Sunday, August 05, 2007

The Secret of Magic

Years ago a good friend of mine was an apprentice film editor at the same time as he was learning carpentry from his father. One day the film editor says to my friend, “When you read about carpentry think about editing.”

My friend and I talked about this for some time trying to figure out what he meant. We were both in our late teens at the time and couldn’t make sense of it. Now that I’m older I see what he meant was that the principles of one craft can be applied to another.

Even people who have mastered their craft can gain valuable insights by looking closely at someone else’s.

On BBC America I watch master chef Gordon Ramsey on his show Kitchen Nightmares. He takes failing restaurants and helps the owners revamp their businesses. More often than not he finds two related problems: 1) The chefs at these places let their ego get in the way of their work. 2) They make the dishes too complex. They spend too much energy on the presentation of their dishes.

His struggle is to get these chefs to simplify these dishes. This is exactly the same thing I find with less experienced screenwriters, filmmakers and comic book illustrators. They tend to be much more into style then the foundations of their respective crafts. Youth often goes for style over substance. As a teacher, it helps me to see chef Ramsey deal with the same problems I deal with, but in an entirely different universe.

I have mentioned it before but learning magic has been unbelievably helpful in helping me gain a deeper understanding of my craft.

In my teaching I have found that students often dismiss something I teach them because it is too simple. They often think what you teach them will never work because an audience will surely see through something so elementary.

In learning magic I have seen myself have the same reaction as my students. Most magic tricks are quite simple -- at least in principle. They might be hard to master, but the methods behind them are so simple that when you read the description you think that there is no way a person could be fooled -- but they are. In fact, the simpler the trick, the more fantastic the illusion.

I am an amateur magician. A few months ago I did a trick for some friends, and screwed it up. They were not impressed. This was a trick I had done before that had blown people away. But because I
screwed it up, my friends could not believe that it would have ever worked. They were polite. They said that it might be a good trick...for kids.

When I teach students to set things up in the first act that will pay off later, they complain that it is too predictable to do things that way. Like the simple magic trick they think that it will never work. They have all seen too many bad films where they could see how everything returns and works out. But this is like my poorly executed trick: it is only poor craftsmanship that is at fault, not the method itself.

Among other things, learning the craft of magic has taught me to trust the methods -- that it is up to me to perform them well. My advice to you is to master a simple magic trick or two just to see how something so simple can amaze an audience. And remember when you read about magic -- think about screenwriting. You’ll be surprised at what you discover.