Follow-up to Why Do Illusionists Perform the Same Illusions?

This is a follow-up to the entry I made a few days ago which turned out to be a very popular read. Thanks for your emails and feedback on the piece.

I should first clarify that my observations were made based on what I saw professional-level illusionists performing and what I think they should be doing instead. There is not the same level of expectation for new, aspiring or amateur illusionists because they are new to the game. But, professionals who make a living on magic and are a representation of our industry should be held at a much higher standard.

Also, different artists have individual aspirations and artistic & commercial goals. So, my observations were made in reference to the commercial creative artist who is looking for mainstream commercial success.

However, some did not fully understand my ‘essay’. My point was not a proposal to just perform new and original illusions in a bid to push the art forward and for illusionists to differentiate themselves from each other.

With the exception of the likes of Copperfield, Penn & Teller and Franz Harary, there are very few in the world who can present almost an entire show of original illusions.

My proposed  solution to “Why Do Illusionists Perform the Same Illusions?” recommended that, as far as possible, new illusions should be featured in an illusionist’s show program. If not, and also the main point of the entry, at least present illusions with some originality through:

1) The redesign of a ‘standard/ common’  prop to make it look different

2) Through the presentation of the illusion. The presentation can encompass, characterization of performers,  the motivation, logic, choreography, story plot and entertainment value.

If you watch American Idol, one of the recurring comments the judges make is for the contestants to be original. And the application of originality here is not to sing an original song or composition but to present any song in a unique way, sing it in a different style, add a melodic twist or change the arrangement so that a song is relevant to today’s audience. At no point do the judges insist or even suggest that the contestants sing original written songs.

While this is no guarantee of success, time has shown that the contestants who do well in the competition are those that perform never-before-seen interpretations of a known song. However, it is a given that they need be perform commercially appealing interpretations and their vocals must be excellent.

To reiterate –  that was my point in my entry “Why do illusionists perform the same illusions?” My point was not to insist that all illusionists should invent new illusions but rather they need to think how they can reinvent a ‘standard/ common’ illusion so that it is different and not so ‘me-too’.

If fact, I would go so far to say that you do not need to invent or perform a 100% new illusion effect to be successful. David Blaine revolutionized close-up magic (or magic in general) by performing the same time-tested close-up effects that magicians had performed for decades. But, he brought originality (as perceived by the general public and media) by presenting the effects stripped of elaborate presentations and in a different environment.

In addition, I am in no way implying that differentiation is more important and negates the need for presenting great magic. It is essential that the differentiated illusion be great magic. In fact, the quality of the basic illusion effect is a given not a goal.

But for the art and industry to progress forward, there is also a need to push the envelope more and not be contented with just doing great magic. I feel the thought process should be to strive towards presenting great magic that has individualism and is relevant to your audience.

To further illustrate what I was proposing in terms of bringing originality to illusions, here are examples, past and present:

The Thin Sawing/ Wakeling Sawing

While different in method, the visual image and props use are similar enough for laymen to feel they are the same illusion. Doug Henning and Andre Kole were the first to present the Thin Sawing as a double sawing with two girls in different costumes. Subsequently, the two bottom halves of the girls were switched so that when the girls were restored, they were restored mismatched.

The Wakeling Sawing brought back the original intended presentation of the sawing a girl in half by involving audience members, straps and a streamlined set of props. Kalin & Jinger’s fine presentation brought this illusion to the masses and since has been ‘adopted’ by many others around the world.

The Sub Trunk

With the acknowledgment of all the Sub Trunk-inspired exchange illusions, I’m confining this example to be specific to the classic Sub Trunk effect/ handling.

Siegfried & Roy presented it with a double costume change and the production of a large cat as a kicker. The Pendragons, of course, ‘owned’ the illusion with their switch + revelation handlings with just a front cloth. Some performers such as Tim Ellis & Sue-Anne Webster and Fielding West have added comedy to the standard illusion to include a cross-dressing costume exchange.

Dekolta Chair

Copperfield built an entire attic scene story-based illusion sequence which ended with a motivated Dekolta Chair on a table. Many tried to follow suit but lacked the intricacies and theatrics to make it work as well. Nicolas Night & Kinga did an amazing job with a similar premise but with their original spin that made it different and work. More recently, Han Klok kills with a lighting-fast vanish that I think he will no doubt attribute to the skills of Zarina Potapova.

Fire Spiker

Mark Kalin took the original Wakeling double spiker, altered the design and added in the transposition kicker. Hans Klok adapted the Kalin design and added in the kicker of the appearance of a second girl and successfully made it is own. Now, just about every European illusionist and many from China and India have ripped this version off. Adding a third girl appearance does not make it original in my book. It is like performing Lance Burton’s Dove Act but claiming it is different because you add an extra bird.


