The secrets behind the secrets
Performing sleight-of-hand on film is always a challenge. Not because the sleights cannot be performed relatively invisibly but because there is a certain type of person who will always assume there was some form of trick photography. This is particularly true where the sleight-of-hand is truly invisible. There seems to be no other explanation.
Some have advocated sleight-of-hand can only be appreciated if it is shot in one take, that is, without any cut-aways or editing. I hope that The Devil’s Playthings disproves that. It is a concert film, a concert of sleight-of-hand, and it would be criminal to discard the craft of film-making, craft that can add pace, space, tension, and atmosphere, just for the sake of proving that what the viewer sees on the film is the same thing he would be seeing if he sat directly across the table.
I believe that great magic tricks are self-contained stories—with a beginning, middle and an end—and that, if you take the audience on a journey, the last thing that they should be focused on is the technique. Hopefully the narrative is strong enough to withstand the most skeptical person who, believing erroneously that somehow it is a game of wits, that is, that the performer is trying to belittle them by fooling them with something that they do not know or could not perform, and he or she just wants to know or pretend that they know how things are done.
So, Daniel Zuckerbrot and I took a different approach. (We have explored this problem—the filming of magic—together for almost twenty years.) We would create a narrative—with the setting, the atmosphere, the character, the music, the soundscape and the magic—and then, at the end, freely admit that all the magic was all performed by sleight-of-hand. The funny thing is that, even though we identify the technical names for each sleight employed—and perform each one so that all can see—we don’t believe the viewer is any further ahead except that they now, hopefully, have a better understanding of what constitutes pure sleight-of-hand.
In shooting the film, we had about a day and half to get things done. I had practiced the piece for years, and still do so on almost a daily basis. (Oddly enough, no sooner had we completed the shoot when I discovered some technical refinements that make some of the sleights, particularly the second deal, much more deceptive.) We shot the trick from start to finish—straight through—each and every time. We shot it with three cameras to get various angles.
For sophisticated sleight-of-hand, a deck of cards—a good deck of cards—is like a Steinway piano, and subject to the same wear and tear created by performance and humidity. Under the heat of the lights, the cards warp. The piano goes out of tune. So, we used two decks, alternating them, each one being put back in tune for the next take.
Magicians, as a breed, tend to be loners. They rarely embrace collaboration. Perhaps that’s one of the reasons they haven’t fared so well in the grand scheme of things. Filmmaking, however, is the exact opposite. There may be one vision, but that vision cannot be realized without the extraordinary effort and creativity from a group of talented individuals.
For me, it’s a lot like Billy and his collection: once you have been exposed to it, there is no going back.