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Revealing The Secrets Behind Great Optical Illusions

Written by Dr Matt Pritchard

Screenshot from Matt's Elephant illusion

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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 fuelled 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.

Some effects are impossible to do in real life because they are just too noisy (unless you’re on a large stage with loud music blaring). Not so when presented on a screen when microphones can be repositioned, temporarily muted, or the volume levels tweaked to hide tell-tale signs.

Question to ponder: How can I incorporate techniques used in a large theatre into my own work?

2. Magic only works from one angle.

From the very beginning of learning magic, we’re taught to watch our angles and make sure we don’t flash. What if having multiple angles on a performance enhances the effect? Video performances allow the possibility of doing just that, from ultra-close ups to instant slow-motion replays. We see this to good effect in shows like Britain’s Got Talent, where a close-up card trick can bring a standing ovation when blown up onto the big screen. The technology to do this in virtual shows requires very little investment and is relatively simple to operate solo during a show. It’s an easy win for increasing production values.

A quick tip: when presenting over platforms like zoom, “spotlight” alongside yourself a particularly expressive spectator during the magic moments. Their emotional reactions can elevate the performance.

Having extra perspectives can also add to the level of impossibility. Rather than a multi-phased routine, what about a multi-angled routine? Last year I made this video:

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A post shared by Matt Pritchard (@sciencemagician)

Admittedly it’s more of a puzzle than a blockbuster (and the music is annoying!). I only know of 2 people who figured it out unprompted. Can you?

Question to ponder: Where might adding another view aid your performance?

3. The magician is working alone.

Magic is largely a solo endeavour, especially in the realms of close-up magic. Performing through a camera lens allows off-stage assistants to aid your magic. They can literally be centimetres away from you and will remain hidden.

Question to ponder: Can recruiting a helper create new opportunities for my magic?

4. That would be too much work for the magician.

“Sometimes magic is just someone spending more time on something than anyone else might reasonably expect.” Teller

When I finally get around to writing a magic book, I’m going to call it “Impractical Magic.” I am fond of creating ridiculously overengineered setups to make my magic videos. I deliberately shy away from using conventional magic props and techniques. They’re primarily for my own enjoyment of setting and overcoming challenges. However, they do make them very hard to deconstruct as a spectator. There isn’t just one simple principle at work.

If your work goes beyond what can be imagined by a spectator, then you’re a good way towards creating a powerful effect. Here’s an example of mine that you only see the tip of the iceberg:

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A post shared by Matt Pritchard (@sciencemagician)

Virtual magic performances allow you the possibility of taking the time to create elaborate setups for your performances. You’ve not got the time pressure of a quick get in at a theatre or a TV crew impatiently waiting for you to fine-tune the set. Filming from a home studio allows the luxury that the likes of Copperfield and Penn & Teller have in having a consistent theatre setup to perform in. And you won’t need to spend the big bucks to kit it out. If you can track down a copy of Tom Mullica’s “Magic at the Tom Foolery” book, you can read how he custom-fitted his magic bar theatre.

Question to ponder: How can I customise my virtual studio to aid my magic?

5. The magician has amazing skills.

I love watching videos like these from Michael Wlotzka:

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A post shared by Michael Wlotzka (@jayjinho81)

There is, of course, some skill here, but the real secret is patience. Imagine what it would look like if all you ever saw were the final successful attempts. The performer would seem like the most skilled juggler in the world. They could curate their skill.

In so many fields the nature of performance has changed. Previously a stage performer would present the same act hundreds of times, and each new audience would watch it once. Now an online performance may only ever happen once but may be viewed multiple times (often slowed down or even viewed frame by frame, as the curious spectator tries to excavate the secret).

This is both an opportunity and an obstacle.

Let’s think about two words: accuracy and precision. They don’t mean the same thing. I find it helpful to think about targets. Accuracy is a measure of how close to the bullseye your average shot is. Precision is a measure of how spread out these shots are. The diagram below helps us to understand how a combination of accuracy and precision might play out in four situations.

image displaying difference of accuracy and precision

Traditionally, a good performer would have to be accurate and precise in executing sleights and prop handling. There is a good reason why most big-name magicians shy away from live TV performances, especially for one-off grand illusions.

As a little exercise, look at this Doug Henning performance of Walking Through a Brick Wall and see if you can spot what didn’t go to plan.

At least this time, it wasn’t an escaped tiger on the rampage backstage.

Pre-recorded video allows you to exploit an accurate and NOT precise way of working. Film multiple takes and then pick the best one. This is perhaps one of my biggest secrets to my lightning-quick illusion videos like this:

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A post shared by Matt Pritchard (@sciencemagician)

You’ve seen 1 video; you didn’t see the 99 I deleted because they weren’t good enough. Often, I would think I’ve got the perfect shot, but then zooming in and going frame by frame, I spot a glitch. (You do that, don’t you?) My skill is my patience. Filming my own content has allowed me to do this as there’s no film crew to pay or piss off with my fumbling attempts to get it right.

Question to ponder: Can you replace precision for patience?

But isn’t this all cheating?

Yes. Probably.

As an artist, you need to make some choices about values.

What are your creative rules to stick to? How do you define magic? What is the role of a magician? What would you like your audience to experience? Do you want consistency between your in-person and virtual performances?

Knowing the answer to these questions will help decide what areas of deception you feel comfortable using and what areas to stay clear of. Some of what I’ve written above makes me feel uncomfortable. I also know past-Matt would be criticising present-Matt for some of the choices I now make. Virtual magic is a medium with huge potential to explore and gives us some of the tools previously only reserved for big-budget productions. Let’s keep pushing our art and craft forward.

Question to ponder: How can I use the restrictions of virtual shows to my advantage and to move magic forward?