Conjuring up the magical in movies

Special to The Times

A little more than a hundred years ago, in the period represented in the recent films “The Illusionist” and “The Prestige,” a conjurer succeeded in his attempt to live forever.

The secret of the magician’s immortality is herein revealed: He assembled 159 sequential photographs of himself producing a rabbit from a hat and created what he believed to be the “first animated film of a performer.” The subject was the great, young conjurer David Devant; the photographer was the pioneer of the British cinema, R.W. Paul.

This classic magic image, the appearance of a rabbit in a hat, implies the ability to create life, fully formed. The metaphor extends to film, which creates the illusion of life, which extends, limitlessly, the life of the illusionist.

Early on, magicians recognized the importance of the burgeoning technology: Among the first films shown commercially in France, England, Australia and the United States were those featuring well-known magicians as subjects or exhibitors.


More recently, the relationship of conjuring, optics and spectral images played a central role in our work on Neil Burger’s “The Illusionist.” And the lives of competitive conjurers seeking to establish superiority dominated our work with Christopher Nolan on “The Prestige.”


Making it happen

The question for today’s filmmakers is how to make magic feel magical when it is reduced to the two dimensions of film. Successful film illusions require alchemy -- specific elements applied in precise proportions to make the magic happen.

First is the correct choice of effect to aid the story being told (watch the onstage chemistry as Christian Bale magically produces a necklace for his assistant, Scarlett Johansson, in “The Prestige”). Next, add the artful execution of the method in the context of the scene (witness Hugh Jackman as he causes a bullet to appear and vanish in his bare hands in that same film), and finally include the skill of other actors in reacting convincingly to the magic performed (Rufus Sewell when challenged to lift a sword bewitched by Edward Norton in “The Illusionist”).

Although the more obvious field of subjects on which our consulting company, Deceptive Practices, has offered its services includes confidence games, gambling and illusions, we are frequently called upon to apply “magic thinking” to problems in nondeceptive settings such as how to allow an actor to apparently catch a Frisbee in his teeth (as created for but not seen in Jack Nicholson’s “Wolf”).

While we are both professional wonder workers, we also draw on other areas of knowledge: Ricky Jay as an actor and historian, Michael Weber as an attorney and corporate speaker. Our interests enable us to offer nonlinear suggestions and apply unusual problem-solving tools.

For example, it was our passion for the geometric dissections of American puzzle master Sam Loyd that led us to design Sophie’s mysterious locket in “The Illusionist.”


When an actor or a director must know how an illusion works to accomplish the artistic goal, we gladly comply, but we abjure gratuitous exposure. Our intent is not to be coy but to uphold our belief that preserving secrets can help to excite and mystify an audience, whether the performance is on stage or screen.


Secrets, old and new

Occasionally, we are forced to alter classic methods, both to preserve secrets and to proffer more effective cinematic alternatives. In “The Prestige,” Jackman utilizes a mechanical contrivance to vanish a birdcage. In lieu of the known magic apparatus, we offered the use of complex gamblers’ devices known as “holdouts.” Thus, it was the secretive technology of the cheat, not the conjurer, that provided a solution.


In the service of different directors we have created cigarettes that light themselves, martini glasses that imbibe their own contents and wheelchairs that render their occupants legless (“Forrest Gump”). These wonders were designed not as traffic-stopping oddities but as believable elements of some alternative reality to serve the storytelling process.

On “The Prestige,” while Jackman was busy learning the finer points of turn-of-the-century stagecraft, Bale worked long and hard to master sleight of hand. And Norton’s proficiency with the intimate magic he demonstrated in “The Illusionist” caused some magicians to question whether he actually performed the sleights himself. (He did.)

We have consulted on scripts about escape artists, illusionists and con men for 25 years, but what makes this time so special is the caliber of writers, actors and directors who are creating powerful films with magic at their very core. So while others have expressed surprise at the recent spate of movies about magic, we simply believe filmmakers are going back to their roots.



Jay and Weber also worked on the forthcoming “Ocean’s Thirteen” and “The Great Buck Howard.”