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The Magic Cafe Forum Index » » Notes from a Designer's Logbook - by George Ledo » » Illusion and prop design, Part 1 (0 Likes) Printer Friendly Version

George Ledo
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The first part of this article is from a post I made here in the Café back in 2004 in a thread entitled "How to make illusions much more magical." I'll be adding to this over the next few days.


Back in Professor Hoffman’s day, props and illusions were designed in the prevalent decorative style of the Victorian period -- heavy, ornate, dark, and varnished. It’s the “look” that many of us grew up with (complete with black velvet and gold fringe) and still frequently see in the catalogs. This was consistent with the dress and mannerisms of the day, when audiences generally dressed up to go to a show and the magician of course had to be in formals too. Everything fit together visually; people expected to see this stuff and they saw it.

Since then, there has been a steady progression into shows that use props in different styles and from different vendors, without regard to thematic continuity (sorry about the fifty-cent term; I’m a theatrical designer and this is part of our language). Anyway, we’ve all seen the magician in white tie and tails (arguably the most elegant form of dress for a male) using a red-and-yellow Chinese box in one trick, an Art Deco box in another, an Egyptian box in another, a funny-looking bucket in another, and a red velvet, tasseled bag in another. The silks are in every color under the sun, as are the feather flowers.

Why is a gentleman in white tie and tails using these things? The only thing that holds it all together is… “It’s a magic show, so that’s how it’s supposed to be.”

Nowadays we seem to be in the “steel and base” period of illusion design. The reason a lot of these things look strange is not so much their design – it’s that they’re out of context with the performer and the rest of the show. We don’t know what these boxes are supposed to be, other than magic boxes. But we justify them because they’re tricks and illusions and have to look that way.

But those magic boxes don’t have to look like everyday things either; they just need to be thematically consistent with the rest of the show in order to look correct. Take the duck vanish as it could be performed by different characters. Harry Potter or Professor Dumbledor would use one type of box, while Merlin would use something different. A 16th century Samurai’s box would look different from a 16th century Benedictine monk’s. Captain Nemo, Captain Ahab, Captain Bligh, and Captain Kangaroo would all use different boxes. A Klingon, a Romulan, and a Cardassian would all use totally different boxes; Commander Data, however, would probably use the standard box and be perfectly in character.

The scenery and props in shows at the level of Lance Burton, DC, and S&R are designed and coordinated by professional designers who work hard to make it all look consistent – just like the scenery, props, and costumes in professional theatre, opera, and the movies. Of course, if the client wants to use the standard duck vanish prop, he usually gets away with it. Last year I caught Steve Wyrick’s show in Vegas, and, as much as I didn’t care for the “industrial grunge” theme, I thought everything fit together thematically. Lance’s show is tied together by his personality, by the design of the theatre itself, and by some of his backdrops. The Marco show in Beverly, MA, is themed after a 1920’s magic show and works very well. Consistency is what makes them work.

Those steel boxes are fine, even though they look like magic props, which is what they are. Let’s just find a reason for them to be there, besides “It’s a magic show.”
That's our departed buddy Burt, aka The Great Burtini, doing his famous Cups and Mice routine

Latest column: "Sorry about the photos in my posts here"
George Ledo
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Magic Café Columnist
SF Bay Area
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Profile of George Ledo
“Now let’s look at the apparatus. Most of it looks like nothing else this side of heaven or hell. Huge black dice. Tin bottles painted black. Red and green and blue boxes gaudily daubed with wild and blatant designs in equally violent color contrasts. Nickle-plated cylinders. Guns with funnels on the muzzles!

That quote is from Fitzkee’s Showmanship for Magicians, which was published in 1945.

Yep, 1945. Well over half a century ago.

Has anything changed? Hmmmmm… let’s think about this…

For instance, it amazes me how many posts I find here in the Café from people wanting to build a Sub Trunk. There’s nothing wrong with this illusion in and of itself – in the right hands it’s a killer – but why does it have to be a trunk in this day and age?

When Houdini started doing this illusion in the late 1890’s, a trunk was a common piece of luggage that people used when traveling. The Transcontinental Railroad had been completed a few years before (in 1869), people were traveling all over the country, and the only way to get to Europe was on a ship. The Sears and Montgomery Wards catalogs – staples in many households – offered lots of trunks in various configurations. Audiences could relate to these things.

But who, besides magicians, uses trunks nowadays? College students? Visual merchandisers? How often do we see them in luggage stores any more? Wal-Mart?

I’m picking on the Sub Trunk only because I happen to like it. If I were to do the Sub Trunk today and wanted a simple, not very imaginative way to update it, I’d make it up like an ATA road case, complete with casters. I’d paint the name of my show on the outside and maybe add a couple of cleats or slides on the inside to make it look like it was custom-built for a piece of equipment. I might even design it so it opens on the front instead of the top, and actually take a spotlight or something out of it.

Then I’d either get rid of the bag altogether, or make it up like a military-style duffle bag, which opens at the end and is secured with a dog clip attached to the strap. I would use both the case and the bag to transport part of the show so they get that unmistakable “been on the road” look.

Same steak, different sauce.

A different approach? A cardboard box sealed with lots and lots of duct tape.

The funny thing is that designing props and scenery so audiences can recognize them and relate to them in the context of a story is not unusual at all. We see this all the time in the movies; we just don’t notice it because the stuff “looks right” and doesn’t sidetrack us from the story.

And that, ladies and gentlemen, is the trick to sucking audiences into a story that requires unusual props or sets.

Let’s look at a few recent examples.

Olivander’s Wand Shop in the first Harry Potter film. What the heck does a wand shop in Diagon Alley look like? If we go back and watch this scene again, we’ll notice that the wands look like the batons used by orchestra conductors, the shop looks like it’s full of player-piano rolls in their little boxes, and Olivander himself... well, he looks just a teensy-weensy little bit like Beethoven. Is this a coincidence?

Negatory. The film’s art director and designers could have come up with a total fantasy, but instead they chose to give us something that feels right and fits the context of the story.

Same for the great hall at Hogwarts. Those walls full of paintings are very common in old British country homes and castles. We’ve seen them in photos or in real life and recognize them. Then there are the stairs themselves: any resemblance to M.C. Escher’s work?

Aha! Yup, we recognize that too, even if we can’t point our finger at it.

Now let’s look at the pod-racing scene in Star Wars: The Phantom Menace. Did those racing pods, with the twin engines in front, look like chariots, and did the whole scene remind us of the racing in Ben Hur? If we saw Ben Hur, then yes it did. But the scene felt “right,” we accepted it, and we went along with the story.

Is this plagiarism on the part of the designers? No, it’s not. These chariot races actually took place back in Roman days; they were not invented for Ben Hur. Certainly the scene in Star Wars was partially inspired by the scene in the older movie, but the designers went back to the original source and added a lot of new twists and details to create something new and fresh. And it was totally appropriate to the story.

I’m not saying that every prop or illusion needs to look like something we recognize; in some cases this is impossible. But how often do we see a magician, dressed in black, pull out this chrome-and-plexi box and demonstrate its magic qualities in front of a black curtain? Sure, the audience’s focus is on the box…

… but it should be on the magic as created by the magician.
That's our departed buddy Burt, aka The Great Burtini, doing his famous Cups and Mice routine

Latest column: "Sorry about the photos in my posts here"
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