impact at a national or international level, you will be judged by experts in the entertainment field; world-class talent brokers and show producers. Trust me when I say that good agents/ producers have literally seen it all… or at least, anything worth seeing.

Just to illustrate this, here are some specific illusions/ presentations that make informed individuals thing we ‘magicians/ illusionists’ are just the same.

Packing Crate-style Sub Trunk – 9/10 illusionists feature this. Origami and Interlude are close seconds and thirds as well. I’m not knocking the illusion, it is a brilliant illusion but everyone does it and not all well, unfortunately. I think it is fine to do it in your show amongst other illusions but don’t put it in your promotional material. (Again, I stress, I’m not knocking the illusion. I’m just stating this in the context of the discussion).

I don’t perform the Sub Trunk for this reason – because everyone is doing it and it will be too embarrassing for someone to point this out. How do you answer this question: “Why do all you magicians perform the same ‘tricks’?” I guess a possible answer is: “Just like musicians, we perform various classics with our own interpretation. While they look the same, they do feature our own unique styles and presentations.” The problem is, not many see magic as a mainstream art as we do, thus would not take that answer as a credible one. Another ‘problem’ is inherent with the magic art. Secrecy is a what separates magic from any other art form. The thing is, most laymen also think that the secrecy is kept among magicians as well, especially in the area of grand illusion. They do not naturally assume we know each other’s secret methods. Thus, it is surprising to them that we can perform the same illusions. But, I digress.

Kevin James Snowing Routine  – Specifically, the tearing of the napkin paper into the snow flake, his story about a child’s first impression of snow and snowing method/ effect (animator). Or Peter Samelson’s Snowing Presentation with the traditional snowstorm & fan. Again, both a beautiful, logical and motivated piece but has lost its novelty. For the record, I’ve personally seen the exact presentation performed on videos and live performances by magicians/ illusionists in the UK (3 performers), US (12 performers), Singapore (3 performers), Hong Kong, Australia and several from Europe. I’m sure there are many more out there.

The ‘Copperfield’ Look – The tucked out shift over T-shirt can be seen on many performers trying to look the same. Sigh…

The Sentimental Grandfather Story – Everyone has a grandfather who inspired them with the first magic effect they learnt etc. Some can pull it off, most cannot. Not because they are incompetent but it is just not their style. They are doing it because others are doing it.

Are the above examples only apparent because we are learned students of the illusion craft and are aware of all that goes on in magic. Not really, because these examples (except for the last one) were highlighted to me by an international show producer.

To understand the business/ commercial upsides of being different, Jack Trout’s ‘Differentiate or Die’ is a very easy must-read.

Longevity

This does not really answer the question but it is something to consider. While working towards being the ‘next thing’, which can be a hit & miss thing as mentioned above, it is wise to consider longevity in the business. Translating a short-term fad into a sustained success can be a challenge given today’s ever-changing world.

It is possible to do very well with a ‘safe’ style that has a long shelf –life with sustained appeal but is unlikely to be the next BIG thing. But, that is not the topic of discussion anyway.

I guess the key for all is to present good magic, preserve, work hard and constantly innovate. Remember, what is often an overnight success or tomorrow’s trend has actually been in development for the past decade.

Related article: Why do Illusionists Perform the Same Illusions?

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Why do Illusionists Perform the Same Illusions?

This is not a rant or a justification piece but rather an observation with some suggestions. Spend one hour on YouTube and view different illusionists’ videos and you will find this to be completely true.

You will see the exact same illusions, same choreography, same movements and same presentations. Many times, the exact same props are used but with different colours because they are either marketed illusions or pirated. In fact, many of the illusions are pirated, especially by professionals from Europe, India and China. This is sad but not under the scope of this discussion.

Here are 11 illusions that I think are (as of this writing in 2013) too commonly seen in programs of illusionists worldwide:

  1. Origami
  2. Interlude
  3. Packing Crate Sub Trunk
  4. Fire Spiker
  5. Suspended Animation
  6. Fire Cage
  7. Modern Art
  8. Wakeling Sawing
  9. Mini Kub Zag
  10. Snowstorm/ Snow Animator
  11. Floating Table

Technically, the last two are not really considered illusions but I list them as they are larger scale effects and almost everyone performs them.

There are cycles and phases of popularity of different illusions and I actually refined the list since I first wrote this post in 2009.

They are several reasons why illusionists are performing the same illusions:

1) It is convenient. It is easier and more affordable to buy a fabricated illusion prop that is available on the market rather than to create, prototype and fabricate an original illusion.

2) Illusionists, like clients, agents and show producers, want to take little risk. They would rather invest in things that are proven. Seeing someone else have success with an illusion makes it easy for an illusionist to invest in that same prop because they feel they are assured of the same reactions from the audience.

3) Illusionists fall in love with the illusions and just want to perform them. The ‘magic geek’ in them takes over and clouds their judgement even if it may not be a good commerical investment to perform the illusion because it is common.

4) More than a handful of illusionists do not care that they are performing the same (and pirated) illusions as many others because they feel their audience reacts well to the illusions and that is all that matters. Plus, they are still getting booked to perform these illusions. Unfortunately, this same group of illusionists have generally little pride (ego yes, pride no) or professional ethics.

