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Deeper Magic: Basic Magical Effects (Part 1)
David Devant's Seven Magical Effects
Hey there, and welcome to the very first edition of Deeper Magic! In this inaugural issue, we will explore different ways of categorising basic magical effects. Hopefully, this will enable you to gain a deeper understanding of the art form and how various effects can be combined to create a well-balanced multiphase routine, a short magic set, or even an extended magic show.
“The amateur who wishes to succeed should thoroughly understand the headings under which all conjuring tricks can be classed. Let the amateur understand exactly all that a conjurer can do, and then let him take some object and try and discover some new way of performing a trick with it.”
— David Devant
Several magicians have attempted to categorise magic effects in a systematic manner. One of the first attempts was made by David Devant, a famous English magician and inaugural President of the Magic Circle. In his book My Magic Life, he outlined seven basic magical effects:
A Production or Creation
An Apparent Defiance of Natural Laws
An Exhibition of Secret Motive Power
Apparent Mental Phenomena
Let’s examine these effects one at a time in greater detail.
1: A Production or Creation
From the point of view of a magician, a “production” is the act of conjuring objects out of nowhere. One of the most well-known production effects is the act of pulling a live rabbit out of a top hat, a classic trick often associated with the quintessential magician. In his book, Devant provides additional examples of production effects, including the production of coins and playing cards. Furthermore, he elaborates on common misunderstandings surrounding the technique of palming. Specifically, when discussing palming cards, Devant notes:
“I do not advise an amateur to waste a lot of time in learning how to manipulate the cards, because some of the best card tricks can be performed without any sleight-of-hand. The amateur should bear in mind that all sleight-of-hand is only a means to an end, and that if that end can be reached in a more direct way, then sleight-of-hand is of no value to him.”
He goes on to say:
It is obvious that the amateur conjurer who attempts to produce a coin, card, or other object from his hands alone sets himself a difficult task. When he makes use of some other object in his trick, his work is more simple.
According to Devant, the most effective method for executing a production trick involves utilising a cover of some sort, like a small box or handkerchief, from which the item, or items, can be produced. When incorporating a handkerchief into the production effect, he recommends magically producing the handkerchief first, a pre-production production, if you will!
Another example brought up by Devant is the classic feat of producing a bowl of water containing a live goldfish from beneath a previously empty cloth. He also notes the impressive trick of continually producing items from a top hat and catching money in midair (more commonly known as The Miser’s Dream). Finally, the mysterious growth of flowers is highlighted as a remarkable demonstration of the creation of life. From the audience’s perspective, this effect is not a production but rather a demonstration of instantaneous growth. However, from a technical standpoint, it shares many of the attributes of a production.
It is interesting to note that David Devant became famous for his rendition of a classic magic trick that falls into the category of producing objects out of thin air. In The Egg Trick, the English magician invited a young volunteer on stage to assist him. He would then magically produce a seemingly endless supply of eggs from an apparently empty top hat. At first, the eggs were slow to appear, but over time, they began to emerge more quickly. Despite their best efforts, the volunteer found it difficult to manage the increasing number of eggs produced from the hat. Unfortunately, some eggs slipped from their grasp and got broken on the stage. The trick’s comedic value was derived from the slapstick nature of the situation and the child’s response to the inevitable mishaps.
2: A Disappearance
A “disappearance” or “vanish” can be seen as the opposite, or reverse, of a production. Because of this, you could argue that it doesn’t require a separate classification. Nevertheless, various techniques that involve making an object disappear differ significantly from those that focus on the production of an item. Furthermore, an audience perceives it differently, even if it uses the same technique backwards. Therefore, it makes a lot of sense to treat it as a separate concept. In addition, vanishes are frequently used in conjunction with productions. To illustrate, a magician might cause a coin to materialise at his fingertips only to make it disappear a few moments later. In this way, productions and disappearances are two sides of the same magical coin!
During a magic lecture I attended a few years ago, Tonny Van Rhee demonstrated the concept of invisibility through the vanishing of an object. He placed a Silver Dollar on the table and claimed that it was invisible on one side. As he turned it over, it disappeared from view and then reappeared when he turned it back over again. As far as I’m aware, this idea is original to Tonny. It is a novel way of reframing the classic vanish of a coin. Presented this way, you could argue that it is no longer a disappearance, but rather a demonstration of invisibility, even though the magician uses the same manipulative technique to hide the coin. It is also possible to argue that this phenomenon appears to defy the laws of nature, the fifth category in Devant’s list (although advancements in cloaking technology may eventually allow for the invisibility of small objects). However, some people watching will still perceive the effect as a vanish followed by a reproduction regardless of how it is presented.
