Choreographic Misdirection

In my book Pocket Power I wrote one little chapter on Misdirection, based on my knowledge as a TV editor, camera operator and producer. Although I considered the material very important, I didn't think it would be wise to write more about this subject, as I thought everyone just wanted more tricks. How wrong I was! That little chapter was mentioned in almost every review as one of the highlights in the book, and on my lecture tours they always want me to go into great detail about this subject.

When I was asked to write about Choreographic Misdirection in Magic Magazine, I was finally convinced that this is a popular subject, and that people want to read about it. So let's get started!

Misdirection - what's new?

So much has been said about Misdirection that I don't think I can add anything new, but I can say the same things in my own way. I had read everything I came across about Misdirection when I stumbled over Gary Kurtz' booklet Misdirection and Direction and discovered new aspects of this fascinating subject. The same old story told by a new teacher helped me understand more. I hope I can help you in the same way. Gary has now expanded the booklet, and it's now called Leading With Your Head.

What is Choreographic Misdirection?

Well this is what I like to call it when your body movement is directing the spectator's eye scan. And that's what Misdirection is all about - directing. I don't want to discuss if you're directing attention away from the secret moves, or towards something else. That's merely quibbling and will not get us anywhere. In fact we're doing both at the same time, and the end result is that the spectators don't see the secret move. Just the fact that they don't see it is not enough, but you already know that.

Point of interest

Throughout your whole routine you must define a point of interest. A place where you want your spectators to have their attention at any given moment in the routine. If they don't look where you want them to, they'll miss important details and/or see something they shouldn't see, and the effect will not have maximum impact.

The way to decide upon a point of interest is to find out where you want their attention to be focused to get the right illusion. A little part of one of my routines will serve as an example.

Norwegian Travelers - the second card
When I'm about to produce the second traveling card from my left jacket pocket, the card is already loaded into the pocket, my left hand is empty, and my right hand holds the deck. The right hand will do a one-handed top palm as the left hand takes the card out of the pocket.

First point of interest
It's of vital importance that they see and appreciate the fact that my left hand is empty before it goes into the pocket, so my first point of interest is the left hand. That's why I extend my left arm and show the hand to be unmistakingly empty. The movement of the arm attracts attention, and the spectator's eyes are drawn towards the palm of the hand.

Second point of interest
It's also important that they know that the card really comes from the pocket, so I have to have their attention focused on the pocket as I take out the card. That's my second point of interest. When the left hand moves towards the pocket it again draws attention, and I keep looking at the pocket to strengthen the focus on this pocket. I even turn a little to the right so the pocket is closer to the audience, and can be seen by everybody.

Third point of interest (which is really several points)
Now the hand comes out of the pocket, and I follow the card with my eyes as I bring it up shoulder high. Then I turn the card over to show the signature as I look at the audience and smile. Here, the point of interest quickly changes from the pocket to the moving card and then to my face.

The secret move
All this is happening as the right hand hangs by the right side and slowly executes a one handed top palm. This move goes entirely unnoticed because the focus is forced towards the left hand at all times. That's why I always get away with my not perfectly executed palm - nobody's looking! By directing the attention towards the point of interest, it's automatically directed away from the move. The broad movements of the left hand completely overshadows the small palming action of the right hand.

Eye Scan

This is an expression from the film and TV business. When I'm editing a program, I always take great care of eye scan. More often than not, we want a soft cut - a cut that passes almost unnoticed. This is achieved by letting the interesting parts of the current and the next scene be at the same place on the screen. This way, the eye doesn't have to search the screen.

Let's say that I want to cut from Fig.1 to Fig. 2. This is a soft cut because the eyes of the viewers don't have to search for something to focus on. The eyes of the girl in Fig.1 are placed at about the same place on the screen as the distant silhouette in Fig.2.

Misdirection 1

 Misdirection 2

Misdirection 3

Some cuts are hard. Like the cut from Fig. 2 to Fig.3. The eyes have to search for the interesting part in the next scene, and subconsciously the viewers feel the cut. If this continues in cut after cut, we create a little confusion in their mind. If that's what we want, fine. If it's not what we want we've created the wrong feelings, and our message will not come through as clearly as it could.