5) Technology has made the world flat and the Internet & YouTube allow media to be shared worldwide at the click of a mouse. As such, illusion performances can be viewed by other illusionists globally. Illusions are also more accessible to illusionists from different parts of the world because of the Web.

The flip side to the last point is that anyone including clients, agents and show producers are able to watch illusionists’ performances from across the world and will soon realize that the same illusions are being performed by different people. As a ressult,  there is little differentiation between illusionists and illusionists are perceived to be interchangeable.

I know many will say that the casual lay audience member generally does not see the difference between illusions in general categories of magic anyway. i.e. all vanishes, levitations, exchanges etc are all the same to the casual layman even if the prop or presentation is different. That is generally true… but why use that as an excuse to perpetuate the sterotype that all illusionists perform the same illusions by continuing to perform the same illusions?

Personally, I do feel illusionists are interchangable at times when I watch the same old  illusions in different illusionists’ videos. I lose interest… and I’m a magic geek. Imagine what an average lay person, who has only an average interest in magic, thinks. Or consider the client or agent who is looking for an illusionist. They would be motivated to go with the one whose fees are the most competitive since all the illusions are the same.

Illusionists will no doubt defend this line of thought upon reading it by saying: “it is not what you do but how you do it!” That is true, but only to a certain extent. Just because you use a different piece of music or smile instead of act dramatic or add a costume change at the illusion does not warrant enough of a differentiation. The people who do matter, especially if you are establishing yourself as a top professional will notice these differences. The people I’m referring to are the educated clients, agents, show bookers and media.

So, there is a need for illusionists to stop doing the exact same illusions… and this is not an excuse to buy pirated illusions of performers who have not released proprietory illusions.

Over the course of the last five years, Ning & I  have dropped the common illusions from our repertorie. Our mega illusions like the 50-storey teleportation and teleportation over the Singapore River are signature illusions that differentiated us to the general public and media.

But, most of the stage illusions in our current show are unique (in the very least in look) or very seldom seen. “Revolllusion“, “Crystal Metamphosis“, “Light & Space“, and now our version of “Shadow Vision” and “360 Sawing” all have strong distinctive looks and presentations. We are also working on a brand new original theatrical illusion act. Collectively, they give our show a non-cookie cutter feel and look.

I’ll be the first to admit that developing a full show of original illusions is extremely difficult. The amount of creativity, time, effort and $$$ are all factors that make this very difficult to attain  But, if you are going to do one of the common illusions, do something with the prop design or presentation that makes it appear to be a completely different illusion. Here are 3 examples to reinvent 3 way-too-common illusions:

Modern Art was a good alternative to the Harbin’s Zig Zag Gal and traditional thin sawing illusion until it became too common. Just type in Modern Art in YouTube and you will get 3 pages of videos of this illusion. That is one reason why Ning refused to continue performing this illusion a year ago.

However, if you can redesign the illusion such that it looks really different, I think it will work. I’m not just talking about theming the prop to look like a phone booth or letter box but really redesigning it so that it becomes more deceptive and looks almost like another illusion. I’ve know of 3 versions of Modern Art where the grill arm under the table has been removed and the girl’s head is on the outside the top of the cabinet. These changes actually make the illusion look completely different and new, although the methods may be about the same.

Gunter Puchinger’s Mini Kube Zag is a neat illusion but is also way too common. The bare-bone basic model is the ultimate cliche ‘girl in box’ illusion. One solution may be to give it a highly themed look and presentation. Smokey Mountain Magic does great design work for this particular illusion and can really theme the prop beautifully. However, unless you have a very solid, logical presentation that is not cheesy and can complement the prop, you will just have a beautiful looking prop that only magicians appreciate.

I think that the best redesign of this illusion to make it look almost unrecognizable and fresh is Michael Barron’s Kube Zag which he calls “The Device”. Coupled with his excellent presentation and choreography, it is a great re-invention of the illusion. Check out his video on YouTube.

The Packing Crate Sub Trunk is also one of the, if not THE most commonly performed illusion because it is also considered by many as a great entry-level illusion. The inherent illusion is fantastic, but it is just way too common. Also, as far as I’m concerned (and most people in the industry), this illusion is ‘owned’ by the Pendragons. For those who cannot acheive the same speed and look, they just look like inferior clones of Jonathan and Charlotte. For those who can, what’s the point? The Pendragons did it first.

In Europe, several performers, most notably Hans Klok (again!) do a sub trunk with a cylindrical box. It looks different enough and it allows for a very fast exchange – which I personally believe is the essense of the illusion. I do not buy into propositions that the exchange need not be fast to be effective. In this illusion, speed is everything and what makes the illusion visually spectacular.

I avoided the packing crate sub trunk for the longest time in my career because I felt it was too common, until I designed “Crystal Metamorphosis” which I have almost perfected with Ning. As I highlighted in my book “Urban Illusions”, where this illusion design is detailed, everything about this version of the sub trunk allows me to create the perceived Pendragon-like speed because of the design & visual and psychological aspect that the prop is completely clear.

This entry is beginning to sound like a rant… but it is not… well maybe just a bit. The point it… for the sake of the art and yourselves as proud illusionists…. take these too common illusions out of your shows/ videos (for now) or try to redesign them so that they feel different. Remember, everything old will become new again in the future!

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.

illusionplan
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!

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