While a lot of the content in this website is geared towards the serious student of illusions and professional illusionists, it is important to ensure that a newcomer to illusions has a good introduction on how to get started in illusions.
Here are my 5 Steps to Get Started in Illusions:
STEP 1: BE A STUDENT
The first step is to find all the information you can on illusions and be a sponge. Learn everything you can on the subject, just as you would for any field you intend to master. Here is how I recommend you approach being a student of the art of illusion.
Read everything you can on the subject of illusions. Start with the free resource – The Internet. If you are at this website, you are already on the right track. In addition, visit magic forums, such at The Magic Cafe and read through the tens of thousands of posts in the Grand Illusion section. Different magicians have written articles on the subject posted in different websites, so a Google search will help find some of these articles.
Next, buy or borrow books on illusions. I have created what is currently the most comprehensive recommended list of books & DVDs on illusions here. Slowly build your library and knowledge over time with these books.
YouTube will provide you hours and hours of reference material on illusion performances. You will watch every standard of illusion presentation imaginable, from the great to the downright horrible. However, you can learn from watching both good and bad performances, as long as you can differentiate between the two.
There is also a select range of DVDs that I recommend in my list above as well.
David Davinci performing Doug Malloy’s “Shadows”
After acquiring some kind of basic awareness of illusions (i.e. various standard illusion plots, effects, performance styles, prop styles etc), you should try to get up close with some illusion equipment and props. Get first row tickets to live shows that feature illusion performances. Observe everything you can about the performance including, but not limited to:
- Prop design (size, material, visible mechanical devices, construction)
- Presentation including patter/ script
- Choreography, Blocking & Movement
- Prop Set-up
- Stage hands (roles, attire, movement)
If you are lucky enough, you can go one step further and work with or be an apprentice to a good professional illusionist. Contact him/ her and offer to be part of his/ her crew and help in any way you can. You will learn a lot just by setting up, packing and breaking down illusion props. While the chances that you might find someone willing to take you on are slim, you will never know unless you try.
After absorbing everything you can with the 3 approaches just highlighted above, you need to internalize the information and process it in your mind. Think about what was good and bad about what you learnt. Do not accept all information wholesale. Understand that everyone’s experience and approach to illusions is different based on the context of their lives, geographical location, nature of performance environment, age, cultural influence and hundreds of other variables. All these factors shape each individual’s approach to the design and performance of illusions. Consider the context of the information you have learnt and distill what would work best for you.
Learn to differentiate between good and bad information. This takes time and experience. But, the more you read, watch and observe, the more obvious the distinctions become. Therefore, thinking is important, otherwise, even if you read, watch and observe; without thinking, the information will not be applied properly. Knowledge is power, but only if you use it.
STEP 2: EXPERIMENT WITH SIMPLE ILLUSIONS
After you have acquired wide-ranging knowledge on the various aspects of illusions, you can start experimenting with simple illusions. By that, I mean experimenting with some basic illusion principles and techniques using items that you can obtain cheaply. This includes constructing illusions from cardboard, cloth, PVC pipes and other easy to obtain material.
Grant’s “Victory Cartons” book, Mark Wilson’s “Complete Course in Magic”, “Mark Wilson on Illusions” as well as Andrew Mayne’s various booklets and “Illusion EFX” DVD all contain illusions that you can make inexpensively with literally cardboard boxes and duct tape. Here is a link to a clear storyboard on the “Victory Cartons”. Be sure to get Grant’s book for even more easy illusion ideas.
These inexpensive illusions will allow you to experiment with various illusion techniques like protecting angles, choreography, movement, teamwork, working with large props and pantomime. Film your “experiments” with your smart phone, a cheap video camera, or web cam and observe your routining, movement and illusion handling.
Hector performing his version of the Flying Box
Besides honing basic illusion techniques through experimenting with simple illusions, this exercise will help you find your inclination and strengths towards certain illusions. This will also help you start to develop your illusion style, may it be a physical style like Hans Klok, dramatic like Copperfield or patter intensive and comedic as opposed to silent with pantomime.
