Are Camera Tricks Magic


Daniel Madison — a UK magician and walking tattoo display stand — posted a long vlog in defence of using camera tricks on television and online magic. (This is as a lead-up to teaching a piece of magic that uses a camera trick.)

It’s difficult to know how seriously to take this as this is what I’ve started to call a victim rant. He’s anticipating a large amount of pushback (some of it less than polite) and so he needs to front load the video with a lengthy opinion piece and disclaimer. But because this is a pre-emptive response to hypothetical haters, we don’t know anything about the hate. How many are there? What proportion of his audience are they? Are they holding these beliefs on good reasons? (And how would we know if here were addressing these reasons effectively?) Is this hate intended, or is he reading too much into text-only internet comments? But it puts him in this virtuous position of defending himself against persecution and of course no one would ever pretend to be persecuted to elicit sympathy

Up front, I’ll say that on the issue of camera tricks, I don’t use them because I’m not in a position to use them. I perform almost exclusively live and when I do appear on a TV show, I don’t have any say into how things get edited and what, if anything, gets left on the cutting room floor.

As far as other people, I’m essentially a libertarian. I hole a position that, to my surprise, I discovered is hard for people to grasp, which is that I can be in favour of other people doing something without wanting to do that myself. For example, I don’t listen to country music, but I’m in favour of people who do being free to download it and buy tickets to concerts and so on. There’s a very large space between “I like to listen to country music” and “country music should be illegal” that is more subtle and thus harder to think about.

He raises one objection which is more commercial than artistic. If you do a mixture of TV and live performances, but you have some pieces which only work on camera, you run the risk something that feels like false advertising. If you charge money for shows and claim you can perform w, x, y and z, but you can’t actually do x and z, the exchange of money adds an ethical dimension that isn’t there if you are posting a fifteen-second instagram video which is free for the world to see.

Magic is deception with limits, in the same way that mixed martial arts is fighting within limits. You don’t bring a knife into a boxing ring. There is a sportspersonship to the whole thing. There is an silent agreement between kick boxers that their opponent doesn’t have a gun, and there is an unmentioned handshake between a magician and his audience that this isn’t real and a suitably clever person could understand exactly what’s going on if they put their mind to it. So if you put a smartphone screen into the middle of the interaction, the assumption is that if I were really in the same room as the magician, that trick would be just as deceptive.

That’s fundamentally different from a camera trick that’s part of a narrative film. If I were really in London watching Marry Poppins flying away, there would be nothing to figure out because within the confines of the story, Marry Poppins flies through real magic.

But for other people who want to use them, I’m in favour of camera tricks. (If you want to lie and put in a card saying that the clip didn’t use camera tricks, or you were using some intentionally obtuse lawyerly definition of “camera trick”, that’s just an entirely separate conversation about your own personal ethics.) At the end of the day, I like watching things that I can’t explain. It’s a powerful visceral experience. That’s why so many people have unexplainable events at the centre of their religious faith.

It’s also important, at the end of the day, to remember that a card trick is a tool that, in itself, requires an explanation. Like people will say “it went up your sleeve”, if you can’t explain how it got into there (have you ever tried tossing something into your sleeve and not having it land on the floor or having everyone see you do it?) or how it doesn’t subsequently fall out later, you haven’t explained much. So even if the trick were based on sleeves, there is still subtlety to be understood. So just saying it’s a camera trick, still means there are layers of method to be explored.

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