Follow-up to Why Do Illusionists Perform the Same Illusions?

This is a follow-up to the post here.

Thanks for your emails and feedback on the piece.

I should first clarify that my observations were made based on what I saw professional-level illusionists performing and what I think they should be doing instead. There is not the same level of expectation for new, aspiring or amateur illusionists because they are new to the game. But, professionals who make a living on magic and are a representation of our industry should be held at a much higher standard.

Also, different artists have individual aspirations and artistic & commercial goals. So, my observations were made in reference to the commercial creative artist who is looking for mainstream commercial success.

However, some did not fully understand my ‘essay’. My point was not a proposal to just perform new and original illusions in a bid to push the art forward and for illusionists to differentiate themselves from each other.

With the exception of the likes of Copperfield, Penn & Teller and Franz Harary, there are very few in the world who can present almost an entire show of original illusions.

My proposed  solution to “Why Do Illusionists Perform the Same Illusions?”recommended that, as far as possible, new illusions should be featured in an illusionist’s show program. If not, and also the main point of the entry, at least present illusions with some originality through:

1) The redesign of a ‘standard/ common’  prop to make it look different

2) Through the presentation of the illusion. The presentation can encompass, characterization of performers,  the motivation, logic, choreography, story plot and entertainment value.

If you watch American Idol, one of the recurring comments the judges make is for the contestants to be original. And the application of originality here is not to sing an original song or composition but to present any song in a unique way, sing it in a different style, add a melodic twist or change the arrangement so that a song is relevant to today’s audience. At no point do the judges insist or even suggest that the contestants sing original written songs.

While this is no guarantee of success, time has shown that the contestants who do well in the competition are those that perform never-before-seen interpretations of a known song. However, it is a given that they need be perform commercially appealing interpretations and their vocals must be excellent.

To reiterate –  that was my point in my entry “Why do illusionists perform the same illusions?” My point was not to insist that all illusionists should invent new illusions but rather they need to think how they can reinvent a ‘standard/ common’ illusion so that it is different and not so ‘me-too’.

If fact, I would go so far to say that you do not need to invent or perform a 100% new illusion effect to be successful. David Blaine revolutionized close-up magic (or magic in general) by performing the same time-tested close-up effects that magicians had performed for decades. But, he brought originality (as perceived by the general public and media) by presenting the effects stripped of elaborate presentations and in a different environment.

In addition, I am in no way implying that differentiation is more important and negates the need for presenting great magic. It is essential that the differentiated illusion be great magic. In fact, the quality of the basic illusion effect is a given not a goal.

But for the art and industry to progress forward, there is also a need to push the envelope more and not be contented with just doing great magic. I feel the thought process should be to strive towards presenting great magic that has individualism and is relevant to your audience.

To further illustrate what I was proposing in terms of bringing originality to illusions, here are examples, past and present:

The Thin Sawing/ Wakeling Sawing

While different in method, the visual image and props use are similar enough for laymen to feel they are the same illusion. Doug Henning and Andre Kole were the first to present the Thin Sawing as a double sawing with two girls in different costumes. Subsequently, the two bottom halves of the girls were switched so that when the girls were restored, they were restored mismatched.

The Wakeling Sawing brought back the original intended presentation of the sawing a girl in half by involving audience members, straps and a streamlined set of props. Kalin & Jinger’s fine presentation brought this illusion to the masses and since has been ‘adopted’ by many others around the world.

The Sub Trunk

With the acknowledgment of all the Sub Trunk-inspired exchange illusions, I’m confining this example to be specific to the classic Sub Trunk effect/ handling.

Siegfried & Roy presented it with a double costume change and the production of a large cat as a kicker. The Pendragons, of course, ‘owned’ the illusion with their switch + revelation handlings with just a front cloth. Some performers such as Tim Ellis & Sue-Anne Webster and Fielding West have added comedy to the standard illusion to include a cross-dressing costume exchange.

Dekolta Chair

Copperfield built an entire attic scene story-based illusion sequence which ended with a motivated Dekolta Chair on a table. Many tried to follow suit but lacked the intricacies and theatrics to make it work as well. Nicolas Night & Kinga did an amazing job with a similar premise but with their original spin that made it different and work. More recently, Han Klok kills with a lighting-fast vanish that I think he will no doubt attribute to the skills of Zarina Potapova.

Fire Spiker

Mark Kalin took the original Wakeling double spiker, altered the design and added in the transposition kicker. Hans Klok adapted the Kalin design and added in the kicker of the appearance of a second girl and successfully made it is own. Now, just about every European illusionist and many from China and India have ripped this version off. Adding a third girl appearance does not make it original in my book. It is like performing Lance Burton’s Dove Act but claiming it is different because you add an extra bird.

Snowing

When Kevin James released his Snow Animator, everyone added it to their show, with the exact same patter and presentation with the napkin and snowflake and music. It amazes me to learn how many magicians never saw snow as a kid. But, Copperfield adapted the routine and took it a step further in scale so it did not look so ‘me-too’.

I actually developed a routine using the Snow Animator but does not have a snow presentation at all. It is called “Diary of Dreams” and is detailed in “Illusionary Departures”.

Zig Zag Lady

My closest original illusion design to Zig Zag Gal, is Seven by Half. The updated design of this illusion can be found in “Urban Illusions”. While, it was not designed as an exact alternative for the Zig Zag, the obvious Zig Zag influence and premise is evident. So, I do not think it is a stretch of the imagination that Seven By Half is a reinvention of the Zig Zag.

Chris Murphy from Oz Illusions redesigned the classic Zig Zag so it look more modern and quite different.

abitontheside

Rand Woodbury has a great enhancement in Illusionworks that you should check out. However, it does require a significantly modified Zig Zag and an extra ‘table’.

As it has been said before, everything old is new again. Entertainment trends like business is cyclical.

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!