My show ‘Miracle’ drops on Netflix on June 22nd. It’s about the present moment, the stories we live by, and debunks faith healing along with the way. I never thought it would work and it ended up being the most extraordinary touring experience I’ve had. Trailer: pic.twitter.com/d3PlpBYkAW
— Derren Brown (@DerrenBrown) June 14, 2018
It seems like every time someone brings up an upcoming Derren Brown TV special I find myself muttering, “Hasn’t that been out for ages?” and doing a quick Google search. The answer is usually, yes, yes it has. It seems like whatever deal Brown has with British TV channel, Channel 4 (we are not imaginative people by nature), often means you burger goblins have to wait a good couple of years to see those specials.
So it gives me no small amount of pleasure to tell you that while I didn’t see Miracle literally years ago, I definitely could have. Sadly, that feeling of superiority is fleeting, as Miracle will soon be available to your lot via the streaming magic of Netflix. It’ll be available in North America on June 22nd, to be exact.
Miracle contains all of the cool-but-unnerving-and-probably-not-entirely-ethical illusions Brown is known for, with an interesting twist. In a bid to discredit faith-healing, Brown attempts to trick members of the audience into believing their bodies have undergone some kind of supernatural change thanks to his admittedly impressive mastery of mentalism and illusion.
It’s a great starting point for talking about the neurological phenomena that allow faith healing, and indeed performance magic to work. Our brains control our bodies in ways we’re not aware of, and in ways modern science barely comprehends. To debunk faith healing (a noble aim indeed), Brown really shows us how and why it appears to work.
That being said, tricking people into committing attempted murder is probably funnier.
I can’t help but smile every time I watch a Doug Henning performance. His boundless enthusiasm and infectious positivity can soften the heart of even the most cynical of us all. This lazy Sunday, spend an hour and a half watching his first-ever World of Magic special, in which he attempts to replicate Houdini’s infamous water-tank escape – and maybe even try to beat his record while he’s at it.
In the ’80s and ’90s, David Copperfield made a name for himself as a dark, brooding, mysterious figure who made the Statue of Liberty disappear, or asked viewers to play along with magic tricks at home. But back in the 1970s, Copperfield had a whole different energy about him that’s much more in line with the variety shows of the day, as you can see in the above video, uploaded to YouTube 34 years after it originally aired. In the 1978 special The Magic of David Copperfield, you can watch the illusionist mug for the camera with the likes of Orson Welles, Bernadette Peters, Carl Ballantine, and more. There are even magical dance numbers! Take an hour out of your lazy Sunday and watch this disco-fueled magic romp, and if you want more, check out the full playlist for the rest of his Magic of David Copperfield specials.
I remember being enraptured by David Copperfield’s television specials as a child, but neither the larger-than-life illusions nor perfectly coiffed hair has remained as vivid in my memory as his interactive tricks. These illusions, with use of props like a deck of cards or even the TV screen itself, seemed like an impossible shattering of the fourth wall: a magician reaching into my quiet living room to create something amazing. David would ask me to pick a card from my own deck, or trace my finger on the screen, and he’d reach out and solve it as if he were in the room. As an adult, it’s clear enough that these were essentially elaborate logic puzzles, but that doesn’t make the feat any less impressive. Instead of a magical effect, the beauty is in the meticulousness of creating it.
“These became so popular,” Copperfield said in a commentary on one of his most famous interactive tricks. “You know, we’d spend all this time and money and choreography and lighting and writing on other pieces, and these very calculated and tested interactive things were the pieces that people remembered the next day. So it’s not like we didn’t work hard on them but the impact these had really was remarkable to us.”
In the same commentary, Copperfield claims that his organization consulted with the television data firm Nielsen and found that 90% of the audience participated in the interactive tricks. But when Copperfield said these tricks were calculated, he meant it very literally.
“All of them come back to some sort of mathematical calculation,” magician Kevin Spencer told GeniiOnline. “All of these interactive effects are taking these calculations and using them in a way that’s surprising and interesting. I think because there’s multiple steps to them, it’s much more difficult for the audience to go back to recreate it. You could DVR or, at the time, tape it, and go back and look at it and try multiple possibilities.”
