When All Else Fails... Mic Check.
The morality of TV magic's infamous method
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Even I feel a bit odd writing this… when all else fails, mic check.
Many years ago, we were shooting on location with a magician who had never performed on TV. About one minute into their performance to three contributors within a busier location, the magician dropped the gimmick onto the floor. They were seemingly unaware, and I instantly knew we could cut around it. The contributors didn’t seem to notice either. People rarely do notice much when they have multiple cameras on them, and the pressure is on to not look like a tit on national television. Nonetheless, the gimmick was necessary for the finale of the trick.
I squeezed my comms and informed the director we needed to call a mic check. The director paused, waiting for a moment that we could easily stitch together in the edit. Then on cue, the soundie dropped his boom pole and asked everyone to stop, saying one of the spectators mics had failed.
The crew were well versed in magic. I should say that mic checks like this are almost non-existent in all other forms of television. The apparent lack of professionalism would dumbfound anyone on set who was not accustomed to TV magic.
In fact, there was one person on set who was a little dumbfounded and shocked that we’d suddenly stopped halfway through the magic routine… the magician.
The sound engineer walked over to check the mic of the spectator, the camera operators lowered their cameras, and I walked over to the magician and told them their shoelace was untied. They looked down, saw the gimmick and immediately knelt to retie their laces and retrieve the gimmick.
Mic checks, for the most part, are only used when all else fails. However, there are occasions you can use a mic check to play with time. Let’s say an object that just disappeared - mic check - then reappears inside an impossible location. Or perhaps a difficult object needs to be switched, and you choose to do so under the guise of a mic check.
Some convention magicians can take great offence to the use of a mic check —usually because it’s something they cannot do at their close-up gigs. Up until a few years ago, I’d argue that it’s just a tool available to that platform, much like how certain black art methods only work on stage (and in poorly lit TikToks). Nowadays, I realise that mic checks as a method are more often than not only for the benefit of the edit.
You really could switch the difficult object without a mic check, and you really could get the magician to a secondary location without a mic check, but it would result in a challenging edit. Time moves slower on television; even thirty seconds of time-wasting to get an object into an impossible location feels like forever. What mic checks do is present the editor with a really clean out and in. When you remove the section between the soundie calling a mic check and the director calling action, the cut tends to be seamless.
Some contributors take great offence to mic checks. If they do, you probably called a terrible mic check, and there really is an art form to calling a good mic check.
Harry De Cruz and I once sat through a taping of a comedy panel show, in which the comedians excruciatingly mocked TV magic for about ten minutes straight. One of the comedian’s friends had been subject to a poorly executed mic check, told the comedian, and they were now sharing the story on television to their delight. Eventually, the gallery informed the host via an earpiece that the executive producers of the panel show also produced several magic shows, and so they should move on because the previous ten minutes would never air. This, of course, was how Harry and I had tickets to the taping.
The morality of the mic check
I follow a rule which most magic consultants use. One that I first heard from Blake Vogt. It’s a simple question to consider:
Does the contributor remember/retell the trick the same way it is seen on screen?
And that’s where I fall. Ideally, the spectator forgets the mic check ever happened or doesn’t see it as crucial to the retelling of their story. So, if you want to employ a mic check, it needs to be good…
The makings of a good mic check.
Get the soundie on your side. People do not like looking like they are bad at their job. The sound engineer must know they’re playing a crucial role in the success of the trick. Most people love this when you present it like that, but you do come across people who do not want to look like they are failing at their job in front of people or simply are too nervous to act/lie.
This is particularly relevant when an important person is on set who cannot know the trick's secret. Let’s say someone from the channel is visiting. It’s going to be embarrassing for the sound engineer to openly pause the entire shoot for supposedly failing at their job. I’ve been there when someone from the channel has gone crazy at the sight of a mic check before a producer has calmed them down and revealed it was planned; it’s not fun, especially if it’s inside the gallery which has open comms to everyone working in the studio.
This is why my second piece of advice is to get everyone on your side. For the mic check to seem perfectly normal to the contributors, it also needs to feel perfectly normal to the crew. People should know about mic checks, even if you do not plan to use one for the method.
Do not leave the contributor’s eye line. Do not turn them away. Get the soundie to stand between them and the performer. A mic check is not a free-for-all to do whatever you like. Do not get carried away. If you need to go in and switch something with the magician, you should still do so under the cover of a clipboard or with sleight-of-hand.
The crew must disassociate from the magician. A crew tends to be incredibly close to the magician. But in this case, it’s important that the magician appears surprised by the mic check and that there’s a disconnect between them and the crew. It’s usual for a good TV magician to ask the director what’s happening or sympathise with the contributors. A good magic director will play their part well and apologise to the magician, too.
Pick the right moment. You need to consider the edit, the cameras, the method and most importantly, the contributor's mind. Most contribs are relieved for there to be a mic check but do pick the right moment. Pick a down moment when nothing is happening. If the magician makes an object vanish and reappear in an impossible location, there are a few moments available to call a mic check… which would you choose?
Borrows object > makes object vanish > presents the impossible location > mic check > shows vanished object now inside the impossible location.
Borrows object > makes object vanish> mic check > presents the impossible location > shows vanished object now inside the impossible location.
Borrows object > mic check > makes object vanish> presents the impossible location > shows vanished object now inside the impossible location.
The correct answer, in my opinion, is number three. The mic check needs to happen when there is no heat at the moment. Otherwise, you’ll feel it when you see the spectator in the final edit. You’ll see their tense excited look right before the object is revealed in the impossible location shift if the mic check occurs at that point.
Now, you’re wondering how the trick is even possible with the mic check at option number three… well, the magician needs to switch the object before the mic check.
Borrows object > switches object > mic check (genune object is placed in impossible location) > makes it (the duplicate) vanish> presents the impossible location > shows vanished object now inside the impossible location.
Switching the object removes all heat away from the mic check. It means that throughout the mic check, the magician can openly hold the “object” which has already been switched. And because the contributor has no idea the object is about to vanish or reappear elsewhere, there’s absolutely no suspicion that a consultant might currently be under a table or in a backroom or sometimes literally stood behind the spectator loading the object into the impossible location.
This is what makes a good mic check, and it reminds me of a good question to ask yourself when employing this technique…
Is this the easiest way to do this?
If the answer is yes, you’re doing it wrong. The easiest way to do the above example would be to call a mic check later and skip the need for an on-camera switch. But as discussed, the easiest way is not always the best way. This is important because I sometimes think convention magicians think TV magicians use mic checks because TV magicians are lazy when more often than not, a mic check creates more challenges for the performer and the crew… in pursuit of a cleaner final edit.