Here’s a brief quote from Jeff White, the visual effects supervisor for The Avengers, about the thought that went into the look for the Hulk: “There were good design decisions made in terms of, he’s desaturated color-wise, which helps him fit in with the Avengers much better. He’s not super muscly all the time, either. Joss [Whedon] wanted us to go for a bit more of a wrestler aesthetic instead of just being super cut. What’s great about that is that when he does jump around and start smashing everything, we really have somewhere to go in terms of flexing the muscles and popping the veins.”
In an era where going over-the-top in special effects seems to be the norm, it’s interesting to see a bit of deliberate restraint of this sort. The idea is that by going with a less-overtly-ripped Hulk, the audience gets a bit of a pay-off when he does flex. It’s not a huge thing, but it heightens the moment when we need it.
The idea of leaving yourself somewhere to go was featured in another Hollywood film a year before, with The Rise Of The Planet Of The Apes. I remember thinking at the time that the film’s resolution was pretty smart — usually action franchises run straight for the highest possible jeopardy (save the city, save the country, save the planet, etc.) and it’s somewhat self-defeating because you know that things are ultimately going to be alright, because it’s a friggin’ franchise and they’re going to want to make money by bringing everybody back for another round in a couple of years. With Apes, though, it’s not about enormous stakes, it’s about whether or not the group of Apes can escape across the bridge to the wild. Essentially, that plot choice left the franchise room with somewhere to go with the sequel.
One last example of this sort of thing involves weight loss. Recently I found out that I was tipping the scales at 270 pounds (ye gods!) and so 2018 has become the year of the diet. I’m less worried about losing the weight (I went through something similar in 2012 and got down to 200 pounds) than I am about keeping it off (since obviously the results I got in 2012 didn’t hold), but anyway, it got me looking online for the relevant videos about weight loss. One video I found showed how a couple of people got ripped in a matter of a few weeks, and while the results were really impressive, the impact of it had nothing on shows like the Biggest Loser. The video of the young beautiful ripped folks was striking, sure, but we’ve already got proof that this sort of body type is attainable simply due to what we see on the cover of magazines and such. Now, the Biggest Loser has seen its share of controversy because of what it put its contestants through over the years, but in terms of what we’re talking about here, it’s a tremendous example. The side effects of drastic short-term weight-loss being what they are, at the end of the season, the folks in that show aren’t going to look anywhere near as good as fitness models, but they still do look really good, and when compared with where they were coming from, it’s extremely compelling television.
How does this relate to us as magicians?
A while back when I was studying under Tyler Erickson in Minnesota, he had an interesting idea on how to maximize surprise — rather than try to push for the highest possible result, consider lowering the initial expectation, since the surprise is less about having an extreme endpoint than it is about the gap overcome between expectation and the endpoint.
Here’s David Copperfield doing the Death Saw illusion. In retrospect, just about everything in the performance of the illusion feels like it’s not going to be an escape, but at the time, it’s not like an escape would have been out of place in his act. Given that, try to imagine how the illusion would play out if it started as a cutting-somebody-in-half effect. I don’t think it plays as great.
This isn’t to suggest that everything needs to be a swerve, but rather that it may help to reevaluate material when designing a set. There’s a school of thought out there that there’s no such thing as a bad trick. I disagree with it, but at the same time, you have to admit that when you look at the huge mass of material out there, there are a lot of effects that are incredibly strong by their nature — two items change places with no sneaky moves, something torn apart is repaired, something multiplies in the spectator’s hands, etc. It’s difficult to leave room for escalation when common openers whack the audience straight over the head with a ridiculous impossibility.
As such, I think it behooves us to recognize those effects that are impressive and entertaining but don’t feature ridiculously strong magic right off the bat, since that leaves us somewhere to go. Things like 3 Card Monte or the Shell Game are very engaging and can have decent climaxes, even though there’s no real overt claim to magic power that’s made by the performer or inferred by the audience. The Swami Opener from Corinda can be toned way down to a 1-in-5 chance, so that the range of options isn’t so massive, but the performer still gives them the chance to change their mind as much as they want. Once, at a visit to the Twin Cities Magic and Costume Shop, I got to watch Fred Baisch get 5 minutes out of the Ring and Coil, the sort of trick where you can have an adult struggle to separate the small contraption, but a kid does it no problem.
Sometimes a performer doesn’t have time for this sort of thing. If you’re getting paid top dollar for doing a stage show, or perhaps you’re going table-to-table at a restaurant where the meal can come at any instant, people need to get the good stuff right away. Still, I can think of a few venues where it could work, such as walk-around at a party, or perhaps in a busking set when you’re just starting to build your tip. Certainly amateurs would be able to take advantage of it no problem.
