Revealing The Secrets Behind Great Optical Illusions

Matt Pritchard on embracing restrictions

Illustration of a magician at their desk

During the pandemic lockdowns, my work switched from live performances to creating optical illusions and short magic videos for social media. Mainly for my own amusement to fill the depressing void in my diary and to learn some new technical skills to help navigate the virtual world.

The Magic Circle announced the new ‘Virtual Magician of the Year’ contest earlier this month. This got me thinking about the opportunities and pitfalls this recent lockdown-fueled medium has created.


Magicians deal in assumptions—leading our spectators to think down incorrect paths and skip over crucial details that might betray hidden workings—making a smooth journey without any hint of the crunching of cognitive gear changes. At the final destination, it’s hard for viewers to deconstruct the magic effect because they have nothing to grip onto.

However, as magicians, we can often be both the victims and villains of making bad assumptions. They are often so insidious we’re unaware that we’re making them, which can lead us to limit our performances inadvertently.

An essay by Michael Close that helped open my eyes to the more creative use of assumptions can be found at the beginning of Workers 5—It’s recommended reading.

Let’s explore a few additional assumptions when creating magical video content…

1. The camera is seeing what an audience member would see.

Filming allows precise control over the environment akin to working in a well-equipped theatre but at a fraction of the cost. Many of my optical illusions make use of being able to control the viewing position and angle tightly.

Imagine what effects a stage illusionist would be able to present if they were only performing to a single spectator in seat D24 with their unique sightlines. As a virtual magician, you’ve got that opportunity.

Much like a theatre’s wings and proscenium arch, you’ve also got the edges of the camera frame to deploy to your advantage. A crude example is using the bottom edge of the screen to allow the ‘lapping’ of objects. Far more sophisticated applications exist, especially when combined with a timely zoom in or out of the scene to disguise the method. If you’re familiar with Jon Allen’s version of Professor’s Nightmare, you’ll know that he makes good use of edges to add conviction to that routine.

You can carefully set up lighting in conjunction with the camera’s settings to highlight specific areas or camouflage secrets. Although let’s not delude ourselves into thinking, the bold use of black art escapes the attention of spectators’ thoughts. I’m tired of seeing half my Instagram feed looking like it was filmed down a coal mine to make a tiny object vanish.

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