When Kevin James released his Snow Animator, everyone added it to their show, with the exact same patter and presentation with the napkin and snowflake and music. It amazes me to learn how many magicians never saw snow as a kid. But, Copperfield adapted the routine and took it a step further in scale so it did not look so ‘me-too’.

I actually developed a routine using the Snow Animator but does not have a snow presentation at all. It is called “Diary of Dreams” and is detailed in “Illusionary Departures”.

Zig Zag Lady

I’ll end off with recounting my thoughts on reinventing the Zig Zag illusion which first appeared as a post on in Aug 2004. Since then I have continually updated the essay based on suggestions posted by other ‘cafe-users’.

My closest original illusion design to Zig Zag Gal, is Seven by Half. The updated design of this illusion can be found in “Urban Illusions”. While, it was not designed as an exact alternative for the Zig Zag, the obvious Zig Zag influence and premise is evident. So, I do not think it is a stretch of the imagination that Seven By Half is a reinvention of the Zig Zag.

Chris Murphy from Oz Illusions redesigned the classic Zig Zag so it look more modern and quite different. You can see photos here. There is also a video on YouTube.

Rand Woodbury has a great enhancement in Illusionworks that you should check out. However, it does require a significantly modified Zig Zag and an extra ‘table’.

Here are some more ideas:

Add a Skirting Around the ‘Zagged’ Section

The idea is to add a cloth skirting (colour scheme and material to match your prop) around 3 sides of the prop covering the entire center section. Using Velcro, the skirting can be pre-attached around the back and side of the prop and left to hang down. After the girl enters the prop and the doors are closed, the skirting is brought up to cover the front.

When the center section is initially ‘zagged’ to the side, the audience will have to mentally construct what they think is happening.

Most would not think that you actually moved the center section to one side since that would seem physically impossible. They might then think that you must have shifted an outer ‘shell’ of some kind to create the illusion. Thus, when you rip the skirting away to reveal the empty space, it creates a strong specific ‘Magic Moment’ that can be accented with a high point in your music soundtrack.

Although a simple idea, what this does from the visual and psychological impact on the audience is to specifically define the ‘Magic Moment’.

As a fringe benefit, the skirting will also add to the deceptiveness of the illusion as their eyes do not follow the ‘zagging’ of the section towards the central support i.e. towards the ‘hottest’ part of the illusion.

Marker Parker gave a suggestion of an ‘instant’ center jump after the zag based on the idea of using a skirting.

But based on that suggestion, I was thinking of not exposing the clear front of the center section in the same instant. My personal staging preference is to ‘Zag’, leave the front cloth skirting in place, then hinge open or slide out a front panel that covers the front of the center section exposing the girl’s middle. A beat later, whisk away the skirting to reveal empty space.

Again, my line of thought was to have the audience mentally construct the effect in their minds and then lead them down the path of impossibility. This may also make the ‘dirty work’ easier (saying that with ignorance to a better method).

Adding to the Visual Image of the Illusion

This does not change the method of the illusion in any way but it enhances the visual image of the illusion. After the ‘zagging’ of the center section, three neon tubes or plastic tubes with LEDs inside, are pierced through each section, running from left to right for the top and bottom sections and back to front for the center section. This asymmetrical arrangement of the ‘light tubes’ creates a nice visual display, an added theatrical element and adds time to the performance as well.

Costume Change

It will be a simple matter and an added kicker for the girl to change her costume at the end of the illusion. Use a ‘flip-down-style’ costume as opposed to a tear-away one.

2nd Girl Production

Andrew Mayne also has similar suggestion for a kicker finale for Zig Zag but this method and revelation is different.

Modify and mount the Zig Zag on a Chuck Jones’ ‘Mis-**** Girl’-type ****. This allows an extra girl to be hidden in the bottom section and **** of the prop.

The only difference in the standard presentation part of the illusion is to turn the prop to the side so that the doors face away from the audience. Thus, the principal girl enters the prop with its side to the audience. The same goes when she exits.

After the principle girl exits the prop, it’s front should be turned back to face the audience.

Use a cloth, fan, flag, jacket or a cover of your choice to momentarily shield the head cutout of the Zig Zag from view. Under this cover, the 2nd girl quickly stands up and puts her head in the head cutout to create the illusion of a sudden appearance of another girl. The Zig Zag is opened facing the audience to fully reveal the 2nd girl.

