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I think it’s fair to say many magicians cringe when they see a performer snap their fingers, chant a magic word, or make a magical gesture. But why do they do it? And why do television magicians sometimes do it too?
One of the questions I ask when I’m consulting for television is When is the magic happening? Some experienced magicians can tell me the precise moment that the magic is happening. Less experienced performers will look at me rather perplexed. Greenies will tell me the magic is happening when the method occurs — this is the wrong answer.
Magicians snap their fingers, recite magician words, and make magical gestures to improve the magic. But why does it improve the magic? Well, there are two key reasons…
It timestamps the illusion.
Timestamping an illusion is an incredibly powerful psychological tool. Children are the most challenging spectators because they are not clued into social norms and responsibilities. Because of this, kids provide the perfect control test for the timestamp tool.
If you take a coin, pretend to pass it from one hand to the other, and then open your hand, and the coin is gone. A child (and some adults) will immediately assume the coin is still in your first hand.
This is why timestamping an illusion is so important. By passing the coin to the second hand and then snapping your fingers, you timestamp the moment of magic.
You’re subconsciously telling the audience the coin is there up until the moment you snap your fingers. And the same goes for difficult sleight of hand. For example, suppose you perform an impossible sleight to get their card to the top of the deck. You might pause for a moment and perhaps snap your fingers or move the deck to signal that now is the timestamp of the magic. Without that timestamp, you run the risk that the viewer will backtrack further.
I think the most undeniable example of how timestamping works wonders is when illusionists vanish and appear at the back of the audience. Or when a great big elephant or plane vanishes and appears in an instant. Without a big flash of light on stage or a big magical gesture by the illusionist on stage, the audience can find themselves backtracking. When was the last time we actually saw the illusionist on stage? How long did they actually have to make the plane appear?
It sparks the imagination.
The most embarrassing fact for magicians is that no magic you create in real life will be better than the magic you create in the audience’s mind. And peoples minds and memories are easy to manipulate.
By timestamping the magic, you’re cueing the audience to use their imagination. What’s happening to the coin inside your hand? Is it melting slowly? Vanishing in an instant? You won’t believe this, but different audience members will say different things.
Some people think the statue of liberty vanished in an instant when Copperfield performed his great big illusion. Others say it faded away, and some will say it vanished slowly from top to bottom.
It would help if you timestamped the moment of magic with a magical gesture to trigger the minds of your audience to leap into action.
You do not need to snap your fingers.
I ask TV magicians when the magic happens to see if they have an answer. The truth is that knowing is often enough. Believing in your own mind, as the performer, that the magic is truly happening at one specific moment does wonders. If you believe it, the audience will sense it, and they’ll notice that moment.
But you can get totally creative with how you timestamp magic. For example, you might have a big flash of pyro, or dim the lights in the room momentarily, or close your eyes.
When Copperfield vanished The Statue of Liberty, they timestamped the magic with a radar screen. On the screen, you saw the blip that represented the statue slowly fade away. Imagine how different the trick would have been if he had not considered timestamping the magic trick.
I really enjoy the cold opens on Big Trick Energy—the new series from “the bad boys of magic.” Though they are Canadian, so they’re not too bad. They’re all lovely guys, and the cold opens clearly take a gigantic amount of effort to pull off. It was their recent cold open that inspired me to write this post.
You don’t need to watch the video to continue reading.
In the sequence, Chris repeatedly closes a door and opens it to reveal a new room inside. It’s a fun sequence, executed brilliantly. When I saw it on YouTube, I thought that if I were consulting, I would have asked when is the magic happening?
Maybe the answer is the magic happens during the time between when he closes the door and reopens it. If I were on the show, I might have recommended Chris take door name signs with each of his magician friends’ names and place them onto the door one by one, or similar so that the magic happens at a more concise moment.
The trick is amazing, and I know just how impossible these big one-shot sequences are to pull off. Nevertheless, they did an excellent job. Big Trick Energy reveal the cold-opens at the end of the show, so it’s all fun and games, and I’m overthinking it. Asking “When does the magic happen?” is just a beneficial and simple habit to build into your magic, and I always notice when the question hasn’t been asked on TV shows.
Learn an Avengers Card Trick
Writing this post on Sunday, I felt inspired to build a trick that’s all about snapping your fingers. So I’ve gone all-in and found a theme that works perfectly… Thanos snapping his fingers (Can you tell I recently wrote a post about The Avengers Campus, and so Avengers are on my mind?).
In the Avengers films, Thanos snaps his fingers and makes half of the superheroes vanish into thin air.
Here’s the trick: The spectators choose and think of random Avengers from a shuffled deck of game cards. Then, when the magician snaps their fingers, a la Thanos, all of the thought-of-Avengers disappear.
Method: A gaff deck of Top Trumps Avengers gamecards.
My first thought was to try building a version of The Princess Card Trick. You’ll have seen this trick before. Six cards are shown, and you’re asked to see and remember a card. One of those cards is then removed, and when the faces are displayed again, your card is gone. It’s a classic, self-working mini-miracle often performed through a TV screen (less so now that screens can easily rewind and replay).
After building this, the issue I ran into was that the Avengers are much more instantly recognisable than playing cards. They’re more individually unique, and so the method was rather obvious. It was easy to spot that the Hulk also disappeared or that Iron Man was suddenly in the stack.
My instant workaround was to get multiple spectators to think of an avenger. So if you notice the Hulk vanish too, you’d assume another spectator chose it. The issue here was I didn’t want to faff around with magnets and roughing sticks to make multiple cards vanish from a small stack of cards.
Next, I ran with the Mind Power Deck. A wonderful, wonderful gaff deck that is totally underused by magicians. The deck allows you to spread cards on the table and ask the spectator to think of a card they see in the pack freely, then spread the cards again to display their card is gone clearly. Derren Brown actually employs this deck in my favourite trick of his, which I believe he teaches in The Devils Pitcherbook. David Penn employs a similar method in his 52 to 1 deck, too.
I decided to alter the method and use double face cards. It was just much easier to make with these game cards compared to playing cards. So I went ahead and ordered six more decks.
I combined cards (with spray mount—easier than rubber cement) so that all of the cards are different when you spread through the deck one way. You do this at the start of the routine.
Then when you spread the cards the other way round, only six avengers are seen and repeated. You do this when you force an avenger. Spreading through the card as you aim them to different spectators. Each spectator will only see a handful of cards and quickly see and remember one of the force cards.
I purposely put Thanos at the front of both sides for consistency when you secretly flip over the deck. To finish, snap your fingers and spread through the varied version of the deck again. You’ll notice the force cards are not visible on this side of the deck.
Finally, I added the Top Trump ad cards to the front and back of the deck for when stored in the case to make it look more normal/new and help avoid flashes when removing the deck from the case.
In Summary: Remove the deck from the case, and toss aside the ad cards. Display all the cards are different, then secretly flip over the deck. Spread through the cards as you display them to each spectator individually and ask them to remember one they see at random quickly (They’ll only actually have up to six options). Then covertly flip the deck over again. Harness your inner Thanos and Snap your fingers, then spread through the deck to show that all of their chosen superheroes have vanished.