It would, of course, be extremely boring to look at the same spot of the screen throughout a whole movie. We need to let the eyes wander all over the place, and how can we do that without making hard cuts? We use our instincts! We're programmed to follow things that move. Movement attracts the eye. So, to shift the focus from one area of the screen to the other we can let an object move across the screen to a point where the interesting area of the next scene will come.

So, what has this got to do with magic? A lot. I always try to create soft "cuts" when I want to lead the spectator's eyes without her knowing it. If the "cut" is a hard one, she'll subconsciously know that she's missed something. As Erdnase stated, that's not good. Let me illustrate this with an example.

The Bottom Palm

In my Travelers routine, I also have to bottom palm one card, and put it into my pocket. This requires that the spectators don't look at the wrong places at the wrong time. I use the eye scan techniques to lead the spectator's attention where I want it. I start by dribbling the cards into my left hand. The hands are held a little up from waist level, and the body has an active pose. By dribbling the cards I create a reason to handle the cards a little - I have to square up the deck again. That's when I shift to a more relaxed pose and do the bottom palm with the hands lowered to waist level (as I look at the spectator and maybe ask her a question).

Now comes a move that needs some heavier misdirection. Just looking down at the deck and then look up at the spectators won't be enough, because the left hand will move towards the pocket and go inside. This movement of the left hand will attract more attention than the lifting of the head. To be effective, the cover move must attract more attention than the secret move. This is accomplished in the following manner:

fig 4 Misdirection 4      fig. 5 Misdirection 5

fig.6 Misdirection 6       fig.7 Misdirection 7

Fig.4 shows the starting position. Now the left hand (with the deck, and one palmed card hidden underneath it) starts a movement from left to right and upwards. (Fig.5) As it reaches the right hand, that hand takes over the deck and continues the movement upwards to shoulder level. (Fig.6) My gaze follows this movement until it stops, and then I turn to look at the spectators and make a remark about the cards or the deck. (Fig.7) At the time when I look at the spectators, my left hand has reached the pocket and is already inside with the card. The result is that the eyes of the audience are forced to follow the movement from left hand to the right, and then to my face. It's almost impossible not to follow this, as our basic instincts take control.


Most magicians agree that moves should look natural. This is also my goal in every routine I perform. But do I reach my goal? Well, sometimes I do, and that’s when the routine gets completely deceptive. My Norwegian Travelers routine is a great example. I can truly say that every move is covered with strong misdirection, and nowhere in that routine can the spectator put her finger on an unnatural movement. All the moves blend perfectly into the plot. I wish all my routines were like that. Unfortunately they’re not - but I’m working on it.

The keyword here is justification. You need a motivation to do the move you have to do. Let’s say I want to do a bottom palm. This can be done almost invisibly, but just almost - not completely. Some tiny movement will be seen by the spectator, and even if she doesn’t know what’s going on, she’ll know that something’s going on, and that’s just as bad. So what can we do? One cover move I often use for the bottom palm is to dribble the cards. The cards end up a little messy in the hand, and you get a reason to handle the cards a little as you square them up. This completely covers the secret move, and nobody will know what you’ve done. As far as they’re concerned, you have only dribbled the cards and squared them up again. A perfectly natural thing (for a magician) to do.

We should be aware that even a perfectly innocent movement could be bad, if the spectator thinks you’re doing a secret move! No unnatural movement is the goal. If you do the best card control in the world, and then take the deck behind your back, they will not be very impressed by your skill...

Gags as Misdirection

Michael Close once said: I search for motivation and justification of/for moves (often a gag). Once they think it’s a gag, they close off their brains.

I couldn’t have said this better myself. If they think it’s a gag they relax, and you can get away with murder. I even turn my back to the audience and secretly turn three cards face up! My motivation for this is to show them an alarm piece I have on the back of my jacket. This gag, plus the fact that this is done before I get the selections back from the spectator, makes this turning of the back seem absolutely innocent.

I sometimes give away an "Invisible Winder" to a spectator. They think it’s just a gag, but it also gives me a perfectly good reason to lower my other hand and get a break under two cards.