Audience Participation Zig Zag

This last presentation is something I would do if I did own the Zig Zag as it suits my performance style and character. This is essentially a partial talking act with audience participation performed to a sound-bed of appropriate music.

Two audience members are invited onto stage to help out with the illusion. To make the illusion play even bigger, I will have chairs placed in a semi circle around the back of the illusion and invite spectators on stage to watch the illusion in the round. Incidentally, I use this same staging idea when performing Jim Steinmeyer’s ‘Through an One Inch Hole’.

This presentation will use the skirting ideas as mentioned above.

The core presentation is based on the Wakeling Sawing with leather restraints and straps that go around the neck, waist and one ankle of the girl. The straps are threaded through holes in the sides of the top, center and bottom sections of the. The neck and legs strap holes are on the same side of the prop with the hole for the waist strap running out on the opposite side of the prop. The idea is that one spectator holds the ends of both the leg and neck straps together and the other spectator is on the other side of the prop holding onto the waist strap – apparently holding the girl securely in place.

None of the straps need to be gimmicked but having a stopper (such as a knot in the straps) will allow the assistant the slack needed to maneuver as necessary. Those familiar with the Wakeling Sawing will understand what I’m talking about. If you are unfamiliar with the illusion, get a copy of the ‘The Magic of Alan Wakeling’ by Steinmeyer for details.

As it has been said before, everything old is new again. Entertainment trends like business is cyclical.


About J C Sum

International Headline Entertainer, Content Creator and Investor
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7 Responses to Follow-up to Why Do Illusionists Perform the Same Illusions?

  1. Michael Kent says:

    I’ve spoken about this before, but I think the one key point that you fail to hit on here is the motivation behind performing the illusion in the first place.

    Most magicians have no idea why they’re performing the illusion they’re performing. Is it to prove to the audience that you have magical powers? Is it to experience for yourself what you have the ability to do? Is it to seek revenge on another character onstage?

    Because these questions are never answered, there is never a motive for the theme being presented and therefore no starting point from which creativity can emerge.

    • jcsum says:

      Hi Michael, thanks for taking the time to comment!

      I understand where you are coming from and whole-hearted agree that asking why is important. But, I do not believe it is the only starting point from which creativity can emerge. I did highlight motivation as a technique under the umbrella of creating a presentation. The reason because there are different techniques to draw from to create an illusion presentation, or at least, that is what I do personally. At times, I do start off by asking why I’m presenting a certain illusion. But, sometimes, I also ask what I want the audience to feel? Other times, I’m inspired by a piece of music and then figure out how to routine/ choreograph and present aroutine to complement the music. Many times, I start off by wanting to create a desired effect like a surroundable helicopter appearance. I then go from there to work out the technical design first, and then move on to develop a routine and handling to give motivation to the ‘moves’ needed to accomplish the illusion.

      I do understand that everyone approaches the creation of an illusion/ act differently. But, do not necessarily subscribe to a single approach as THE way. However, the first thing illusionists need to do is feel motivated to do something different. Unfortunately, if that does not happen, then none of the techniques will matter at all. Thanks again. Appreciate it!

  2. Michael Kent says:

    You’re welcome. I think that all of the ways you describe as platforms for creativity fall under the umbrella of “understanding why you’re doing what you’re doing.”

    Starting off with an idea of what you want the audience to feel, what the end goal should be, etc. – these are all motivations for concepting an illusion. But when these aren’t present, which happens quite often, the motivation instead is based on either copying other performances or performing an illusion because they feel that that’s what a magician of their genre is supposed to do.

    • jcsum says:

      I believe we are of course talking about the same thing. But, I suspect, there are many whose starting point of “what do I want to do is…” I want to do what Copperfield/ Hans Klok/ Burton etc . That is their creative starting point… and they are serious. What do we say to them then? That is why, I’m advocating to first have the basic desire to do something different….

  3. Leonard says:

    I liked both your articles on the subject. Very well thought out and comprehensive as usual. I think that it should be mentioned is that magic is a much smaller talent pool compared to music. So, what we see as the cream of the crop in music, say top 10%, is the best of a few million people. While in magic, the best is the best of a few thousand. Which also explains why music is a much bigger mainstream entertainment form than magic.

    But, that is no excuse for pirating acts or doing the same illusions. There are many illusionists who do try to do different illusions but there are also many who do the same thing and I agree that, at least from Youtube vids, a lot tend to be from Europe and Asia. 😦

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

  5. Jack 3d says:

    What’s up, I recently started reading this blog – thank you for writing. Just wanted to let you know that it’s not showing up correctly on the BlackBerry Browser (I have a Bold). Anyway, I’m now subscribed to the RSS feed on my laptop, so thanks!

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