How Stage Magic Influenced My Career
On Saturday night, we attended a taping of the CW television show Masters of Illusion. They tape the show five nights in a row, and then edit it all into 12 episodes that will appear in the summer. After we arrived and sat down, one of the ushers decided to relocate our party to the front row, where the cameramen did close-up shots of us to use as audience reaction shots throughout the season. Then the host, Dean Cain, who I best know as Superman in Lois And Clark, taped all twelve of his openings and closings. Later, we were surprised and excited to see our friend magician David Blatter of David and Leeman happened to be on stage that night doing their always-wonderful magic act. Toward the end of the evening, magician Naathan Phan invited me onstage to strap him into a straightjacket that he soon escaped from while singing. All in all, a magical night!
I’ve been interested in magic since childhood, when I read a biography of the magician Houdini, famous for his escapes from handcuffs, safes, and straightjackets — just like in the magic act I participated in this weekend. At the age of ten, I took a magic class taught on weekends at the local park, and soon I was buying Harry Blackstone, Jr. and Marshall Brodien magic kits at the toy store so that I could do magic on my own. I eventually started reading magic books and magazines so that I could construct my own apparatus, and when I saved up enough of my allowance, traveled down to Bert Wheeler’s Magic Shop in Hollywood to buy professional quality equipment. On weekends I would put on magic shows for the neighborhood kids, accompanied by music I had recorded on a tape recorder. My signature trick was pouring milk, flour, and the contents of an egg into an empty paper bag, and when I tore the bag open, there were cookies inside!
My interest in performing magic waned when I went into college and discovered another type of magical device — the computer — which transported me into the realm of video game development. However, I carried forward much of what I learned about performing magic into my work as a video game designer.
Magic routines are all based around trickery — sleight of hand, hidden doors, and other forms of deception — to convince the audience that they are perceiving something other than what they are actually seeing. This requires the magician to call the audience’s attention away from the reality of the trick and focus elsewhere so that the illusion can occur. However, to truly engage the audience and get them to fully suspend their disbelief, the magician must also be a good storyteller — employing what magicians call “patter” — to keep the experience interesting, entertaining, and move the plot of the magic trick along.
This is something we need to do in games a well. Games also require a willing suspension of disbelief from the player, since game designers want players to become immersed in the game, believing that the characters they are portraying and the situations they are in are real. However, as realistic as computer graphics are becoming, there is always some trickery involved in creating that virtual reality, and game designers need to divert the player’s attention away from the flaws that break the illusion. Good storytelling can play a part in that, focusing attention on a part of the part of the experience that is important for the players to remember, or more importantly, to perceive.
When creating a game, I am mindful of that fact that I am creating an illusion, and an imperfect one at that. Therefore, I must use whatever tricks are at my disposal — story, dialog, music, visual effects and interaction — to convince my players that they are experiencing something more than what they are actually seeing.
Writing about this, I’m tempted to take up my magic act again. I never lost my interest in magic, and magicians always have been a part of my life. One of the customers at the computer store I worked in was close-up magic expert Al Goshman. When When my wife and I were dating, we took a magic course together, the final class of which was held at The Magic Castle, the famous club for magicians in Hollywood. I’ve been lucky enough to see Harry Blackstone, Jr., David Copperfield, and Penn and Teller perform live. In fact, I once had a phone call with Penn about possibly doing a game project together when I was a producer at Disney Computer Software, but unfortunately the talks never went anywhere. I did do a game project with filmmaker Jeff Blyth, who is also an amateur magician, and he was kind enough to invite us one evening to the Magic Castle, where he is a member. Now, one of my wife’s fellow high school teachers is David Blatter, who as I mentioned above, is also a member of David and Leeman, a magic team that has appeared on America’s Got Talent as well as the Masters of Illusion show we saw taped.
After posting on Facebook that I saw him perform on Saturday, David wrote back that it’s never too late for me to return to magic myself. Perhaps I will. Now that I’m a teacher myself at The Los Angeles Film School, maybe I can also figure out a way to incorporate magic into my classroom. If I can get all my students to stay awake during my Game Production lectures, that would really be a trick!