Devant’s book offers a detailed explanation of how to perform a fascinating trick that involves reversing the production of the fishbowl mentioned previously to make it disappear. The trick uses a special cloth with a cardboard disk sewn into it, creating the illusion of the bowl’s lip hidden under it. Once the bowl is stolen away (and secured in a pocket or hidden on a secret shelf behind a table), the technical aspect of the performance is complete. The rest of the trick is pure pantomime.
The author also discusses techniques for making a handkerchief disappear and details the workings of a simple “pull” device. This covert tool discreetly removes an item from view by pulling it up a sleeve or into a jacket.
Devant had a penchant for performing magic with eggs. He shares several techniques in his book for making an egg disappear, some more practical than others, often using clever contraptions or hidden devices. He also mentions the famous Egg Bag illusion. The vanishing of an egg is an excellent example of this category of effect, as eggs are delicate and require careful handling to prevent breakages. This inherent fragility makes the disappearance (or production) of an egg even more astonishing.
3: A Transformation
The process of converting one thing into another is called a “transformation” by the magical fraternity. It may entail transforming an object into an entirely different item, such as turning lead into gold (alchemy) or a bow tie into a pair of sunglasses. Alternatively, a transformation may involve only a change of colour, such as turning clear water into red wine, or a change in state, such as water becoming solid blocks of ice. Actually, a transformation could involve altering the colour, size, shape, form, design, material, state or even weight of an object (or any combination of these characteristics).
Coin magicians often transform American Silver Half Dollars into Old English Pennies. Sometimes, a coin grows in size to provide a surprise ending to a longer coin routine. A favourite trick of card conjurers is the colour change, where the face of a card is transformed. (Confusingly, sometimes only the value changes while the colour remains the same.)
According to Devant, a transformation often involves the simultaneous production of one item and the disappearance of another. He also mentions that you might be tempted to reproduce the object later in the routine but that it is better to dispose of it altogether to maintain the illusion of transformation.
The book also describes a chemical transformation—using tannic acid, perchloride of iron and oxalic acid—to turn some water black and then transparent again. Additionally, Devant provides instructions on how to morph a candle into a bouquet of flowers and describes the popular “coffee-and-beans” trick, which uses intricate mechanical apparatus to transform coffee berries and white beans into hot coffee, milk, and sugar.
4: A Transposition
Next in Devant’s list of basic magical effects is “transposition”, which involves two objects travelling invisibly from one place to another, switching locations. For example, Devant explains one of the magic tricks he regularly performed during the early days of his career: the transposition of a champagne bottle and a glass tumbler filled with water. He also mentions the Conradi Flying Lamp illusion, where a pistol is fired at a lighted lamp on a small glass-topped table which vanishes, only to reappear on a nearby bookcase (strictly speaking, this is a demonstration of “teleportation” because only one item travels).
There should be an element of surprise in all transposition tricks, otherwise they are apt to fall rather flat. For instance, it is not enough to say that you are going to make a card leave the pack and fly invisibly through the air into the pocket of a man seated at the other end of the hall in which you are performing. Say that by all means, and carry out your intentions, but do something else as well.
— David Devant
Devant also shares a fascinating trick: a borrowed finger ring is magically transferred from one hand to another. The performance is made even more impressive because the magician's hands are bound with serviettes. Moreover, the audience member chooses the finger on which the ring will reappear.
There are many transposition tricks using cards and coins. “Scotch and Soda”, invented by Richard Himber circa 1950, is a very popular transposition of two different coins, usually a US Half Dollar and an Old English Penny. My favourite transposition effect with cards is Dr Daley’s Last Trick, in which the red and black Aces trade places. I could go on. But I won’t!
5: An Apparent Defiance of Natural Laws
Some effects are challenging to classify. However, one thing they all have in common is that they seem to contradict the laws of nature (this could be true of all magical effects). For instance, Devant cites the notorious Bullet Catch illusion, in which the magician appears to cheat death:
Many of these [tricks] are most effective because they completely mystify the audience. A conjurer can pick up a pistol, load it with powder and a marked bullet, and have it fired at him without hurting him.
