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The Magic is NOT in Your Hands

As some of you might have seen in the talkback video, I recently started learning magic… well, magic tricks since real magic doesn’t seem to exist, it’s as close as I can get. It’s not only a relaxing hobby, it also taught me a lot that I can use for animation and storytelling. While I expected to learn things like directing attention or providing information in a such a way that it will not be questioned by the audience, the scope of the biggest lesson caught me a little off guard: It’s not the magician who makes the magic, it’s the audience.

Have you ever seen a really good magic trick? And I am not talking about a good one that makes you applaud, I mean a really good one that makes your jaw drop and leaves you completely baffled. Do you remember the out of this world feeling of being completely surprised and fascinated by the magic that happened right in front of your eyes?

Audience reacts
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Well, the magician’s experience of the trick is completely different. While he might enjoy the participants reactions he is not the surprised at all – he knows that he didn’t do what the audience thought he did. He didn’t really vanish that coin, he just ditched it very skillfully when everybody was distracted. The conclusion “the coin vanished” only exists in the mind of a participant who is willing to have the suspension of disbelief despite knowing that it cannot physically vanish.

This is why practicing magic tricks alone can feel pretty lame at times. It’s the audience’s acceptance and reaction that completes the magic. Without somebody seeing the trick, you are just putting a lot of effort into hiding secret moves. This makes the audience members more than the spectators. They are participants – they are the most important part of magic.

No audience
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It struck me how much this is an analogy for animation. We animators know that it’s all just pixels, vector lines, vertices, shaders… The German word for animated film is “Trickfilm”. And it’s exactly that: A trick! There is no life in the pictures itself… The audience is kind enough to accept that those pictures create motions, characters and stories. This suspension of disbelief and the resulting emotional investment completes the magic.

What does that mean for you as a filmmaker?

1. As a storyteller you have a responsibility. The audience members are willing to suspense disbelief and maybe even their sense of justice, which lowers their emotional guard. They trust that you will not misuse your power. In return you need to be fair and genuine. Use their emotional investment to delight and surprise them… maybe even make them think about something they haven’t thought about before. You may guide them, blow them away, distract them but you should never ever fool them (like a certain so-called “twist” in Frozen). They paid to see a carefully crafted narrative structure. If they instead get a patchwork of uninspired scenes that aren’t adding up to the kind of magic you promised, they will feel deceived. In the “best” case violating the audience’s trust will just knock them out of the film, in the worst case it will make them mad.

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2. Think of the audience as an active participant, not a passive spectator. You need to search and strengthen elements that offer room for the audience’s reaction wherever you can. After all, you tell stories to give other people (not yourself!) a certain kind of experience. So, find out and be clear about which type that is. Only then you can play your cards for maximum effect. For example, a Transformers film cannot switch into the storytelling mode of an art film and an art film would not hold its promise if it became brainless action film.

3. Be aware that the feeling of magic might get harder to detect for all the people working on the film. It’s like a joke that you hear over and over again. It stops working. For animation it’s the same thing. You are on the other side of the magic… you know that some things are just tricks or storytelling devices and somehow despite knowing it’s not magic, you need to conserve the feeling that it is. And this is difficult. After a while you might find yourself focusing on render glitches or physical details in the animation that are nice to get right, but only marginally make a story work better. It’s normal that all the surprises and emotional scenes will feel dull to you after watching them a thousand times and you need to be very experienced to feel if it really is dull or if you just don’t feel the magic due to repetition. So, get outsiders to test if your animation is working and try to never forget what the initial spark of magic and energy is that you want to convey.

I hope that was somewhat understandable and helpful. If you want to feel magic from the magicians perspective you could learn simple coin tricks like the false transfer pretty much immediately. You will see it feels really incomplete without another person watching.

What are your methods for making your animations and films a magical experience? Have you ever had doubts about whether or not a scene is still working? It would be very interesting to read about your experiences in the comments below.


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Ivo I. Solther

Another brilliant post and it comes right in the exact moment!
Its always great to analyze how and why some stories work and others not,
I haven’t one of my own that I can actually talk about, but I think you hit it right in the spot when you mentioned the twist in frozen. Although beautifully crafted, I was never able (or haven’t been after several tries) to get hooked with the characters, and when analyzing this with some friends and comparing it to the empathy we got when watching some of the BirdBox (also brilliant work) shorts, it was very interesting to realize how much more we connected and enjoyed the simplicity of the characters, lines and stories of Birdbox, and now that I read your post, it makes sense.

In the case of these shorts, you start by willingly believing these stick figures are alive and live in their own little world, and then the story tellers seem to just have fun sticking with the character they introduced in the first place. As an audience, I almost feel I want to see a “what would happen if the character…” and seems like the animators have fun with that same idea and just let the story flow, yes, perfectly planned, but the outcome works as if the whole thing just happened to happen.
Here’s one of their shorts, in case anyone is interested http://youtu.be/If3wzG43PD8

Just a little example/reflection.
Great post! Thanks.


Really amazing advice and good to keep in mind.


nice animation improve for your image colour cominisation


I missed this when you first posted it.
Very well said.