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The Magic Cafe Forum Index » » Notes from a Designer's Logbook - by George Ledo » » Illusion and prop design, Part 2: research (0 Likes) Printer Friendly Version

George Ledo
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In previous posts, I’ve discussed a number of mind-sets and techniques used in the creative professions. These include:

1) Don’t take anything for granted.

2) It’s okay to be inspired by another work. But don’t copy it – go back to the original source and come up with something new and fresh.

3) Read, go to the theater, go to museums and galleries, study the world around you; develop your natural curiosity into an obsession.

4) Keep all your mind files open at the same time, and continue to add to them.

5) Use your natural imagination.

Now I’m going to introduce another technique that we use all the time. I’ve already hinted at it, but from now on it’s going to become more and more important:

6) Research.

Contrary to what many people seem to believe (and to what a lot of us would like to happen), professional designers don’t just sit down, close their eyes, and whip out great ideas. Sometimes it’s like using a pair of tweezers to pull a telephone pole out of the ground: you have these great intentions and you work and work and keep working, but nothing happens. It can be very frustrating at times.

This is where research comes in. Finding out how something works, what it looks like, how it’s used, what it’s made of, and so forth, means the difference between having a basis for creating something new, and sitting there trying to imagine it in a vacuum. Research also means not having to re-invent the wheel.

Back in school, whenever we had to design a new set, we’d read the script and then head over to the library. If the play took place in, say, the mid seventeen hundreds, we’d look for books on this period -- art, architecture, dress, customs, literature, and so on. We’d come back with armfuls of books and sit down to turn the pages, using little slips of paper to mark anything that inspired us.

A few hours later, we would thin out the stack of material and have a nice little pile of references to use. We would have a good idea of how the period looked, how people behaved, what the colors were, and could begin to think about how to create an environment for the play. It was much easier than sitting there racking our brains.

I still do this. Even with the Web, I find that a trip to the library provides a huge amount of material from which to choose. I like to browse the shelves, pull out anything that’s interesting, and thumb through it to see if anything comes up. Sometimes surprising things do pop up in unexpected places. And there are always the reference librarians, who often point me in directions I hadn’t even considered.

But coming right back to magic…

Say I’m building a dolls’ house illusion and want it to look like a castle. What does a castle look like? A little research will provide lots of ideas – starting with the fact that there are different types of castles besides the moated and crenellated ones we usually visualize when we think of a castle.

Or say I want it to look like a house. What does a house look like? There are lots of different types of houses that have the sloped roof usually seen in this illusion, including New England saltboxes, Tudor, and Georgian. In England, we have the thatched-roof cottages in the Cotswold district. There are more varieties in Europe. And then there are the fairy-tale cottages.

The Sub Trunk? There are many different types of trunks and boxes that are approximately the size and shape of a typical Sub Trunk. A little research will yield pictures of pirate chests, ATA cases, Egyptian funerary chests, old seamen’s trunks, tool chests, strongboxes, and many other things besides the usual dormitory-style trunk.

Tables? Why do magicians’ tables all tend to look the same? There are gazillions of different tables and stands that could be used in a magic act, without resorting to the three-legged or Kellar-type table or the boxy “night club” table.

Which brings us to furniture styles… and to something one of my theatrical design professors told me back in college. I’ll talk about the professor first. We were sitting in her office one day, and she smiled and said something to the effect of, “Do you know how you can tell when a set was designed by a techie?”

A “techie,” by the way, is a person who works in the technical end of theater – building, painting, lighting, sound, and so forth; it’s a commonly used term and is not an insult or a put-down by any means. But at the time, I was a techie and she was a designer, so of course I felt that something was coming.

Then she said, “All the lines are straight and all the corners are right angles.”

At which point of course I exploded. But then I realized she was right. And I’ve been noticing it ever since.

This particular professor quit teaching a couple of years later and went down to Hollywood and became an art director, working on jobs like the MGM Grand in Vegas and a number of television projects. She also worked on at least one of the early Copperfield specials. To this day, every time I do a set, I think of her comment. She was so right.

Okay, now on to furniture styles, specifically, box-type pieces as used in magic. Granted it’s a lot easier to build something with straight lines than with curves, but there are lots of furniture styles that use straight lines in a very pleasing way, and a book on the subject will provide lots of ideas.

For instance, there were two styles in the early part of this past century that use straight lines and that can be fairly easy to build, but yet I’ve never seen any magicians’ props or furniture designed in these styles. One was the craftsman style popular around the very early 1900’s, and the other was Art Deco, which came about in the early 30’s. I have a Thayer catalog from 1936, and there’s a bit of an attempt at Art Deco in some of the pieces, but it was never carried through.

I wonder why.

But, even before then, there were lots of styles, and I’m going to cover more of them in the next post.
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
2992 Posts

Profile of George Ledo
Just a quick note... Donna and I went out of town Friday and spent the night in a hotel. There was a cedar-lined Lane hope chest at the foot of the bed. What was the first thing that came to mind?

The Sub Trunk, and possible stories that could be used with such a chest.

Just now, writing this, Tennyson's poem The Highwayman came to mind. And then there was Chaucer's The Miller's Tale.

As I've often said, inspiration can come from anywhere.
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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