Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Guest Post: Brandon Porterfield on Theme Magic

I want to share with you guys a story I heard a few months back of a magician living in Japan who had to do a theme party based on subject matter he at first was only roughly familiar with. I'm going to let Brandon Porterfield tell you the story in his own words and hopefully this will teach you a little something about how to make themes work without getting into all that hackneyed, "This represents this, and that represents this other thing," nonsense.

"I was invited to a children’s birthday party to perform magic for an hour. The age was between 7 and 11 years old. For each gig I accept I ask a series of questions to better prepare myself specifically for that performance. In this case the questions came back with an unexpected answer. There was a theme for this party: Pokemon.

"Each character in Pokemon has their own special ability and traits. Some of those directly translate to effects we try to portray with our magic.
I began the show with some of my normal routines adjusted to suit the short attention span of kids. The children were really enjoying the show thus far so I was on the home stretch. For my final 20 minutes I focused on the theme of the party.

"I began by bringing up one of the 'pokemon fans' to help me. I pretended to know nothing of the funny looking creatures that were posted around the house and on the balloons. I had the boy chose a card, sign it, then I ripped off a corner. He blew on it and thought of his favorite pokemon. He kept blowing on the corner in my hand while I asked the other children who the characters were and what were they capable of? Soon enough, the corner was gone from my hand, and was stuck in the mouth of a fox like animal on the wall. This began a myriad of questions and excitement.

"I followed this by asking if there were any 'pikiman' (on purpose) that were able to move things with their mind? I got a very enthuastic answer of a character named 'Kadabra.' They explained that he is able to bend spoons. So I got a few spoons and held one in my hand. I asked the spectators to yell out his name as loud as they could. They began to chant the name and watch as the spoon slowly bent then broke into two pieces. There was no doubt of what happened, because they’ve seen the character do it before. I simply showed them what they already expected and wanted to see.

"Finally I closed by addressing the name I heard over and over again throughout the night: 'Pikachu.' I asked what he does and why is he so popular. He of course shocks others with electricity. I asked the birthday boy, 'if you had that power, who would YOU shock?' I brought up him, and a few others to help him. I had each person hold hands and concentrate. I placed the birthday boy at the end with his 'target' next to him, each holding up their fingers in preparation to touch.

"I got on the other end of the daisy chain and all together (the whole room) we began to chant 'pika, pika, pika.' Each time we said the word the two boys at the end were to touch their fingers together. After a few moments and a very loud room, the 'target' jumped back and screamed. This in conjunction with the visible and slightly audible shock created a truly wonderful moment.

"The magic was all in their minds. They had all the information necessary to make the show a success. They knew the characters and their abilities. I simply played upon those established ideas and tried to create a memorable experience. "

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Review: The Haunting (1963)

There was a time in the not-too-distant past when horror films relied on more than copious levels of CGI and buckets upon buckets of fake blood to scare people. Enter director Robert Wise. Wise read Shirley Jackson's book "The Haunting of Hill House" and was so impressed by it that he swiftly acquired the film rights and met with Jackson herself to talk about making the adaptation to screen.

You have to understand that special effects were not especially sophisticated in the early 60's and when Wise finally got the green light, he had only $1.1 million to work with. Even in today's money, that's a pretty slim budget. Wise compensated by pouring most of his budget into set design, turning Hill House into a character all its own. It was a place of strange angles, labyrinthine rooms, and Gothic extravagance. One could argue that the monster in the movie was not the ghost (or possibly ghosts; it's never clear), but the house itself. And that only adds another layer of depth to one of the most interesting elements of this movie: you never actually see a monster.

The Haunting is rated G, but is actually one of the scariest movies ever made. After watching it for the first time, I had trouble getting to sleep. The only other movies that have ever affected me like that are Rosemary's Baby and Carnival of Souls. Okay, Psycho and the original Halloween did make me skittish about turning corners at night in an unfamiliar house, but I didn't actually lose sleep over them. The point is that Robert Wise's masterpiece of a haunted house flick will scare the bejeezus out of you because Wise knew you're better at scaring yourself when in the proper mood.

