Appearring on TV: A Guide

A Lecture By Gary Ouellet

Notes and guidelines for the performer, director and producer.

Television. So why do people keep on watching? The answer, by now, should be perfectly obvious: we love television because television brings us a world in which television does not exist. In fact, deep in their hearts, this is what the spuds crave most: a rich, new, participatory life.

- Barbara Ehrenreich
Mark Wilson, Doug Henning and David Copperfield pioneered the art form. Through their trials and errors, we have a better idea today what works and what doesn't when it comes to presenting magic on television.

This essay is a compendium of loose thoughts I have regarding the challenge, learned by my own various appearances on local television in my home town, some of which were disastrous, and my participation behind the camera on three Copperfield Specials for CBS, as well as the World's Greatest Magic series, the Lance Burton, Houdini, and Hidden Secrets shows for NBC, and the Champions of Magic show for ABC.

Getting On Television

If you want to badly enough, you can get on TV. I wrangled my way onto a TV appearance on my local station at age fourteen. David Copperfield knocked on doors of the production offices in New York for a year until he got his first special. Alain Choquette picked up the telephone in Montreal and called the Regis and Cathy Lee show and talked himself into an appearance. Performers we turned down for World's Greatest Magic I kept coming back with new material until they caught our attention

The reader may not have his own network prime time television special in the works, but many have occasion to appear as a guest on local programming, and in such cases, the inevitable questions apply: what material do I use, what do I need to know about magic on TV?

Actually, the student of magic on television has access to all he needs to know. Most magicians keep an extensive videotape library. Study the work of Doug Henning as he started out with live telecasts (his first solution to conveying the no-camera-trick notion) to his later video productions. Study the vast contribution by David Copperfield and watch how he has developed the art of magic on TV to new heights. And watch how Siegfried and Roy opted for a lusher, more dreamy approach.

What I have to offer is personal opinion, some of which is not shared by friends in the industry, or by friends in magic.

One thought is obvious: live TV may be more exciting but it is often disastrous (it has humbled the greats) and rarely as beautiful and deceptive as "produced" magic. But live, or its functional equivalent, one pass taping, is how you will probably start.

The rules are different, depending on one basic reality: do you have control of the production or not?

Remember, in most cases the director will not have seen the piece of magic, and may well cut away at a critical moment or show the piece from a bad angle. Rehearsals are rare. The director has three to four cameras he is controlling. During the show, he is calling which camera is on (the little red light) and this "line cut" is the only thing being recorded (on a magic network special, the piece may be shot five times, with all cameras being recorded individually, and later the piece is reconstructed from all this footage).

Some rules for uncontrolled situations:

If you are lucky enough to meet with the director ahead of time, here is the easiest way to present your case:

I do NOT suggest showing the trick to the on-air host. You are hoping that there will be a good surprise reaction from that quarter.

The essential is to excite the spectators. If that means playing Hamlet on a flying trapeze or in an aquarium, you do it.

- Orson Welles

Television As a Medium

Television is extremely powerful. The World's Greatest Magic is seen by some 25 million people in the US alone, and hundreds of millions of people world-wide. Children would rather watch TV than play. Most adults spend most evenings watching TV. More people will see Melinda's Drill of Death than will see the Oscar's Best Movie. Think of it and understand the incredible power of television. Ed Turner noted that if we had had the right technology back then, you would have seen Eva Braun on the Donahue show and Adolf Hitler on Meet the Press.

A TV appearance should never be seen as a source of revenue (Copperfield can lose millions on one of his TV shows) - but rather as the greatest marketing tool at your disposal.

Television is as immediate as close-up. The camera comes in and your face invades millions of households.

There is a good deal in common between the mind's eye and the TV screen, and though the TV set has all too often been the boobtube, it could be, it can be, the box of dreams.

- Ursula K. Le Guin
And herewith some thoughts:

Your Own Special

Here are some thing's you can do when you control the production:

The Ethical Rules

As a magic producer, I tell you that the temptation to cheat is enormous and constant. It would be so easy to produce unbelievable magic on TV using camera tricks. As you fight time and money and delays, the thought that your problems can be fixed by a paint box in post is ever-tempting. But somehow, you end up following some basic ethical rules. These rules are personal to me: others may be more lenient, and others more strict.

Some Special Challenges

1. Birds

Many bird acts feature free-flying animals. In other words, instead of producing a dove from silks in your hands, you make a tossing motion and the bird flies out (for example, Greg Frewin's act). Or you toss a bird up hoping he will fly to his perch (Lance Burton's act). Or, you will send the parrot for a fly-around the theater (Joe Gabriel or Brett Daniels).

Many performers teach the birds to do this by having a single spotlight focused on the performer. A bird tossed into the dark will come back to the only thing he can see. No bird will fly off into the dark. But then comes he TV show. Instead of one spotlight, there are now 300 lights. The bird is tossed out and it is time to get out the cherry-pickers, boys, cause the bird is gone.