Another favorite excuse for me, is to let them think I’m going out of my way to be as fair as possible. The dribbling of the cards before the bottom palm could be presented as a way to show that there are really no breaks at all. Of course there are no breaks - you’ve already controlled the card. But the impression on the spectators is that you’re being very honest and fair. If they really believe that you do this to be fair, you have the perfect motivation for the move, and no-one will suspect that the reason you’re doing it is that you need cover for another secret move.

If you must do the Hofzinser Spread Control you need a reason to spread the cards. If you pretend to do it because you want them to see that there are no duplicates of the chosen card, you seem like an honest man...

So, make sure you always have a logical reason to do the movements you have to do, and you will be more natural. And - please find better excuses than Woofle Dust...

Establishing a norm

Let’s take a look at the double lift. It’s not exactly the most natural way to turn over a card and put it away somewhere (in the middle of the deck or at the table). If you wanted to show a card and put it on the table, you would probably thumb it off, take it into the other hand and show it. Then you would place it face down on the table. No nonsense.

What can we do to make it seem more natural? First of all, if you’ve done it thousands of times you will probably be very relaxed when you do it. This helps a lot! And if your attitude tells them that this is not important, that helps too.

If, on top of this, you show a card like this every time, it helps even more. If the same procedure has been used several times without causing a magical effect, it will not be thought of as the key to the miracle. By doing it the same way every time, you establish a norm, and this seems to be the natural way for you to do it!

Your own body language

The single most important thing when it comes to naturalness is that you customize moves until they fit your own body language. Video tape one of your performances and take a close look at how you behave when you’re not cheating. How do your hands move? Do you make gestures and talk with your hands? Do you move around and use the rest of the body?

When you know what your natural body language is like, you can structure your moves to fit seamlessly into it. This way, you can even fool your closest friends and your family. A lot of magicians have problems with this, because their friends can sense when they’re cheating. Subconsciously, or even consciously, they know when your body language changes, and can spot the moment of truth...

Make all your moves look like they’re part of your personality, and you’ll fool them all.

Conditioning for misdirection

This is a little known fact: You must condition your audience, and let them learn the habit of looking at your face. At the very start of your performance, you must make eye contact with the spectators, and let them know that this is a perfectly safe thing to do. You should not rely on eye misdirection the first half minute or so of your show.

If you look down at your props all the time, and the first time you look up at the spectators is when you want to do a secret move - chances are that several of them will not look up. They will continue to burn your hands, because they’re not used to looking at your face yet. It’s your job to teach them this, and you do it by making eye contact as often as possible, and not cheating every time you do it. If they’ve looked at your face several times, and nothing has happened, they’ll feel that it’s a safe thing to do. The next time you look at them, they will probably look at you too.

Don’t forget the palming hand

Many magic books tell you to forget the palming hand. Such nonsense! If you forget the palming hand you’ll most likely flash what’s palmed because you make a gesture or whatever. You must never forget the palming hand.

What you should do, is to make sure the palming hand looks perfectly natural. An empty hand does not freeze in one position. An empty hand does not swing down at your side and then freeze. An empty hand does not look cramped, and the arm of an empty hand does not look cramped.

Empty hands make gestures, they swing down at the side and continue to swing like a pendulum a couple of times with decreasing deflection. The shoulder and arm of the palming hand look quite relaxed and do not move like one big unit. Study people when they’re talking, and you’ll learn how relaxed bodies look. Then study the video tape of your performance and compare. If you don’t look relaxed you’ll be caught sooner or later. The problem is that most people are very polite, and don’t tell you when they catch you. That’s why you want to study the video tape - it isn’t very polite, but it’s 100% honest.

The Off-Beat

We’re often told to do it on the off-beat. Sounds like a smart thing to do. But how do you create an off-beat? It can be done by delivering a joke or a funny line, by reaching a climax and by presenting a gag. When they laugh or applaud their attention is relaxed for a short moment and you can do your stuff. This is when you get your thumb into that loop, palm that card, switch those decks or whatever you have to do.

You can help them relax by using your body language. When, in my Toilet Paper to Egg routine, I want to make a switch - I deliver a funny line, then relax, lower my hands to waist level and do the move. When I relax, they relax. When their attention is back on me, I’m standing with my hands a little higher, and everything looks fair again. You must have their attention back at yourself before they realize for themselves that their attention has wandered a little.

