Is the cure worse than the ailment?

By now, you have undoubtedly heard Trump say, “We cannot let the cure be worse than the disease.” He echoed what a FOX-TV host said earlier and was referring to the economic problems caused by the various gubernatorial stay at home orders in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

I am not referring to stay at home orders and the economy. I am referring to the overabundance of streaming magic polluting the virtual world and its impact on magic. It’s been a little more than a month, and magicians, myself included, who can no longer fill the real world with mystery are over-stuffing the virtual world with lackluster exhibitions of magic done in solitude, in front of their computers or cell phone and streamed to the world.

With few exceptions, most virtual shows I have seen are not the least bit entertaining. Few seem to be well designed to tell a story or have a theme, message, or character that makes them compelling to watch. And all display pretty low-quality production values with sound, lighting, and image capture far below what consumers of television today are accustomed to. This is no surprise given the performer is often the producer, director, scriptwriter, lighting director, cameraman, and computer technician, as well as the talent.

Today, consumers are very discriminating when it comes to film and video. There is no way one person pend up at home, standing in front of a webcam, and performing live is going to satisfy the sophisticated demands of a modern audience. Viewers are used to seeing well-rehearsed performances on television with multiple camera views, reaction shots, a live audience, and editing. Even the late-night hosts are struggling with the constraints of performing from home. Many of us enjoyed the One World Together at Home special, especially the finale with Andrea Bocelli, Celine Dion, Lang Lang, Lady Gaga, and John Legend. But, even with the combined skills of many talented producers, the variation in sound and picture quality from performer to performer throughout the show was undeniable. 

Significant as the technical deficits are, they pale in comparison to the most significant drawback, the absence of a live audience. Without an audience to interact with, not hearing laughs after a joke, not seeing the look on a volunteer’s face as he or she reacts to a minor miracle or hearing applause, most performers are like fish out of water.  But it’s not the performer alone who is disappointed. The audience is as well. 

Hollywood knows all about the power of audience reactions. It was proven in an experiment to see if a comedy without a live audience fared better with laughs in 1965 with the sitcom Hogan’s Heroes. The program was shown to test audiences with and without a laugh track. Not surprisingly, the show was much more successful with the laughs, and ever since, most sitcoms not shot in front of a live audience have utilized a laugh track. Those of us who have been part of a live audience for the taping of a television talk show know well that we are cued and practiced when it comes to applause.

These opinions are not mine alone. I stumbled on this video. https://captiongenerator.com/1771422/Virtual-magic-shows

It’s the famous scene from the 2004 film Downfall that depicts Hitler angry after his orders were ignored and that was used in numerous parodies posted on the Internet. In this parody, Hitler rages about the profusion of poor quality virtual magic and laments about magic performed without an audience. The parody says it clearly. “Magic needs an audience! Real people in front of you! You have to hear them react. Performing to no one is rehearsing.” I don’t know who created the parody, but I agree with his observations.

There are already plenty of reasons people don’t like magic – magic is a riddle without a solution; magic is for kids; magicians are cheesy, annoying, arrogant, and boring. And every magician has probably experienced how reluctant people can be when asked to help on stage, which is most likely the result of having seen a lousy magician embarrass a volunteer or treat them like props. If you perform strolling magic, I would be surprised if you haven’t heard someone in a group you’ve approached say, “Oh, I don’t like magic” and turn you away. I hope magic is not further lessened in the minds of the public by virtual performances.

Unless we are lucky, it’s likely to be more than a year before people feel safe enough to gather in groups to see a magic show. Aside from avoiding the issue and not streaming magic, what can you do if you insist on dipping your wand into the stream? Here are some suggestions.

  • Lighting – Make sure you are properly lit. The backlight can be a killer. More light should come from in front of you and the action. 
  • Auto exposure – Most webcams will adjust to balance the overall scene and try to average the lights and darks to a middle tone. If you can’t manually set the exposure, try to balance the scene with clothing and background. Don’t wear a black suit against a black background and expect anyone to see the pips on a playing card.
  • Camera – If you can use a DSLR or video camera. If not, use the camera on your phone instead of the one on your computer.
  • Multiple cameras – Use more than one camera so that you can have close-ups and wide shots.       
  • Software – Use software designed for streaming video. I am familiar with vMix and eCamm, but there are numerous others.
  • Background – Even a plain white wall is better than a messy room.
  • Practice – Practice with the technology, not just the magic. I saw one show where the entire show was sideways because the magician’s phone was locked in portrait mode.
  • Rehearse – You know the difference. Do your whole show with no breaks. 
  • Look at the camera – Don’t look at your monitor, look at the camera. Make eye contact with the viewers. 
  • Connect with the viewer – That’s easier said than done. Look at anything produced by Steve Valentine. He connects. No doubt that’s because he’s a professional actor as well as a magician, and he produces instructional magic videos regularly. 
  • Finally, Get rid of it – Unless it’s a great video, don’t leave it posted for all to see forever.

I’ve trashed virtual magic because most of what I have seen has been disappointing. But, as Eric Wilzig, an excellent young magician who is doing some of the best virtual magic I have seen, says, “If done correctly, it’s really cool and fun to watch. It’s just like when magic was probably first seen on TV.” And he is right; virtual magic is in its infancy. It remains to be seen whether it will mature and elevate the art or be completely forgotten when COVID-19 is a distant memory.  

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