I am happy to report that some performers, such as Joe Gabriel, train the birds to fly back in a lit room. When we shot Joe in Monaco, the Opera House was fully lit and I am proud to report that the bird performed perfectly.

There is a moral: if you have a bird act, which involves free flights, train your birds to do it in a lit environment. Otherwise you will create hell during the shoot.

2. Mirrors

Mirrors often cast a green or bluish color to that which they are reflecting. They also imply a drop in luminosity. In both cases, only a competent lighting designer can correct these problems. And because cameras move, here comes an additional problem: a moving point of view is often disastrous in maintaining the illusion created by the mirror. The camera motions must be expertly rehearsed and plotted.

3. Wires and Threads

Because television lighting is a gadzillion times brighter than live performing conditions (where it is often tricky to hide wires and threads anyway) this methodology is a minefield of headaches. Invisible threads suddenly look like cables, and wire rigs look like a backyard trellis. The background rules sometime share the guideline for live performances (busy is better) but where a red sparkling background works great in person, on TV the mass of red sends home color tubes into shock. And then lighting! Basically, if you consider each wire as a mirror, will it reflect the light into the camera? If yes, the wire will show. Having said that I've said nothing. I have worked with wires on three productions, and I still have no true solution other than hours of trial and error and minute tweaking; and even then, what works on camera 1 doesn't work on camera 2. And if the wires have to move, prepare for a long day. Trust me, I've been there.

4. Black Art

I love black art. It is a field where I have spent much time and study. I am speaking about major black art, not a thin strip under a base, or a square circle (although even these can be tricky). Black art on television, however, is very, very difficult. Shine some lights on your eyes and they will iris down, and black things and movement on the field of black will vanish. But a TV camera will not iris down. Add the additional lighting required for television images and things get really tricky.

Here are some things that I have learned:

Thoughts On Close-Up

Television was made for close-up, and vice versa. Being an intimate medium, television can bring close-up to the millions. In fact, an argument can be made that close-up is more appropriate than stage magic for TV fare. Indeed, I continue to entertain the hope that one day I can convince a network to buy a one hour prime time close-up special.

But it is not an easy sell. Although some viewers may tell you that their favorite part of WGM II was, say, René Lavand; and a live theater go-er may admit he really liked Copperfield's performance of the floating rose, the truth is that a card trick won't get viewers to tune in, and a floating flower won't sell tickets. You need the vanishing space shuttles to bally and tease.

I believe that close-up is the most difficult form of magic to shoot. Cards lying flat on a table are hard to see and identify and light. (René Lavand graciously accepted my suggestion to modify his classic oil and water by having spot cards pitted against court cards, in an effort to capture the magic on WGM II). You need a minimum of three cameras to make it work. You are dependent on a few spectators for reactions, not a roomful, and if they are dolts you are dead. Lapping (and retrievals from the lap) are particularly deadly because the two dimensional TV screen flattens the image and brings that hand dipping down beyond the table edge mighty suspicious.

Having said all of the above, some rules:


Illusions are of course a challenge, and the television approach must be to help the magic: are you hiding a base, a switch, a mirror, black art?

In addition to the advice given above, some further thoughts:

Closing Thoughts

Television is the most powerful communications tool invented by man in history. A successful television performance can make an enormous impact on your career. Lance Burton's appearance on World's Greatest Magic I got him his own special. David Copperfield's specials have sold tickets to his shows and made him one of the top grossing performers in the world. Bill Malone's appearance with a card trick on WGM I got him a partnership and a magic bar named after him. Melinda's appearances got her bookings on The World's Greatest Magic on Tour, and runs at Caesars and the Taj Mahal. Luis DeMatos' many appearances on Portuguese television have made him a national figure.

More people saw The Pendragons perform Metamorphosis on WGM than ever saw Houdini. Think of it.

As in live performance, the magician must always be more important than the magic. Personality is more important than effect. When you leave a Whitney Houston concert, you speak of the singer first, not the songs. Hopefully, people will remember you above your tricks. Television especially is made to enhance your personality; every word, every facial gesture, every smile, is captured so much more intimately than on a stage.

Television is also an event, and can inspire you to special presentations. Perhaps you can use your illusion box to vanish or produce a celebrity (Choquette vanishing Princess Stephanie of Monaco on The Champions of Magic). Perhaps you can take a stage illusion and make it something better by presenting it outdoors (DeMatos' levitation on a beach.)

Remember that the TV camera can show views that can never be seen by the theater spectator - Copperfield's Flying could be shown from every angle, and on Houdini-Unlocking His Secrets, we thought of showing the back of the Pendragon's Metamorphosis trunk.