To dissect the puzzle of interactive magic, I did just that with Copperfield’s famous destination trick. In it, he presents a clock-like grid and has the participant choose a number between five and 15, and then moves back and forth a few times, ultimately landing on the Moon at the 10 o’clock position. Unbeknownst to the audience, the trick actually converges every participant into one space relatively early.
The first move begins from outside the clock face, adding three extra spaces just for the first move. Since the first move is to pick a number between five and 15, this effectively hides the similarity to a clock face from the beginning. The trick would be the same if it started from the 12-o’clock position and told you to pick a number between two and 12, but by adding a few extraneous spaces that are quickly removed after the first instruction, Copperfield is able to pick a range that seems less tied to the familiar, even numbers of a clock. Either way, the result is the same: players can land anywhere but the Clouds at 11 o’clock. Then, by having the viewer repeat their previous move in reverse, everyone will land on the same piece: the City at the 3 o’clock position. From there, Copperfield simply eliminates a few pieces on each side, seemingly at random, and instructs viewers to move four times in either direction. Due to the precise elimination of moves, and the fact that by this point all participants have converged in one space, they’ll always land on the Moon for the final reveal.
Crucially, the instructions tell the viewers at home to pick one volunteer to participate. If two or more people did it at once, they would easily see the paths converge on the second move.
That isn’t to say that interactive tricks can never benefit from multiple participants, however. Spencer said he did a similar illusion called Final Destination in his stage show, with an audience of participants keeping track in their heads instead of tracing their movements with a finger. In a live setting, the reveal was two-fold: first that he knew which landmark you had landed on, and then as the audience of up to 3,500 people realized they all did it together despite their wildly varying choices.
“You had this double response,” he said. “One you had a singular response from them, ‘oh he knew I was going to be in Rome,’ and then a second wave where they look around the theater, and that’s when it’s really powerful.”
To give another example, Spencer walked me through a brief interactive card trick over the phone. And while I could dissect the steps somewhat, he was sure to throw in several extraneous steps: putting some cards to the side, tossing one away, and so on. These steps, which didn’t actually impact the outcome of the trick, were interwoven with the ones that did, which helps hide the puzzle even more.
“How do you take these things and make them appear magical, this thing that’s very logical?” Spencer said. “It’s because of those diversions, the impossibility of what you’re asking them to do.”
Copperfield’s destination illusion was tightly timed for a television audience, and as a result didn’t include any extraneous steps. It’s easy to see how a live version could add more moves to obscure the effect, and interactive tricks often have at least a few meaningless pieces added to the calculations for just this reason. In a way, the Copperfield illusion is the perfect mousetrap of the interactive trick: the exact minimum parts needed to achieve the goal.
Inversely, the moves the magician makes to limit your options serve two crucial purposes. The first is the function of the logic puzzle itself, to limit options and narrow the possibilities so that players are forced to move in certain ways. The second, though, is a bit of magical flourish found across all types of tricks. By exposing which pieces of the game board aren’t in use, the magician adds a slow-burn of constant delightful surprise.
“In magic we call those proofs,” Spencer said. “The more proofs you can have as part of a trick, the more incredible it is, the more impossible it is. With each proof it becomes more and more powerful.”
In a more traditional illusion, the proof may be planted to make the trick seem more visceral or even life-threatening. A sword box might open midway through to show the assistant’s side still in the box, or a giant fan might shred a stack of newspaper to prove the blades are deadly-sharp. The more times a magician can anticipate your skepticism and take steps to debunk it, the more astounding the final effect. A participant in an interactive trick might be trying to puzzle out the possible moves, when the magician reveals that some of those options aren’t even on the table.
Meanwhile, interactive magic leaves room for lots of different stage personas. While Copperfield played up the mentalism aspect by suggesting he was “finding” the participant through miles of separation, Spencer pointed out that another magician could suggest he’s actually controlling your movements with the power of his mind. On the other end of the spectrum, a magician could casually point out your location with a “shucks, isn’t that neat” charming tone.
“There are a lot of magicians but there are only a few magic tricks,” Spencer said. “What each magician brings to it with their own personality is what makes it uniquely their own. We all draw from the same magic catalog and it’s what you do that lets you own that trick. The patter, what you’re going to say, the moves you’re going to make.”
