How to Catch A Magician
So you want to know how that one trick works?
We've all been there.
You're intently watching the magician, trying to catch his secret. You're watching his left hand, his right hand, then the participant, and trying to ignore the man in a gorilla suit walking in the background. You feel like you're banging your head against a wall.
Does this sound familiar?
There is a method. You know it.
You're not one to quickly conclude that "the magician paid off the audience," or "camera tricks." That would be naive, and it's almost never the real solution.
What if you could discern the secret method to a magic trick without being told the secret every time?
The Secret of All Secrets
I'm going to share with you here the secret that opens all secrets--the metasecret.
If you are one of those people who simply has to know how "that trick" works, and you can't sleep until you figure it out or find it out, then you'll find reading this informative.
Obviously, I could not or would not (under any circumstances) reveal the secrets of a trick (many of them are not mine to reveal). However, as a magician, I can give you something more important.
You might even find this useful in other parts of your life. I know that each person in this life has his or her own impulses, and I believe most of these are innate.
Before I share the secret I will tell you that the desire to know it is probably foolish. As I advise against learning this (or, more precisely, I advise against the desire to learn it), I used to be this way--morbidly curious. That's partly why I'm a magician today.
The True Delight Is in The Discovery
As Isaac Asimov said, "The true delight is in the finding out, rather than in the knowing."
I would argue that the desire to find out, the desire to know, often ends in disenchantment. It's like chasing a rainbow and never finding a pot of gold.
This desire is based on a discomfort with ignorance that can make a person jump to conclusions, "it's up his sleeves," "it's a trick of the light," "I must not have been paying attention," "it's smoke and mirrors."
Those often incorrect conclusions are innocuous enough, but the urgent compulsion to know will haunt you regardless of how much knowledge you acquire.
The alternative is to embrace ignorance. I must accept that I'm a human, and only a human, and that I'll never know all the secret knowledge there is to know; therefore, it isn't profitable to strive after gathering more and more secrets.
Just be okay with not knowing as you go along for the ride.
Now that I've given my advice against reading further, I'm going to outline the two simple ways that will help you if you find you cannot follow the above recommendation (the recommendation to give up now while you still can).
On the other hand, I predict my recommendation will not work on you. Curiosity is inborn and for all I know can neither be cultivated nor extinguished.
The simplest method is to cover your ears. When you think of a magician doing his tricks, you tend to think about his dazzling the eyes with illusions.
Though there are some great tricks that capitalize on auditory illusions, the word "illusion" seems to suggest misguided vision. Indeed, one of the definitions of the word is, "a misleading image presented to the vision," whereas none of the definitions listed in the dictionary mention hearing.
Yet the most necessary tools in my arsenal as a magician are my words. There are wonderful illusions that can be done without words. The trick that springs to mind is the second oldest in the history of magic, the Chinese Linking Rings. That can be done without words.
The visual illusions no longer interest me as a magician. I feel that if I can have two options--option one, make you see a silver coin visibly change into a gold coin, or option two, put an silver coin between your hands, and then you open your hands and it is shown to have changed into a gold coin--I choose option two! There's something to be said for a statue without a head: it is more mysterious.
We have all seen optical illusions, and they are merely interesting; but we know not to trust what our senses immediately present to us. The choice is between an interesting puzzle or an astonishing miracle.
Incidentally, the oldest trick in the history of magic, The Cups & Balls, cannot be done without words (I'm sure this is an arguable point, but the Linking Rings are a technical illusion while the Cups & Balls depends almost entirely on misdirection--and hence needs the verbiage).
In 1999 I first saw the magic show Ricky Jay & His 52 Assistants. I watched him do the Cups & Balls. I was mesmerized. I did pretty much the same routine but I was still fooled when I watched Ricky Jay. Such was the power of his misdirection (and his voice). I knew all the methods he used, but because of his spellbinding web of words, I was still entranced and missed his covert maneuvers every time.
That is when I discovered this secret to unravel all secrets. Maybe by now you've guessed it. The secret can be explained in one word. Mute.
What the blazes is that supposed to do?
I muted the television. Have you ever watched the news with the television on mute? I have.
The anchor looks ridiculous when you do this.
The same effect can be had when muting the magician. Again, this applies to tricks depending on misdirection and not tricks depending on technical skill or optical illusions (many of the best tricks depend on both).
By technical skill I am referring to manual dexterity, and by misdirection I'm referring to the magician's ability to direct your attention away from what is important and compel your attention towards that which is unimportant.
There are many effects which depend solely on misdirection (such as the popular one where the mentalist touches one person and another person feels the touch as if there were a ghost in the room), and many others that depend solely on technical skill. In the best magicians, both skills have been mastered (though there are many "practicing" magicians who focus on one or the other).
Muting the magician is the first secret and is a very useful one. Conversely, listening to the audio without watching the magician is useful. Either one focalizes each sense and heightens your awareness. You will discover things you missed.
