By John Pellegrini
We so often hear the word asso-ciated with our work. Magic. We are introduced to clients and aud-iences as the “one who makes the magic.” Production people make audio “magic.” Or salespeople, clients, and Program Directors give us specific instructions to include this item (MAGIC) in a spot or promo. I work for a company whose parent company makes the claim “The Magic Kingdom” for its mission statement, its slogan, its mantra.
So what the hell is this magic? What is it that makes a spot or a promo “magical?” Do we bring in Penn and Teller to do the spot? Does having all kinds of special effects, noises, swooshes, zaps, and other audio shtick qualify as “magic?”
Recently, I had a group of Cub Scouts in my studio for a quick tour. They had never seen a radio station before, and I was explaining to them how the computers I used enabled me to do all this technical magic. Within a minute, I realized that I could just as easily have been describing the Book of Kells to them. I decided to record their voices. This perked them up. Suddenly the magic started to happen. I got them to do a short greeting. Then, to demonstrate what I thought the magic was, I started to pitch change the recording of their voices. Some giggles, but not much.
Then, I used the scrub wheel to rewind the recording to the beginning. The rewind noise got a huge laugh. So, I spent the next few minutes demonstrating the scrub wheel feature, moving the audio slowly, then quickly, then slow and quick. Eyes were wide, smiles were huge, and laughter echoed the halls. The magic wasn’t what I thought it was. The magic was not about the computers, or me. The magic is what THEY want it to be.
The magic is not the magic you think it is. The magic is not about you.
In this day of digital erections and audio masturbating, where we can invert, synthesize, and even defy the principles of audio, it is quite easy to forget that none of this is “magical” to our audience. More often than not, it’s annoying to listen to this type of stuff, especially when it’s used to cover up the fact that your message isn’t particularly interesting. I mean, how many times can you say your station plays the most music before absolutely no one cares any more? I’d say about five. But what if you said your station “COMMANDS AN UN-DYING RESPECT FROM THE LEADERS OF THE PLANET ZOK”? Of course it’s total crap, but it’s a hell of a lot more interesting than constantly saying your station plays the most music!
Belaboring the obvious is not the way to make magic. Ask a magician: magic is the art of misdirection. You cannot create magic when you are using nothing more than the obvious. You may think that all these lasers and zaps and swooshes and stingers you have in your sound effects library are way cool. But that’s because you’re a production geek. The listener doesn’t care one way or the other about it. They’re just waiting for you to entertain them. If you want to see just how entertaining your lasers, swooshes, zaps and stings are, just walk out to any public park or building, and play a CD full of them on your boombox at full volume. Watch all the people run away from you in stampedes! More than likely, if you keep it up, you’ll have some cop or security person try to arrest you. Still think this crap is attractive?
The art of magic, the art of misdirection comes not from the trick itself, either. Again, ask any magician. The art of magic is not the trick, but in the patter, the speech, the story, the presentation that the magician offers. In his book, Magic, William Goldman describes the art of misdirection when his protagonist tells how he was able to pull off quite an amazing feat of magic on stage. “It’s all the act between me and Fats (the ventriloquist dummy),” says Corky. “By the time we’re done talking, I could have dragged an elephant on stage, and no one would have noticed until I pointed it out.”
The War of the Worlds is always described as one of the finest examples of “radio magic” ever produced. Yet, most people, when discussing the show, forget that it was not pre-recorded. It was live. There were no re-takes. And despite the endless rhapsodizing by countless scholars of “theater of the mind” who obviously don’t know what they’re talking about, it was not the best sounding audio job of its day. There were countless mistakes made by the cast, the orchestra, the sound effects engineers, and the network. Orson Welles considered the performance of the show to be marginal at best, which was why he was so surprised at the reports of widespread panic (which were also greatly exaggerated by historians). In his statements on the broadcast, he kept referring to the numerous mistakes in the performance, mistakes that he thought should have easily alerted anyone with any intelligence that this was a fake show. He couldn’t believe that people fell for it. But, that’s the point. The magic wasn’t what Orson thought it was.