As I said, you never actually see the ghost(s). Most of the phenomena is unclear whether it's genuinely supernatural or Eleanor's descent into madness. The gore is nonexistent but the atmosphere is laid on thicker than cement. When the phenomena begins, the camera becomes as mobile as your own eyes might be. The sets are designed in such a way to emphasize the sense of isolation and subtle wrongness. As per the opening lines of the movie: "Silence lay steadily against the wood and stone of Hill House, and whatever walked there... walked alone."

The horror is established not through special effects or violence, but through a continual sense that reality is off. The camera lingers on points until your imagination inserts details. We are treated to a flood of reaction shots from the actors so that we can clearly see how scared they are. We only get one special effect toward the end of the 2nd act, but the buildup surrounding it makes it all the more terrifying. And other than some schizoid cinematography, there are no other special effects for the rest of the film, but you're already in such a terrified state that you don't care.

It's worth noting that everything this movie did right, it's 1999 remake did wrong. Everything was spelled out for you. All the subtlety of the ghostly manifestations was traded in for dodgy CGI, usually involving statues moving. And of course, a house with a tragic history wasn't good enough. No, they had to add in a whole gratuitous and poorly conceived back story about child slavery and murder and a lost descendant of the family line. Oh yeah, spoiler warning there. And of course, the remake just had to have a bloody happy ending. Apparently the filmmakers thought that horror movie fans wanted more happy endings in their favorite genre? The remake was crap is what I'm saying. A great cast unable to save bad writing, overblown CGI special effects, no sense of tact or subtlety, and a plot that made about as much sense as lighting your own head on fire. It wasn't scary at all because it left nothing to the imagination and was so ridiculous that it was impossible to take seriously.

If you are going to do bizarre magic and seances in particular, you must see the original version of this film. If you were to ask me to point to an excellent example of how to scare people with subtlety, implication and atmosphere, I would point you this movie first without even thinking about it. While you're at it, you might as well read Shirley Jackson's original novel as well.

Friday, May 20, 2011

The Visual Characters of Mystery Men

I recently sat down for a relaxing weekend with friends and some movies. One of the movies was the cult film Mystery Men, a movie about loser superheros. It always baffled me why the film never really took off. It actually seemed a bit ahead of its time. But I'm not here to give you a review, I'm here to tell you to check it out because it provides a great example of characterization through visuals. One thing that often gets neglected be performers is the understanding that appearances do matter. They say something about you.

Mystery Men had a distinctive and unique aesthetic that created a near-future reality where multiple cultures, styles, and period fashions blended seamlessly together. The aerial views of Champion City were reminiscent of Blade Runner while the suburbs were very Tim Burton-esque. There was a strong Gothic influence to the villain's mansion while the insane asylum was like Alcatraz filmed by Stanley Kubrick. As you can imagine, the characters themselves were equally diverse and visually interesting. Through the first and second acts, the protagonists wore cheap, patchwork costumes. In the third act, they went into the final battle sporting new, much more impressive costumes. Let's take a look at the initial three heroes and their scruffy, wannabe costumes.

Mr. Furious
Ben Stiller plays Roy, a.k.a. Mr. Furious. His whole thing is that he screams a lot and claims that his rage gives him super strength and fighting prowess, though it's pretty clear early on he has no idea what he's doing. His outfit is solid black and a rough pastiche of leather biker clothes. He has a few bits of scrap metal most likely from wrecked cars and motorcycle stuck to his armbands and wears a leather trench coat. His sideburns are sculpted to form sharp angles and his eyebrows have been plucked in a way that creates the impression of a permanent sneer. He also has a perpetual 5 o'clock shadow throughout the film. The outfit is dingy and has obviously seen better days. It all creates the effect of a guy who's trying way too hard to be intimidating.