STEP 3: ACQUIRE A FIRST ILLUSION
Miguel Gavilan performing Jim Steinmeyer’s Torch Box
Once you have experimented with simple illusions and you think illusions are for you, you will want to acquire a professional illusion prop. My first recommendation is to read my list on “Choosing Your First Grand Illusion for Modern Illusionists”.
After deciding what illusion you want to get, you can decide how you want to get it. You have different options:
Buy a New Illusion From an Illusion Builder
Buying a fabricated illusion prop from an experienced illusion builder is the best way to ensure you get a good quality, deceptive and working illusion prop. You will also learn first-hand the proper construction techniques for building illusions which you can apply in future. However, buying a professional illusion is expensive and may not be a viable option for most first-time illusion buyers.
Sometimes if you are lucky, an illusion builder might have a showroom model or a new illusion that was returned or not paid in full by a previous customer that is in his shop. More often than not, the builder would be willing to sell this illusion at a discount. I got my first illusion this way, as well as a few others over the years.
Buy a Second-hand Illusion
There are several websites that specialize in used Illusions such as Magic Auction and Taylor Reed’s Used Magic & Illusions. Also keep a look out on magic forums, Ebay and Facebook groups that list used illusions.
You can also ask around at your local magic club or contact professional magicians to see if they have anything for sale. More often than not, someone will have an unused illusion that they are willing to part with.
Here are some tips on buying a used illusion:
- Do your research on the illusion. Look for photos, videos and reviews.
- Make sure the prop you are buying is an authorized illusion and not a pirated knock-off.
- Be sure to get info on the original builder of the illusion. The resale value of a prop by a reputable builder will be higher than a homemade prop.
- Request for recent photos of the actual prop. Use it as a guide to determine the condition of the prop. Most quality props hold up over time unless there is damage. Scratches and minor dings are expected.
Build the Illusion Yourself
If you are handy and have a workshop, you might consider building your own illusion. I suggest you watch Gerry Frenette’s Building Your Own Illusions, The Complete Video Course (6 DVD Set). This is a great set of DVDs and the only instructional video of its kind that teaches you everything from handling tools, materials, building techniques and painting.
After that, you need to get building plans for the illusion that you want to build. Note: You can’t just build any illusion that you watch on YouTube. You have to do your due diligence and find out if there are authorized plans to an illusion. If there are authorized plans (whether published in a book or separately as a set of plans), you will have the right to build it for yourself but not to manufacture it commercially.
After getting and understanding the plans, you should build a mock-up with cardboard to make sure it fits and that dimensions are accurate. Personally, I prefer to be conservative with the dimensions and opt for a tighter fit than an overly large prop. So, follow the dimensions on the plans and “fit” the illusion for your assistant. I will fight to save every 1/2″ of space. This is for both deceptiveness and to save space. More often than not, first-time builders are worried that a prop will not fit or will be too small. Trust me, more often than not, the prop turns out too big.
Commission a Non-Illusion Builder to Build the Illusion
Instead of building the prop yourself, hire a carpenter, cabinet maker or prop maker to fabricate the prop for you. Everything I wrote in “Build the Illusion Yourself” applies here with one additional step: You have to supervise and oversee the building of the prop. While a carpenter, cabinet maker or prop maker knows how to measure, cut and assemble materials together, they have no illusion knowledge. They may also have their own way of building things which they may try to apply to your illusion. It is important you ensure they stick to the illusion plans. The two most common “issues” I have with non-illusion builders are:
- Dimensions are not followed accurately. To many builders, being 1″ – 2″ off is acceptable. It is not when it comes to illusion deception!
- Material thickness and weight are always too much. For example, 1/4″ – 3/8″ ply is suitable for most non-structural illusion panels (sides of illusion boxes). However, non illusion builders will naturally go with 3/4″ – 1″ as that is what they use for cabinets and cupboards. This alters the overall size and weight of the prop significantly.