But that sort of thing is from the standpoint of routining. What about within a singular trick? That’s a bit more difficult. You could do the bait and switch idea that Copperfield has, where you promise one effect but give them something else. You claim to be able to change the colour of a paperclip, but instead, the paperclip starts to multiply out of control and then grow. You claim that the trick is about finding their card by stabbing another indifferent card in the deck, only that indifferent card becomes their selection. With a little thought it should be easy to come up with something simply by looking at the final effect, and imagining something that’s way less impressive (but still related) using the same prop, claim to be going for that, and then instead go for the other thing. The trouble with formulaic ploys like that is you might be tempted to start overusing them, such as the temptation to make everything a magician-in-trouble trick.
Multiple-phase tricks also have some potential in this regard. Al Schneider’s Matrix is practically built on this idea, and it’s tough to watch people miss the point of his construction. Let’s assume the following layout of the cards in Figure 1, with the magician standing behind AB and the spectator across from them, behind CD.
So, we’ve got choices about how to make the coins jump. All other things being equal, it’s probably safe to say that the coins jumping away from the magician is going to be more impressive than coins jumping to the magician, so we’ll want the final assembly to be at C or D. For the sake of argument, let’s say D.
This means we’ve got three travels: A->D, B->D, C->D. If you consider how the hands go over the cards when picking them up, the A->D path is the least easy to see, simply because of arms getting in the way. The other two paths are far more open. So, if we’ve got to have a weak travel, we might as well put that one first. Arguably it fosters the suspicion that the coins are being shot quickly from one card to the other, but that’s alright, because we’ve got somewhere to go.
As an aside, it’s worth mentioning that this specific idea — the detrimental effect of arms obscuring the path in an assembly-type trick — isn’t unique to the Matrix. In Johnny Thompson’s Commercial Classics DVDs (which are excellent, by the way) he talks about the image of crossing the hands with the sugarcube assembly, and how back when the idea was being tossed around by him and his peers, it was considered important to avoid it.
Anyhow, one coin gone, two to go. We’re left with B->D and C->D. All other things being equal, a longer path is stronger than a shorter path, so it makes sense to do C->D next, saving the strongest for last. Of course, C->D is still measurably much stronger than A->D, since it’s open enough that any spectators who suspect the first coin was shot across will be able to see that this is clearly not the method in play, and of course the spectators are now on guard with something to look for. B->D, the final corner-to-corner coin, offers us the best phase, since it’s the longest path for the coin to travel, and of course, because of the method, it’s the cleanest.
This is probably one of the more frustrating parts about watching variations of the Matrix. I may be a bit naive on this point, but I honestly feel like one of the reasons the trick really took off back when Ellusionist and Penguin Magic were getting big, was because it was a great effect with a name that was suddenly cool due to the film of the same name coming out not too long before. It felt as if people thought less about the Matrix being a layout of four items in a square (as per mathematics), and more about “entering the Matrix” where you see weird stuff. The name even got co-opted by John Born in his booklet Matrix God’s Way, where the effects were all barehanded assemblies (commonly referred to as Chink-A-Chink) with nary a card in sight. But it’s not a misunderstanding of the name that’s frustrating, but rather a misunderstanding of the specific design decisions within the trick when people inevitably came up with their variations. I’m trying to play nice now, so I’m not going to call anybody out, but suffice to say it’s not difficult to find versions of the Matrix which ignore the order of the coins travelling, a fundamental feature of the trick specifically because it leaves the trick somewhere to go in terms of escalation.
Another instance where we can see this problem is with the Royal Road To Card Magic‘s approach to the Ambitious Card Routine. It opens with shuffling the selection into the necessary position. This on its own is not a huge problem — Daryl’s routine opens with shuffling the card into position, and his ACR is considered a juggernaut — but the problem is that Royal Road‘s version has shuffling all throughout the trick. In this case, they opened with somewhere to go, but didn’t do enough with it. It’s like the trick suggests that you open with skill, do something magical, and then go back to displaying skill again. It’s a bit goofy.
I’m worried that my rant kind of went far afield of where it started with the reference to The Hulk, but hopefully the point is clear, at least in this instance. That’s not to say that the major takeaway from every trick you do must involve this approach to escalation. As with all presentational dynamics, no singular approach is going to be superior to a harmonious texture of multiple approaches, but part of getting good at what we do is understanding how all the different pieces work individually, so that we’re not combining one lukewarm effect with another, and also to make sure that we know how to set ourselves up for the strongest impact possible.