A film professor reappraises
his childhood approach to performing magic.
Three years ago, I was all fired up to teach a new freshman writing seminar called Special Effects in Cinema History. Then came the inevitable questions: How to structure it? Where to start? How to begin the course without falling back on a chronological list of special effects through the decades? Simply promising how-they-did-it explanations for each new technological advance wouldn’t speak to the idea of special effects—how they create a coherent, concrete visual world and yet never convince us that it’s real. Special effects, and those who study them, have wrestled with this question at least since 1896, when French illusionist Georges Méliès morphed from stage magician to cinematic conjuror.
After a few weeks of second-guessing and a lot of coffee, I began the class with something simple: a magic trick. I used a gimmicked (altered) deck of playing cards to create the illusion that, no matter which card students chose or where they cut it into the deck, it instantly reappeared on top. After a few variations on this effect, I flipped through the whole deck to show it suddenly contained nothing but multiples of a single card, the eight of hearts. Then I squared up the deck and riffled it one more time … and every card was different once again.
This effect has been a staple of kids’ magic sets for decades. Magicians call it a self-working trick, meaning it requires no sleight of hand skills (an imperative for me because I had no such skills to contribute). But it can be startling to those who haven’t seen it before. Luckily for the course, my students were indeed startled, or at least inclined to humor me.
Then came the really fun part, for a film history nerd anyway. I asked the class: What does this trick have in common with a filmic special effect like a star destroyer overtaking a tiny ship in outer space, an emaciated humanoid running on all fours, or a giant ape punching a giant lizard into New York Harbor? Compared to such effects, what does my gimmicked deck make you think you see? What means could its inventor have employed to alter the way that decks of playing cards normally behave? Does anyone believe the deck truly changed, and if not, why are we still surprised when it suddenly contains only duplicates of the same card? And if we know that King Kong is really an animated 18-inch puppet covered in rabbit fur (in 1933) or a digitally rendered chimera (in 2021) but never a living creature, why do we feel suspense over whether Godzilla or Kong will win the skirmish?
The magic trick was a gamble—I worried that the students would find it corny—but it paid off. Everyone had responses and concrete examples from films to support their opinions. As the conversation shifted to the hidden mechanics of both cinematic visual effects and magic, I went so far as to reveal the secret of the trick, thus breaking the magician’s oath (though the pedagogical payoff was worth it). I have another secret, however, one that I didn’t reveal to the freshmen that day: Performing the trick also scratched a decades-old itch of mine. For I was a grade-school magician. At least, I thought I was.
My magic career began in 1976, when I tore a prepaid postcard out of an advertisement in a kids’ magazine. The card, plus a check for a few dollars per month, was my ticket to the Young Magician’s Club—not a real club but a subscription service that shipped one magical effect every 30 days. Each white box contained a gimmick (magicians’ general term for a trick’s hidden apparatus) and a booklet containing instructions and patter, the verbal accompaniment meant to ensure that, even though he might fumble the trick, a third grader would sound witty while doing it.
I still have every one of those gimmicks and nearly every booklet, and even remembering them now gobsmacks me with a memory of a botched performance so embarrassing that no amount of wistfulness could varnish it.
That Halloween party has since become a family punchline. It ended—and I mean ended—with my magic act. Lacking even rudimentary foresight, I invited a classmate named Eric to the party—my frenemy before frenemies were a thing—who loudly reported that he knew every trick in my routine. My intense self-consciousness (coupled with an equally unendearing petulance) brought the act to a screeching halt, followed by a shouting match consisting mostly of “Do not!” followed by “Do so!” for several rounds. How this battle of wits ended I don’t recall, but it surely brought an end to the party.
As I look back now, after reading up on magic history and theory to prepare the special effects seminar, the cause of the fiasco seems obvious: I misunderstood magic’s function as an entertainment. To me at age eight, magic represented something I knew but others didn’t, something I could feel superior about despite being an unathletic A student—read, a nerd. All I cared about was impressing, and possibly intimidating, kids like Eric.
What I couldn’t have understood then was that to “fool” an onlooker with a magic effect (as the title of Penn and Teller’s reality series Fool Us would have it) is not synonymous with making the onlooker look foolish. According to Eugene Burger, Jamy Ian Swiss, Juan Tamariz, and other thoughtful magician-theorists, to raise magic to the level of art, the performer must engage the audience, not as targets of a con game, but as witnesses with the magician to the wonder of an event that can’t happen in reality as we know it. Rather than lording their skills over spectators, magicians can present themselves as sharing in the spectators’ surprise and wonder.
There’s a generosity about this approach to magic as something done for and with an audience, not to it. When my card trick arrives at its big reveal, our certainty that buried playing cards can’t jump to the top of a deck has to confront the sight of a buried card doing just that. Even a trick this simple is an opportunity to engage spectators in an experiment in utopian thinking, during which we entertain the possibility of occurrences deemed impossible by our rational selves.
A well-defined, well-practiced, and well-performed magic effect can simulate a rearrangement of physical reality that defies natural limitations. It could even prompt us to consider how human-made limitations we encounter in our reality might be rearranged, discarded, or replaced. At least, that’s the ideal.
I’d like to think I was faithful to this ideal when I used the gimmicked deck to introduce freshman writers to special effects in film. I hope the trick nudged them to regard special effects not as add-ons to fantasy or science fiction films but as a phenomenon fundamental to the experience of cinema. Special effects are a concept, one that uniquely illuminates a defining tension that cinema and magic share: the tension between the inflexibility of reality and the power of each medium to transform it.
As a personal bonus, I now have a side hustle in common with one of my cinematic heroes, Orson Welles. Some months ago, after as much practicing as I could squeeze in, I put on a magic routine for the kind and patient patrons of a local senior center. If they invite me back, perhaps I’ll bring my all-eights trick deck and strike up a discussion about cinematic special effects too. Magic is magic, after all.
Paul Young, AM’92, PhD’98, is associate professor of film and media studies at Dartmouth College. The author of The Cinema Dreams Its Rivals: Media Fantasy Films from Radio to the Internet (University of Minnesota Press, 2006) and Frank Miller’s “Daredevil” and the Ends of Heroism (Rutgers University Press, 2016), he is at work on a book about women filmmakers of the 1910s and ’20s and their roles in the development of the feature-length fiction film.