— David Devant
In his book, the famous magician shares a few amazing tricks in this category, including one where the magician plunges a sword through a person’s body without harming them. He also explains one of his own, much less dangerous tricks using a glass cylinder and two sheets of paper. He would begin by placing a sheet of paper on the bottom of the cylinder, pouring water into it, and covering the top with another sheet of paper. To the audience's surprise, the water remained in the cylinder, even when Devant removed the paper and then rolled the cylinder on the floor! This type of magic trick is commonly known as a “water suspension” because the liquid appears to defy the laws of gravity. Another excellent example of this effect is the Chen Lee Water Suspension, created by U.F. Grant in 1945. In this trick, water is poured into one end of an opaque tube, but it doesn’t flow out as expected. Then a silk handkerchief is passed through the tube, followed by a glass tumbler that reappears full of water.
The author shares another intriguing example of a water-based effect that seems to defy scientific explanation (and appears to be an early version of the Sands of the Nile). First, a glass bowl is filled with water. Next, sand is sprinkled into the bowl and thoroughly mixed with the water. Then, the magician reaches into the murky water and produces handfuls of dry sand!
Devant concludes his discussion of effects in this category by highlighting the renowned illusion of his close friend and business partner, John Neville Maskelyne—the levitation of a person on stage. This particular trick is, perhaps, the best example of a magician challenging the laws of nature. And like pulling a rabbit from a hat, the image of a magician floating an assistant on stage is firmly embedded into popular culture.
6: An Exhibition of Secret Motive Power
The sixth type of effect on Devant's list is the display of covert “motive power”. The Rising Card and the Haunted Pack serve as prime examples of this effect. Devant also mentions the Talking Skull and Mysterious Hand, which can write down the answer to a sum set by the audience.
I think “animation” would be a more fitting title for this category. I have an undergraduate degree in Computer Animation and Special Effects, and based on my studies, I would define animation as “the illusion of life”. This phrase was coined by Frank Thomas and Ollie Johnston, two legendary Disney animators who wrote the definitive book on character animation. Simply put, an animation effect is any technique that creates the appearance of an object moving on its own.
7: Apparent Mental Phenomena
Lastly, this category encompasses mentalism or mental magic rather than traditional magic tricks. This includes performances such as second-sight acts and demonstrations of mind-reading. Examples include reading a concealed message, transmitting thoughts to another individual, identifying a hidden object selected by an audience member, and answering a question secretly written down by someone.
Is This a Sensible System?
Devant has provided a solid foundation for us to create a system for categorising magical effects. However, some of his categories, particularly five and seven, are too general to be practical. For instance, defying natural laws encompasses a wide range of magic tricks, including levitations, animations, penetrations, and restorations. To address this issue, I suggest expanding the list to ten basic types:
It might be helpful to categorise mental phenomena into more specific types, similar to how category five has been divided. For example, clairvoyance, divination, extra-sensory perception, prediction, synchronicity and telepathy are all forms of mental magic. You could also consider telekinesis—moving objects with your mind like a Jedi Master—a mental phenomenon or an animation. Herein lies the problem with such systems of categorisation!
Additionally, some may argue that escapology deserves a spot on the list. It’s worth noting that Harry Houdini, a renowned Hungarian-American magician known for his daring stunts and escapes, is still recognised as one of the world’s most famous magicians, even almost a century after his death. I haven’t done this because, depending on how you present an escape, it could be considered a disappearance, a form of teleportation or even a transposition effect, e.g. Harry and Bess Houdini performing their famous “Metamorphosis” illusion is a clear example of an elaborate transposition with elements of escapism.
You could also argue that magnetism, or unnatural attraction, deserves a place on the list of magical effects. However, it simply represents a specific form of transformation where an object changes its magnetic state. Furthermore, a transposition effect could be viewed as a double teleportation. Likewise, a teleportation can be seen as a disappearance followed by a reappearance! However, both terms are included on the list for clarity due to the abundance of teleportation and transposition effects. Lastly, some forms of sympathetic magic, where one item changes in reaction to another, could also be in a separate category. However, you could consider a trick like this another form of transformation or animation.
Nevertheless, I believe that the list mentioned above sufficiently encompasses the majority of magic tricks without becoming excessively long or cumbersome. In future articles, I’ll look at some of the other, more extensive lists, such as Dariel Fitzkee’s categorisation system from his book The Trick Brain, which lists nineteen types.