STEP 4: PRACTICE & REHEARSE
Sean Alexander performing Mark Kalin’s Fire Spiker
After getting your illusions and all related items (additional props, costumes etc), you need to practice and rehearse the illusion performance.
Practice refers to the blocking and technical handling of the illusion. You and your team need to know the procedure, mechanics, movement and staging of the illusion. It also means producing the music to go with the performance (if any) and timing it to the music.
Most new illusionists stop after practicing and do not rehearse. Or, they think both are the same thing. They are different and rehearsals are what make a performance polished and show-ready. Rehearsals include the complete performance of the illusion, taking note of all aspects of the performance.
By the time you start rehearsals, the technical handling of the illusion must be perfect. You should also have timed the illusion on cue with the music. If these aspects of the illusion have not been perfected, you have not practiced enough.
Work on polishing your movement, choreography and interaction with your assistant (unless it is a one-man illusion). Pausing at important moments as part of the storytelling is a tool that new performers do not utilize. Many new performers strike an overly dramatic finale pose at the end of the routine but do not pause during the routine to allow the audience to register effects, theatrical moments or to applaud.
Rehearsals include “getting in and out” of the illusion presentation. On the illusionist’s part, this includes your patter, position on stage and starting pose. On the crews’ part, they need to know when to set-up the prop and when to strike it, including clearing all incidental props off the ground such as; cloths, illusion parts or costumes.
For Ning & myself personally, from the time we receive a new illusion in our studio, it takes at least 6 – 10 weeks (4 days a week) for us to practice and rehearse the illusion before it is stage ready. This includes music production. If we can only work on the illusion on or off a few times a week, then it takes 3 – 6 months. So, it is not something that you can and should do in a week.
STEP 5: PERFORM
Primavera performing an authentic Japanese-theme version of Jim Steinmeyer’s Origami
The final step is to actually look for opportunities to perform the illusion. Typically, for new illusionists, one of the reasons for getting an illusion is because they have an upcoming show that requires it. That is a great motivation to practice and rehearse but the evolution of the illusion and your growth as an illusionist needs to go beyond this single performance. Performing an illusion twice a year at magic club events does not make you an illusionist.
You need to look for places to perform, regardless if you are paid or not. Charity shows and community shows are a good place to volunteer to perform for an appreciative audience. You can also include the illusion as a value-add to regular clients if you are a commercial performer.
It is important that you review your performance after each show. Film yourself and review the performance with your team. Be critical and go beyond the magic effect and basic movements. Look out for:
Dead Time – Unnecessary time wasted in actions. Practice economy of action, which means any single action should be accomplished with the least amount of movements.
Unsightly Visuals in the Show – Look out for awkward poses, tentativeness and lack of sureness on the part of all performers and crew. Anytime anyone looks lost, is hesitant or fumbles during the performance, it looks bad.
Stage hands must not be seen distracting in the background of the performance and if they are on stage, they should be in costume or dressed in all black. They should move like ninjas, with stealth and be unnoticeable by the audience. They must never cross in front of the performer when they clear the stage.
Messy and Unorganized Stages – If your performance starts/ ends with cloths, swords, tubes. streamers and silks all over the place, you might want to consider the onstage organization of your act. Besides being unsightly, a messy stage is also a safety hazard for all performers and crew.
Finally, you should solicit feedback from experienced professionals. And, I stress experienced professionals. It will be a mistake to seek advice from amateurs or magicians who do not perform an illusion show regularly. I am in no way saying that their views are not good. But I strongly feel that at this stage, their advice may not be accurate and in your best interest; for the singular reason that they have not chalked up enough time on stage. Although, they may have good intentions, their inexperience on stage may sway you from your correct course.
Adam & Selina presenting “Eclipse”
After dozens and then hundreds of performances, you will be on your way to becoming an illusionist! Good luck!
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