One of my other passions (which I have since subjugated to magic) is art. My skill is in replicating what I see. See some of Jon Finch's portraits here. Most people find it challenging to draw a face, even any part of the face--a nose, an eye, a mouth.
Some artists who can draw portraits cannot draw their own face. An artist came to me with this problem. Why can she not draw her own face? The answer is that it is attached to her and she is attached to it. She sees it in the mirror every day. She feels proud of one part but fixates on another part about which she feels insecure. There is too much meaning in the face (this is true for hands as well).
In drawing a face, the first secret is mental. You must focus on the lines only. Or the shadows only. Imagine the face is a black and white image. Now you are undistracted by all the confusing colors. Do not see "a nose." See the shadows.
The second secret to drawing a face is sounds much more difficult than it is. If you are drawing from a photo of a face, flip the photo upside-down. Now you are looking at... a meaningless image. The face you draw when you are drawing it upside-down will look much better than the face you drew when you were drawing it right-side up. I promise.
This is similar to muting a magician (or listening to the miracle man without watching). You shut off a part of your senses, and it paradoxically opens you to more information.
The second secret to discerning the method to an effect is somewhat related to the first but is more difficult to articulate because it is purely mental.
When a magician does something or says something (sometimes even a single word, just the word choice, can make for strong magic) seemingly unimportant, that can in fact be the most important thing of all. Sometimes it happens in milliseconds, so it's near impossible to notice unless you watch him with earplugs in your ears.
When a layperson witnesses a magician levitate, for instance, the burning question arises, "How did he float?" This, though, is an unhelpful question.
All answers to this question will be false answers. I realize it is difficult to find the right question when that first question that popped into your mind, "How did he float?" echos incessantly. But you have to ask a different question.
The above question carries with it the assumption that the illusionist did what he presented to do. But we know he is an illusionist. Remember that card trick he did?
That was charming, but we know that wasn't real magic.
So if he really is this miracle man who can float, really float, then why is he punctuating his life with clever card tricks?
Ask yourself, If I discovered I could levitate for real, would I waste my time learning a neat card trick?
And if this magician, after mastering card magic, had somehow stumbled upon the secret to levitation along his route while reading books on card magic in the library, would he keep those card tricks in his act or discard them?
Probably he would discard them, perhaps with regret--but people would constantly ask him to do the levitation (that's why I never start my set with any levitation and I rarely do it at all these days--the spectators can't focus during the remainder of the performance).
So what is the right question?
The right question assumes the truth, not the illusion.
But what truth can you know if you don't yet already know the secret?
You know that without a powerful superconductor, even a human-sized magnet cannot float a finger ring a foot in the air (or if you didn't before, now you do). You know that the object or the magician is suspended in the air without any cables, strings, or bed beneath him.
Wait a minute! Take a step back. Right there. How do you know this?
Because it is obvious.
There are no cables, strings, stepping stool, or bed beneath him. You know this because you have seen beds beneath people, you've seen string, you've seen cable, you've seen a stepping stool.
You might then conclude that it is magnets or static electricity. But comforting as those explanations are to the earnest seeker, they fall flat. You've seen how big a magnet needs to be to reach across space even half a foot.
And the magician was not near any table and didn't have any impressions in his clothing indicating a cinder-block-sized magnet. And neither can static electricity explain an object (let alone the magician himself) floating a foot in the air. Even if it could, you then have the problem of how the magician is summoning this electricity.
The question you need to ask is not, "How did he levitate?"
Instead, the fundamental question you need to ask is, "How did he make me blind to the supports?" or "How does he render the cables invisible?"
Get inside the head of the magician. He no longer thinks in terms of, "How can I levitate?" but "How can I make it obvious there are no strings?"
I have spent many hours and many dollars on so-called gurus in trying to learn to really levitate. It was an exercise in futility and I gave up on that long ago.
It is much easier to appear to levitate than to actually levitate (though it is still fraught with difficulties and still requires discipline; it is one thing to know the secret to a dozen methods of levitation, but another thing entirely to make them beautiful).
You might never guess the number of hours that the magicians, combined, have spent working out methods to render the support invisible. The magicians do not spend time working out the answer to, "How to levitate?"
In the coven, we already know there is no viable answer to that. This reasonable resignation is not the result of laziness but recognition.
As soon as a magician discovers true magic, he loses interest in entertainment and in tricks (this is what happened to Doug Henning).
Instead, the magician asks the right question.
The only question which has an answer:
How does he appear to levitate? More specifically, "Whatever the suspension may be, how is it concealed?"
This question is difficult to arrive at if you are stuck in the question, 'How does he float?"
The magician is already ten steps ahead of you if you are stuck in that question. But the magician knows your immediate, reflexive speculations, "Where is the magnet?" "Where is the string?" "Where is the support?"
This is why most magicians who levitate an object dance around in a variety of dog paddle contortions "proving" that their is no support. That dance is neither a casual nor spontaneous dance.
The magician is exacting, calculating, and methodical when he apparently freestyles. He has diligently practiced appearing "natural," because he knows his actions can appear false.
If you want to find the right answer, remember to ask the right question.