Why do Illusionists Perform the Same Illusions?

This is not a rant or a justification piece but rather an observation with some suggestions. Spend one hour on YouTube and view different illusionists’ videos and you will find this to be completely true.

You will see the exact same illusions, same choreography, same movements and same presentations. Many times, the exact same props are used but with different colours because they are either marketed illusions or pirated. In fact, many of the illusions are pirated, especially by professionals from Europe, India and China. This is sad but not under the scope of this discussion.

Here are 10 illusions that I think are (as of this writing in 2009) too commonly seen in programs of illusionists worldwide:

  1. Origami
  2. Interlude
  3. Packing Crate Sub Trunk
  4. Fire Spiker
  5. Suspended Animation
  6. Twister
  7. Mini Kube Zag
  8. Compressed
  9. Fire Cage
  10. Modern Art

There are cycles and phases of popularity of different illusions but the most recent ones to join this list are the Fire Spiker and Suspended Animation. I strongly suspect the recent high profile presence of Hans Klok in the last 5 years has something to do with this. Practically all the fire spiker presentations I see are inferior clones of Hans Klok’s fantastic routine and performance. Same goes for Suspended Animation.

They are several reasons why illusionists are performing the same illusions:

1) It is convenient. It is easier and more affordable to buy a fabricated illusion prop that is available on the market rather than to create, prototype and fabricate an original illusion.

2) Illusionists, like clients, agents and show producers, want to take little risk. They would rather invest in things that are proven. Seeing someone else have success with an illusion makes it easy for an illusionist to invest in that same prop because they feel they are assured of the same reactions from the audience.

3) Illusionists fall in love with the illusions and just want to perform them. The ‘magic geek’ in them takes over and clouds their judgement even if it may not be a good commerical investment to perform the illusion because it is common.

4) More than a handful of illusionists do not care that they are performing the same (and pirated) illusions as many others because they feel their audience reacts well to the illusions and that is all that matters. Plus, they are still getting booked to perform these illusions. Unfortunately, this same group of illusionists have generally little pride (ego yes, pride no) or professional ethics.

5) Technology has made the world flat and the Internet & YouTube allow media to be shared worldwide at the click of a mouse. As such, illusion performances can be viewed by other illusionists globally. Illusions are also more accessible to illusionists from different parts of the world because of the Web.

The flip side to the last point is that anyone including clients, agents and show producers are able to watch illusionists’ performances from across the world and will soon realize that the same illusions are being performed by different people. As a ressult,  there is little differentiation between illusionists and illusionists are perceived to be interchangeable.

I know many will say that the casual lay audience member generally does not see the difference between illusions in general categories of magic anyway. i.e. all vanishes, levitations, exchanges etc are all the same to the casual layman even if the prop or presentation is different. That is generally true… but why use that as an excuse to perpetuate the sterotype that all illusionists perform the same illusions by continuing to perform the same illusions?

Personally, I do feel illusionists are interchangable at times when I watch the same old  illusions in different illusionists’ videos. I lose interest… and I’m a magic geek. Imagine what an average lay person, who has only an average interest in magic, thinks. Or consider the client or agent who is looking for an illusionist. They would be motivated to go with the one whose fees are the most competitive since all the illusions are the same.

Illusionists will no doubt defend this line of thought upon reading it by saying: “it is not what you do but how you do it!” That is true, but only to a certain extent. Just because you use a different piece of music or smile instead of act dramatic or add a costume change at the illusion does not warrant enough of a differentiation. The people who do matter, especially if you are establishing yourself as a top professional will notice these differences. The people I’m referring to are the educated clients, agents, show bookers and media.

So, there is a need for illusionists to stop doing the exact same illusions… and this is not an excuse to buy pirated illusions of performers who have not released proprietory illusions.

Over the course of the last two years, Ning & I  have dropped the common illusions from our repertorie. Our mega illusions like the 50-storey teleportation and teleportation over the Singapore River are signature illusions that differentiated us to the general public and media.

But, most of the stage illusions in our current show are unique (in the very least in look) or very seldom seen. “Revolllusion“, “Crystal Metamphosis“, “Light & Space“, “Full Throttle” and now our version of “Shadow Vision” and “360 Sawing” all have strong distinctive looks and presentations. Collectively, they give our show a non-cookie cutter feel and look.

I’ll be the first to admit that developing a full show of original illusions is extremely difficult. The amount of creativity, time, effort and $$$ are all factors that make this very difficult to atttain. But, if you are going to do one of the common illusions, do something with the prop design or presentation that makes it appear to be a completely different illusion. Here are 3 examples to reinvent 3 way-too-common illusions:

Modern Art was a good alternative to the Harbin’s Zig Zag Gal and traditional thin sawing illusion until it became too common. Just type in Modern Art in YouTube and you will get 3 pages of videos of this illusion. That is one reason why Ning refused to continue performing this illusion a year ago. 