Copperfield, ever the showman, acknowledged the logic puzzle aspect of the trick in his commentary, but kept a little of his mystical edge intact. It wasn’t the math that made the magic, he claimed. It was his precise tuning of every aspect of the instructions.
“To make that work we had to test it, and we tested it everywhere–inner city schools, rich areas, poor areas, we tested in other languages,” he said in the commentary. “We found when we were testing this all around, the intonation of my voice, how fast I gave instructions, how I said it, if I changed one word it wouldn’t work. But if I said it a particular way with a particular tone of voice, the illusion would work, so it had to be just, exactly perfect.”
Spencer suggested that the popularity of interactive magic has helped feed the advent of street and close-up magic, as a new generation uses the same tools to replicate the effect on a more personal level.
“People began seeing these big audience responses to these interactive tricks. I think David Blaine was the first one to kind of key in on this,” Spencer said. “So let’s take this to the street and get this from a one-on-one or two-on-one perspective, and that feeds back into the stage performer. Maybe it’s more circular than it is evolutionary.”
2017 has been… a year, so why not close it out by getting real weird? Rudy Coby, aka the Labman, has been pushing the boundaries of stage magic for decades, most famously with two television specials in the 1990s. The one embedded above, called The Coolest Magician on Planet Earth combines over-the-top physical humor with macabre body stunts in one of the strangest hours of magic ever recorded for a mainstream television network. Watch the Labman walk around on four legs, hammer a nail into his face, and try to dethrone Houdini with “The World’s Most Dangerous Card Trick” in this modern classic performance.
Paul Daniels was one of television’s most prolific magicians, and the host of a BBC program called The Paul Daniels Magic Show, which ran from 1979 through 1994. The show featured illusions of all kinds, as well as special segments exposing tricks con artists used. Each year, Daniels would host a Christmas special, many of which have been archived on YouTube. Spend your lazy Sunday watching this one from 1980, which shows Daniels working the crowd with a variety of Christmas-themed magic and his trademark charm.
Mentalist Derren Brown is currently touring the UK with an encore performance of Underground, a collection of his best routines from over 15 years of magic. In an interview with the Hull Daily Mail, Brown also confirmed that he’s currently working on a brand new television special, exclusively for Netflix.
When asked if Brown was working on a new special, Brown responded:
Yes – for Netflix. They are showing Miracle and The Push – two of my [British television network Channel 4] shows – and right now I am making a brand new special for them. That’s been another interesting change – away from terrestrial TV into quite a different world. Channel 4 have been wonderful to me over the years and I hope we’ll do more together in the future: at the moment this is very exciting, too.
With this, Netflix appears to be making a larger push into the realm of illusion, previously greenlighting a project starring Justin Willman to air sometime in 2018. No word on what Brown’s special will be called or when it will air, but magic fans with a Netflix subscription should have another reason to get excited shortly. For more from the interview, including his thoughts on performing his greatest hits, and his thoughts on the current state of magic, head over to the Hull Daily Mail.
Masters of Illusion is sending off 2017 in holiday style with its upcoming Christmas Magic special. And in an interview with Fansided, regular performer Michael Grandinetti talked about the process of crafting magic for this special, and how he wanted to create tricks that were more than just the same old standbys with a Christmas twist.
From the interview:
“They came to several magicians on the show, myself included, and said, ‘What can we do to create some magic that doesn’t just look like Christmas?’
“We’re not going to take a big red ribbon and put it on a prop and say it’s a Christmas prop. But what can we do to actually make the magic itself convey the message and the story and feel of the holidays?”
Grandinetti is obviously playing coy with details—it would ruin the surprise after all—but he thinks they’ve pulled it off. “We created several ideas for the show which hopefully created just that,” he told Fansided. “Marrying magic and illusion with the feeling of Christmas.”
Masters of Illusion: Christmas Magic airs tonight on the CW at 9pm Eastern via on-air TV, the CW app, or cwtv.com. For more from the interview with Grandinetti, including what Masters of Illusion fans can expect in 2018, check out the rest of the interview over at Fansided.