The magic came from the believability of the actors, not the technical stuff. The magic comes from the performance, not the sound effects. The magic comes from the excitement of the trick, not the props of the trick. By the way, for a fascinating discussion on how people’s ability to allow prejudices and personal beliefs interfere with their perception of events, and how your own imagination flaws your credibility in witnessing events, go to the CSICOP website (Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims Of the Paranormal), and check out the article called, “The Martian Panic, Sixty Years Later.” You’ll doubt every “eyewitness” news report you ever see again.
Last year, ABC Television ran a special called “Street Magic” featuring, David Blaine, a young magician who travels throughout the United States meeting people on the street and celebrities, and absolutely astounding them with simple, up-close hand magic, the kind of simple, up-close hand magic which has been around since the days of the Pharaohs and should actually astonish NO ONE. The special ran for an hour. Yet, during the entire time, I counted exactly six, maybe seven different tricks in total! This kid convinced ABC to devote an entire hour, plus even get the actor Dennis Farina to narrate the show, and all he had was six or seven simple tricks that anyone can do! These tricks are the kind that you can learn with one of those children’s magic sets. You can go to the library and check out a book for free that will tell you how to do everything Blaine did! Yet, he got ABC to do an entire hour long special on him! Granted, he took those simple tricks and practiced on them and improved them beyond what the ordinary magic book will tell you how to perform them, but they were still fairly simple in their staging. Again, these were well known old tricks that should have impressed no one. But it was Blaine’s presentation and performance that made you forget that, not only were the tricks simple, but fairly easy to figure out. In his second ABC special, Blaine again astounded the world by performing tricks that have been common knowledge for centuries, and again, should have surprised, NO ONE! For example: how did he swallow the string and pull it out of his stomach through his skin? Ever hear of make-up and rubber skin? Ever hear of B-Grade horror movie cheap special effects? Ever see a trick that should have astonished NO ONE? That’s the secret of the performance making the simple trick incredible.
One of my favorite tricks performed by Penn and Teller is the famous double bullet catching trick, using high powered pistols, and laser sights, and bullet proof vests, and cops in the audience who authenticate that the bullets are real. Everyone is always amazed at this trick because there just doesn’t seem to be any way that it could be faked. Of course, what everyone misses, is just as Penn and Teller walk off to their posts to shoot each other, they reach across the line that divides them, and shake hands. The pass of the bullets is so obvious, people don’t even see it! But since they just took more than fifteen minutes to do prep work and have the cops from the audience authenticate the weapons and bullets, by the time they get to the handshake, you just accept the moment as an act of friendship, and not what it actually was.
That’s the art of misdirection. The trick looks more complicated than it actually is. David Copperfield, is another master at making the trick more important than it actually is. Making the Statue Of Liberty disappear is relatively simple, if you have enough money. You just put the audience and the television crew on a large platform with limited visibility, and show them a mirrored image of the statue. Then, drop the mirror, and behold! The Statue has disappeared! Or, use a large turntable. The nice thing about TV cameras is, you think you’re getting the total picture, but the reality is, you’re only getting about a tenth of your total peripheral vision. Copperfield, Blaine, Penn and Teller, and others know this visual limitation of the television camera and exploit it for all it’s worth. It also doesn’t hurt that most TV personalities (including news reporters) are total idiots who never question anything, but that’s a subject for another magazine. Of course, he’s got dancers, and showgirls, and bands, and smoke, and lasers, and all that other crap to distract you, which is why I don’t care for his brand of magic. But, as with all magicians, the secrets to his tricks are not difficult to figure out. His “magic” is rooted in the performance of the trick.