However, if you can redesign the illusion such that it looks really different, I think it will work. I’m not just talking about theming the prop to look like a phone booth or letter box but really redesigning it so that it becomes more deceptive and looks almost like another illusion. I’ve know of 3 versions of Modern Art where the grill arm under the table has been removed and the girl’s head is on the outside the top of the cabinet. These changes actually make the illusion look completely different and new, althought the methods may be about the same.

Gunter Puchinger’s Mini Kube Zag is a neat illusion but is also way too common. The bare-bone basic model is the ultimate cliche ‘girl in box’ illusion. One solution may be to give it a highly themed look and presentation. Smokey Mountain Magic does great design work for this particular illusion and can really theme the prop beautifully. However, unless you have a very solid, logical presentation that is not cheesy and can complement the prop, you will just have a beautiful looking prop that only magicians appreciate.

I think that the best redesign of this illusion to make it look almost unrecognizable and fresh is Michael Barron’s Kube Zag which he calls “The Device”. Coupled with his excellent presentation and choreography, it is a great re-invention of the illusion. Check out his video on YouTube.

The Packing Crate Sub Trunk is also one of the, if not THE most commonly performed illusion because it is also considered by many as a great entry-level illusion. The inherent illusion is fantastic, but it is just way too common. Also, as far as I’m concerned (and most people in the industry), this illusion is ‘owned’ by the Pendragons. For those who cannot acheive the same speed and look, they just look like inferior clones of Jonathan and Charlotte. For those who can, what’s the point? The Pendragons did it first.

In Europe, several performers, most notably Hans Klok (again!) do a sub trunk with a cylindrical box. It looks different enough and it allows for a very fast exchange – which I personally believe is the essense of the illusion. I do not buy into propositions that the exchange need not be fast to be effective. In this illusion, speed is everything and what makes the illusion visually spectacular.

I avoided the packing crate sub trunk for the longest time in my career because I felt it was too common, until I designed “Crystal Metamorphosis” which I have almost perfected with Ning. As I highlighted in my book “Urban Illusions”, where this illusion design is detailed, everything about this version of the sub trunk allows me to create the perceived Pendragon-like speed because of the design & visual and psychological aspect that the prop is completely clear.

This entry is beginning to sound like a rant… but it is not… well maybe just a bit. The point it… for the sake of the art and yourselves as proud illusionists…. take these too common illusions out of your shows/ videos (for now) or try to redesign them so that they feel different. Remember, everything old will become new again in the future!


About J C Sum

International Headline Entertainer, Content Creator and Investor
This entry was posted in Design, Illusions, Books, Products and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

16 Responses to Why do Illusionists Perform the Same Illusions?

  1. J.C.,
    I really enjoyed your article. I would go so far as to say it should be called a rant and maybe you could have been a little more vicious because it’s certainly warranted. I cannot stand the fact that so many magicians do the exact same illusions, exactly the same and if they are different they aren’t usually that different.

    In my show, we worked very hard to create a unique presentation and to stay away from trite presentations. I had a shadow box, which is pretty common. I totally redesigned the look of the prop and completely changed the presentation. In fact, I didn’t even use shadows as part of the presentation! It took a while to come up with a strong routine but eventually we got it. The whole reason was because I didn’t want to do what had already been done.

    I had a Zig-Zag for a long time.. In the Zig-Zag Lady everyone puts the emphasis on the Zig-zaging of the girl’s middle, I mean that is the name of the trick. Yet to me there was something that was over looked and that was the fact that two blades were being thrust through a living human being. So we changed the look of the blades, made them look more ominous, put a lot more emphasis on the slicing through a person and the Zig-zag became the bonus! By the way, I eventually sold the zig-zag.

    It is possible to create unique presentations for standard or common illusions. But it takes a lot of work, effort and many times trial and error. I think many performers just take the easy route and do what has been done before rather than trying to create something unique.

  2. jcsum says:

    Thanks Dean! I really enjoyed your presentation and thought on the handling for Lady in the Puzzle. It is the best version of Steinmeyer’s original presentation I’ve seen. I used to do a Girl in Puzzle but changed it quite drastically.

    It is evident you are putting thought into including seldom stuff in your show by your videos and the thought of shifting emphasis on illusions is definitely solid approach to illusion presenting. Thanks again and I look forward to hearing more of your thoughts. J C

  3. Aaron says:

    i guess sometimes it’s hard for everyone to keep improving. there’s got to be some repeats here and there. especially when they start off, people have to start by copying..