The Blue Rajah
Hank Azaria plays Jeff, The Blue Rajah. He is the "Master of Silverware" who flings forks with great accuracy and speaks in a very thick limey British accent. His costume has a lot of color to it, but no blue. The whole thing seems to be plundered from someone's grandma, which turns out to be mostly true. The cape is green with a floral print. He wears corduroy pants with a white shirt and brown jacket with Converse Chuck Taylors. His turban seems to be made out of curtains. Here is a man who has very little money and has to work with found objects. He's also rather pretentious as even though the name, costume elements, and accent make sense in context, this is not immediately obvious and he instead looks like a jumbled mess of non sequiturs and anachronisms.

The Shoveler
Billy Macy is Eddy, The Shoveler. He uses a shovel for a weapon. That's his power. He's dressed in the clothes one would expect of a highway construction worker but with the addition a child's catcher's vest as body armor. This hints at his home life as a family man with a wife and kids. It also establishes him as the earthy, wise, father figure of the group by playing on the old "homespun wisdom" trope.

These are characters you can look at and immediately know something about them. And the whole movie is like this. The Spleen's anachronistic 60's/70's patchwork outfit makes him look more like a misfit with no cohesive identity. Casanova Frankenstein's look blends 70's fashion with a strong Gothic influence and long, wild hair to create an "evil genius" vibe. Captain Amazing's streamlined outfit covered in corporate logos makes it clear from the start that he's a sellout. Seriously, go watch the movie. Now.

This is a topic I'd like to go into more depth about, so list any movies, performers, video games or whatever you can think of that shows a smart visual aesthetic that also tells us something about the character(s). I'll take the best and feature them in a follow-up article in the near future.

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

It's All in the Eyes

Human eyes are interesting things. We constantly say that they're windows to the soul, but if you think about it, they're rather limited in their expressions. They only become expressive when looked at in the context of other facial expressions. There's a certain politician here in the US whom I won't name, but serves as a rather interesting example of what I mean. Specifically, she's almost always smiling, but it seldom touches her eyes, creating a weird uncanny valley effect. This is also a major problem in most CGI movies. The cartoon characters' eyes don't seem to be in on whatever emotion the rest of their face is trying to express and they end up with a creepy thousand-yard stare.

And if bad eye animation can turn a family friendly movie like Yogi Bear into a Lynchian nightmare (you know, aside from the fact that it was a badly written cyst of a movie that no one was asking for in the first place), one can only imagine how bad it is to watch a magician whose eyes aren't keeping up with his mouth. Whether it be lack of eye contact, too much eye contact, looking in the wrong places (perverted and otherwise), or any number of other screw-ups, the eyes can do a lot to undermine your performance.

That in mind, here's a couple tips.

Look Where You Want Them to Look
This one should be so obvious that I feel like I'm insulting the word obvious by calling it that. Humans are social creatures as I keep telling you. We follow a leader. When the magician takes charge of the conversation, we follow his eyes because we perceive what he's looking at to be important. That means not only not looking at your hands to draw attention away from the sleights, but also looking at the things they're supposed to look at in the first place. When you do the reveal, look at the reveal. There are times when it's okay to break eye contact, don't worry.

The Hypnotist Stare
This one is to be used very sparingly because it has great potential to go awry. It can either make people uncomfortable or make you look like a Criss Angel wannabe buffoon. The hypnotist stare is very simple. Rather than looking a person directly in the eye, you fix your gaze at the point between the eyes in the T-zone. The effect is a piercing gaze that conveys a strong sense of authority and control over the conversation. Use this when trying to establish your word as reality, but be subtle about it. Don't go from all smiles to a dramatic underlook within the same breath.

The Soul Gaze
I'm tipping one of my biggest performing techniques here, so pay attention. The Soul Gaze is a very old concept from the Celts. You stare into one person's right eye as they stare into yours. The original belief is that this would let you look into the other person's soul, though modern psychology shows that it simply creates a feeling of personal bond and trust. Even if the soul gaze is purely one-sided, if you use this look on someone when they are talking to you, they will like you more and be much more willing to indulge you in your act, requests, and commands throughout the routine. Just be sure to actually listen to what they're saying or you're going to look like a creepy loser.

Go out there and have some fun with that. You may notice some improvement in your performances.