Carefully structure your routines to create an off-beat every time you need one.

Speed attracts the eye

When your eye shifts focus from one place to another, it’s blind! When I work with film and TV editing, I always take advantage of this fact. If I have a choice between cutting before, after or as a hand moves, I will cut as the hand moves in 9 cases out of 10. This makes the cut less visible for the eye, and helps the viewer concentrate more on the story than on the technique of the film.

Unfortunately, this fact is well known among magicians. I say unfortunately, because they seem to know only half the fact. The reason why this technique works is that motion and speed attracts the eye! When the motion starts, the eye is drawn against it, and starts to shift the focus. As the focus is shifting, I make the cut. When the eye has focused again, it’s on the new scene. This can be done on film and TV, because the accuracy is 1/24th to 1/30th of a second. The technique is useless for magicians.

Because of the fact that speed attracts the eye, you can never hide a move with speed. Never ever! What you do when you do a fast move is to tell them without any doubt, that you did something. They won’t know what you did, but they will positively know that you did something, and that’s bad.

If you want you moves to be deceptive, they must be delayed. If you can do them slowly, and even break them up into several steps, they will look very fair and innocent. Take your time.

Simultaneous Actions

Knowing the fact that speed attracts the eye, and that broad movements attract more attention than smaller ones, it’s easy to structure the choreography of a move.

Let’s say that you want to steal an object (an egg) from your left pocket as you bring out something else (a silk) from your right pocket. You search both pockets and look at the spectators. (fig.8) Then you find the silk in the right pocket, and bring this out with a broad movement upwards. (Fig. 9) Your eyes are following this hand.

fig.8Misdirection 8Misdirection 9fig.9
Misdirection 10
fig. 10

Simultaneously your left hand brings out the egg from the left pocket with a small movement from the pocket to waist level, where it waits for the silk to come down. The right hand now places the silk in the left hand (completely covering the egg) as you look at the spectators. (Fig.10) The small movement of the left hand is completely covered by the broad movement of the right hand.

Both hands should start at the same time (or the right hand starts a fraction of a second before the left), and if they end at the same time, this is good too. Many of the techniques explained in my book and video tape, Pocket Power, applies this principle.

Misdirection on TV

Choreographic Misdirection, and the use of simultaneous actions work very well on TV. If you do a broad movement you will create an urge for the camera man to follow this movement, or zoom out to a wider shot. No matter what he does, it’s good for you. If he follows the move, you can do your dirty work outside the screen with the other hand. If he zooms out, the viewer will se both the hands and the hand making the broad action will attract the eye.

If, at any point, you don’t want them to do a close-up of your hands, just move them! It’s almost impossible to follow a moving hand in a close-up. If you want to do a Hofzinser Spread Control, and a camera is at a bad angle, just walk a few feet towards a spectator as you do the move, and they will use a wider shot.

You can also do the opposite. If you want them to take a close-up of the last card coming to the top in an Ambitious Card routine, just move the hand with the deck slowly and dramatically up to your face as you stare at the deck. The camera man will zoom in and capture this obviously important moment. You will get the added bonus of getting your face on TV. They will not cut your face in two, so they end up with a shot with both your face and the deck. That’s perfect for you - you get a close shot of your face plus a good view of the effect.

Practice Misdirection

Misdirection is a technique, and as all other techniques it can only be mastered through practice. That’s why I think you should use misdirection techniques every time you have a chance. Try to apply some kind of misdirection in a self working trick which doesn’t need much misdirection. Just use the technique and watch the spectators. Do they look where you want them to? Or do they burn your hands? If you don’t get the result you want, try to find out a way to make the misdirection even stronger.

Final words

Don’t ever cover a move with speed. Be natural. Do it on the off-beat. Study your own body language. Search for motivation for moves. Condition your audience for eye misdirection. Plan the point of interest and the use of eye scan. Have fun!

If you liked this article, you may want too checkout the book Pocket Power, from which the basis of this article was snipped. Pocket Power has more about misdirection.

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©2009 Jarle Leirpoll

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