“But,” people whine, “David said he wasn’t using any platforms or mirrors!” Did it ever occur to you that David could be lying his head off?!?! Oh, no, he’s telling the truth, and he really did make the Statue disappear! The art of misdirection definitely includes the art of LYING YOUR HEAD OFF! Magic is Fraud, Fakery, and Lying elevated to high art. Anyone who thinks otherwise should have a lobotomy because they’re obviously in no need of their brains. Even those who exploit magic, like psychics and astrologers, follow the principles of the art nonetheless. That’s why they can all be exposed as the frauds they are by any magician. One wonders, why didn’t any of the psychics who were part of the “Psychic Friends Network” foresee its bankruptcy and get out before the disaster occurred? Weren’t the cosmic vibrations any good that day, and if so, what does that say about the accuracy of any of their predictions? In other words, fakes are still fakes, no matter how legitimate they claim to be!
The performance is more important than the trick. Magic is the art of misdirection. Over-stating the obvious is not magical. To help your production become “magical” you must understand these principles. Commercials that are full of what we call cliches, are guilty of nothing more than over-stating the obvious. No one is ever impressed when they are told repeatedly what they already know. They usually get very annoyed. Magic happens when you create a new reality for the obvious. It isn’t just more music; it’s a way to achieve total enlightenment of the culture of youth. Well, maybe that’s a bit much.
Part of the “genius of art” is also knowing when to quit. Pablo Piccaso once said that every artist should have a man standing next to him holding a loaded pistol, whose job should be to kill the artist whenever he tries to go too far with a painting. “One more stroke, and you’re dead, sucker!” Consider editing your pistol. Magic is also knowing when to quit with the nonsense. The creation of a new reality is the key to success in any venture. Penn, in an interview with our afternoon show, said that he and Teller usually work about six months to a year rehearsing any given trick before they consider it flawless. They even carefully plan how much time each trick will take and how long they estimate they can keep the b.s. up until the audience gets tired, or distracted, or starts to figure things out. That’s the purpose your editing serves. Making your performance flawless is how you make the magic something extraordinary.
This is why Martha Stewart is such a success. The truth is, you already learned everything she does on her show in your high school shop class and home economics class. But, she presents it with flowery music, soft focus lenses on the cameras (probably to hide her age), and sincere, wistful, authoritative monologues as a way to make you believe that she is revealing the Secrets of Solomon’s Tomb, instead of how to frost a cake. Oscar Levant once said of Leonard Berstein, “He’s revealing musical secrets that have been common knowledge for centuries,” and the same could be said of Martha (and Bob Villa for that matter). Another classic example of someone making millions on the obvious is John Gray, author of “Men Are From Mars and Women Are From Venus.” Excuse me, but didn’t we all learn this stuff in high school mythology class? By the way, speaking of creating a new reality, I notice that John Gray is now using PHD for his moniker, even though he got his PHD from an unaccredited mail order “university.” You see, anyone can be a Doctor for the right amount of money.
In this world of “Magic,” it is all-important that you remember that magicians are humbugs of the highest order. Advertising is definitely more of a magical art than a science, and therefore the art of humbug. It is merely a way of putting a new image on the obvious, no matter how many focus groups are involved. The real money is made when the humbug is accepted as gospel. Roy H. Williams, YOU ARE ABSOLUTELY RIGHT (RAP Jan ’99)! Make people believe that they are geniuses for buying your version of pooh, when it’s no different than anyone else’s pooh, and you’ll be the wealthiest seller of pooh on the planet. The real genius is to convince everyone that your new vision for the same old crap is the most fantastic thing they’ve ever heard. Think of Gloria Vanderbilt and Designer Jeans. If that wasn’t the classic example of repackaging the same old crap, then I don’t know what is. The truth was, Levis and Lee had all the sizes she did, but most stores didn’t carry them. Of course, that’s Levis and Lee’s fault. Never let someone show you to be weaker than you are, another point from the world of Magic.
Magic is the art of making baloney a science. Learn this well, and the world is your oyster, especially if you know how to breed oysters. Fail to realize this, and you’ll always be the kid who had a magic set, but “grew up” and got a real job—probably working for some shmuck who repackaged the same old crap and made millions, by making magic.