  4. Whodunnit says:

    Sounds like a debate is going to go on but I totally agree with ur sentiments. People keep copying other people and worst, present it almost the same way. Illusionists falling in love with the illusions is not really a problem actually cause if they really love it, they will find a unique way to perform it cause they have the passion. It’s those that copy it out of convenience that is the problem.

  5. YeoQH says:

    Why do Illusionists perform the same illusions? You got it right with your points but I feel that most of the points are linked to one factor.

    1) It is convenient.
    2) Illusionists want to take little risk.
    4) Illusionists do not care

    Points 1, 2 and 4 I believe are linked together. They all stem from one common trait. Lazy.

    Laziness cause illusionist to not try to perform different illusions or approach it with another point of view or angle. Too much thought, planning and resources are needed to do so. You yourself have already mentioned that it is hard for you to develop a full show of original illusions. You had to put in a great amount of creativity, time, effort and money and not all illusionist have all that. That’s where they will start to perform the same illusions with the same style.

    But for the new illusionists that are just starting out and have just joined the magic fraternity, they should be given a break. They just started and have no idea where to start or what to do. They do not have the time or finances to develop a full illusion show. They just have enough time and money to perform the same illusions that most illusionist are performing and they do so in order to survive and make just enough. I bet given enough time for them to mature and have enough resources, these bunch of illusionist would definitely grow into a group of great illusionists with original shows. They just need time.

    Which brings me to my conclusion, the illusionists that perform the same illusions fall into 2 categories. Those that are lazy or those that are just starting out into this career and have yet to mature and develop. Those that fall into the latter should be given a chance.

    Just my opinion.

  6. Ade says:

    Just in response to the above comment, my thoughts after reading the post is that, J C doesn’t expect the new illusionists to perform new illusions, never before seen, or design their own illusion props either. More of the emphasis is on the presentation of the illusions.

    I personally feel, illusionists who are just starting out may and will perform the same illusions. Classics are classics for a reason. Most definitely we do not expect everyone to be able to design and fabricate new illusions. However, the effort can still be taken to PRESENT the illusion differently. Be it the premise, the story, the presentation, exchange of roles, whatever. If taking the effort to come up with a different presentation for a classic is too much to ask for, then, the illusionist is really not an illusionist, but almost just a demonstrator.

  7. Pingback: AbracaDaily » Blog Archive » Are all magicians the same?

  8. Pingback: Follow-up to Why Do Illusionists Perform the Same Illusions? « BACKSTAGE BUSINESS: The Art, Science & Business of Showbiz by J C Sum

  9. Pingback: 6 Techniques to Differentiate Your Illusion Performances « BACKSTAGE BUSINESS: The Art, Science & Business of Showbiz by J C Sum

  10. Pingback: My Favourite Illusionists to Watch « BACKSTAGE BUSINESS: The Art, Science & Business of Showbiz by J C Sum

  11. Pingback: The YouTube Test for Overly Performed Illusions « BACKSTAGE BUSINESS: The Art, Science & Business of Showbiz by J C Sum

  12. ellif says:

    Good article! and Can I translate it to korean?

    and I wanna see your version of Shadow vision soon at youtube 🙂

  13. Moore Majik says:

    Here is another approach that more magicians should consider. I have decided that stylistically, I do not want 2 invest in any illusion or magic trick that looks like an illusion or magic trick. I dont want 2 do an illusion where people would think- “If I owned that $10,000 prop, I could do it to.” So any illusion I perform, buy, or build, I design it 2 make it look like an ordinary object, or, makes sense, so that I get credit 4 the magic, not the prop. The only common illusion in ur list that looks “normal”. is a sub-trunk, whcih I do have. 2 make it different, I came up withe idea of changing with TWO girls, & do it as fast, if not faster, than the Pendragons using the most unlikely of methods. Another “normal” looking prop not in this list is the Guillitine. I mean, it was designed specifically 2 kill people, not 4 magic, & I have a unique routine with that, unlike the most common way of doing it as a comedy piece of involving having a volunteer get put into it, but rather a serious piece where it is done 2 myself. Also, 4 the price of just ONE expensive illusion, u could buy a few decent books/videos on ez 2 build illusions, build SEVERAL illusions with ur own unique look & feel, & probably still have enuff left over 4 a few lighting/theatrical fx 2 add 2 ur show. So its also not necessarily how much u spend on illusions, its how u spend it. So if ur creative enuff, u could spend a few thousand on materials & put together a show thats way better & more spectacular than another guy who has spent $100,000 on his show, as just because u have an expensive show, doesnt automatically make it good. U r only limited by ur imagination.

  14. Pingback: Feel the Difference | BACKSTAGE BUSINESS

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s