In other words, television is not only a challenge but often, a great opportunity to make your magic even more mystifying.

For magicians, television is the key to super-stardom. It is a demanding, sometimes infuriating tool, often in my opinion misused. Presenting magic on television is an art form, worthy of study. Properly used, it can make audiences who have seen incredible movie magic still believe in the oldest performing art.

April 1996
Appendix A - Music Technology
(reprinted from March 1996 Fulminations in Genii Magazine)

As the unity of the modern world becomes increasingly a technological rather than a social affair, the techniques of the arts provide the most valuable means of insight into the real direction of our own collective purposes.

- Marshall McLuhan
Marvin the Magnificent has just landed a two week gig at the Desert Inn in Vegas, as a ten minute specialty act. He shows up the morning of his opening for a tech meeting. The audio man asks about Marvin's music. "Just run the tape", says the magnificent one, handing over an audio cassette. Marvin edited the music on his home boom-box tape player. The actual cassette cost him $1.98. When played over the showroom's $100,000.00 sound system, it sounds like yak excrement. Despite three hours on the equalizer the sound designer gives up. He approaches Marvin. "We asked you to bring us your music on DAT." Marvin reaches in his pocket and triumphantly hands over a digital audio tape. They try playing it but it sounds like more yak excrement. Marvin explains that he did as he was told: he brought his audio cassette to a friend and had him duplicate it on DAT. The tech crew walk out.

The story is less fiction than fact. As a producer of television and live shows, I live with this all the time. Most magicians, in fact, operate this way. Instead of carefully choosing their music and then heading off to a rented sound studio to have their score professionally edited using digital equipment, they sit at home with consumer level boom boxes and try to hit the pause-record button on time.

When you have been hired for a professionally produced show, you should have your soundtrack available on both DAT and audio cassette. Unless you have home sound equipment, such as mixers and digital editing systems (now available in home computer software, by the way, assuming you have a powerful enough computer and a lot of hard disk space) spend a few bucks and get a decent tape made. The advantage of digital equipment is that you can create copy after copy (during the editing process) without generational loss. When you record using normal means (analog) each copy sounds slightly less good than the previous, and hiss starts to grow until it sounds like a rattlesnake convention.

If you are producing yourself in a full evening's show, you have a number of options. At the high end, some performers such as David Copperfield burn their own audio CDs. In other words, after editing the music digitally, the entire show (the collection of all the music segments, tags, and so forth) end up on an audio Compact Disk. The equipment needed to create this is expensive, and if you want to change one piece of music, you have to create a new CD - the media is not re-recordable. In addition to the CD equipment, you will also need a sampler keyboard loaded with special effects (thunder, boeiiings, etc.) used to punctuate your performances. The advantage of the CD format is not only sound quality. Unlike Digital Audio Tape (DAT) which uses a tape transport system and must mechanically wind and rewind until the right spot is found, CD's can be instantly cued, or re-cued, as anyone who owns a DiskMan knows.

Actually, the best system uses two CD's and two players, on an AB basis. CD A has segments 1, 3, 5 etc., and CD B has segments 2, 4, 6 and so forth. The sound tech starts the show with CD A, piece #1. Meanwhile, CD player B is cued up to piece #2. At the end of the first segment, using a sound mixer, he crossfades to the second player and piece #2, while he cues up the first machine for piece #3.

Audio cassettes and DAT systems lack this instant cueing capacity. If the sound tech starts a piece and something goes wrong, the sound guy cannot instantly restart it; and everyone must wait for the rewinding process which, although fast on a DAT, can still require seconds. On an audio cassette, forget it; it is like playing Russian Roulette.

However, a new format, created by SONY, seems tailor-made for magicians: the new Mini-Disk system. These small disks each hold up to 74 minutes of material, and although the sound specs are slightly less spectacular than DAT format, they are more than sufficient for any sound system you will encounter in the real show business world. They can be recorded and re-recorded. With proper equipment, you can digitally transfer music from a Compact Disk player to a Mini-Disk (using optical cables) without the analog-transfer generational loss problems. And Mini-Disks permit instant cueing, just like CD's. The new Mini-Disk players fit in your shirt pocket. The cost for Mini-Disk recorders is in the hundreds, not thousands, and a 74 minute blank disk is fifteen bucks.

More and more shows are turning to the Mini-Disk format, because of cost effectiveness and ease of use. The World's Greatest Magicians Live on Tour, the Melinda show, and the Rockettes show at the Flamingo Hilton in Vegas use Mini-Disks. Many magicians, such as Greg Frewin, edit on Mini-Disk format. When I am wearing my consultant's hat, I carry with me a bag containing a Mini-Disk player and some 40 disks, containing 800 different music cuts.

In other words, the technology exists today to allow you to improve your stagecraft at a price you can afford. A better sounding track means a better performance. Keep the boom box for the beach party.