New tricks: magicians strive to keep illusions alive in the age of Google

The last of science fiction author Arthur C. Clarke’s Three Laws states, “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.”

That doesn’t mean magic can’t exist in our digital realm of interactive technology and easily accessible information, says local magician Zak Mirz.

“I don’t think technology ruins magic by any stretch of the imagination,” says Mirz. “I saw hamilton yesterday with my wife, and the moment Hamilton was shot, I don’t think anyone thought it was a fake gun. They were lost at the time.”

Online magic shows saw a huge surge during the pandemic as it was unsafe for audiences to gaze in wonder at a floating card. So magicians have learned not only to adapt to a new setting, but also to a new audience that can understand how most basic illusions are performed just by typing a few words into their phone and looking up the right book, website or online forum.

“There’s a certain credibility that gets lost as soon as you’re not in the room with the magician because you know there’s no camera gimmick if you’re in person,” says Trigg Watson, a magician from Dallas who now lives in Los Angeles. “When you watch it on a screen, people become more skeptical, so we magicians have to find ways to build credibility.”

Magicians like “Confetti Eddie” Ruiz have learned to adapt not only to presenting tricks in a digital space, but using its interactive principles to develop new trick techniques starting with ordinary objects. Cigarettes and coins aren’t in people’s pockets as much anymore, so Ruiz says he’s found things he can do with phones and iPads.

“There’s an effect where I never touch anything and using two spectators’ cell phones, I combine their phone numbers and bring in a third person who adds up the numbers, and when I call that number, it matches a mystery object on the scene,” Ruiz said. “It’s a parlor trick that has worked in the past, but it’s only been done with today’s technology.”

Watson, who appeared on The CW’s Masters of Illusion and Penn & Teller: fool us, incorporates technology into most of his illusions whether on stage or behind a screen during a Zoom show. Take, for example, the stereotypical magician’s trick of pulling a rabbit out of a top hat. This trick no longer works because it’s been used so much and top hats are just a thing for steampunk costume parties and goth hipsters.

He created something similar but with something more modern than outdated formal wear.

“What I saw was an opportunity when I saw that the iPad with its hinged lid has the same shape and uses the same principles of this bunny production trick,” Watson says. “It’s kind of about taking old things and making them organic to the world we live in.”
Mirz, who also recently appeared on Penn and Teller: fool us and tricked the magic duo with a card illusion, says his goal is to find new techniques so the solution can’t be something anyone can just Google.

“A good magician will also start layering,” says Mirz. “Maybe it’s a bad example, but if you make a piece disappear, someone goes to Google how do you make a piece disappear and you can see 20 million results on YouTube. But if you say that piece is going to disappear and it’s going to be time to travel and end up in a certain place in the world it’s still a disappearance but you’re taking people away from the simple question because you’re adding layers of more complexity to your presentation .”

Many new tricks incorporate classic magic principles and techniques, but Watson says the real trick is getting people to stay interactive with the performer even if there’s a distance between them. That’s only going to get harder as emerging technologies like virtual and augmented reality become more accessible with devices like Facebook’s Oculus Quest headset and Metaverse space.

“The big questions and fears I have as a magician are if we live more in a digitally constructed world, how do I fit into it?” said Watson. “In an all-digital environment, I don’t think I can put a bitcoin in my digital hand and make it disappear because people will say it’s just a pixel. I’m trying to lean into those fears and say that I feel like it’s going to be difficult but let’s play with it and have fun with it.”

Perhaps one of the first steps in creating a new illusion is to use technology to provide the magician performing the trick with their own cover, Ruiz says.

“Magicians always try to conceal their methods, so if there’s something new hiding what we’re doing, that’s great,” Ruiz says. “Tech is really getting fundamentally the wrong direction. That’s all it really is.”

Ultimately, any magician’s goal shouldn’t just be to come up with a trick that can’t be solved.

“With magic, if you do it right, people should be lost in the moment,” Mirz says. “People shouldn’t think about how it’s done.”

Brian L. Hartfield