In an age of CGI, why bother with a magic consultant?
The early moments of Now You See Me answer this question—when the movie audience becomes the foil in a real magic trick. After a few seconds of spirited card deck cuts and shuffles, an illusionist played by Jesse Eisenberg shuffles the card faces to the audience and tells us to pick one. We do and—there’s a collective gasp—that’s the card that flashes in lights on the skyscraper behind him.
How the hell?
"There’s an authenticity that people can detect with actual sleight-of-hand," says David Kwong, a 32-year-old Harvard-educated magician and puzzler who designs and advises on illusions for film and TV, and writes crossword puzzles for The New York Times. "Both of those moments are really important in establishing the skills and technical abilities of the characters. We open the film that way, so when things get more exaggerated later, the audience has been grounded in the reality of that first authentic magic trick, that these characters can do magic."
The Lionsgate-Summit release—which beat anticipated frontrunner After Earth in last weekend’s opening box office tallies—is a multilayered cat-and-mouse heist pitting four elite magicians, played by Eisenberg, Woody Harrelson, Isla Fisher, and Dave Franco, against jaded FBI agent (Mark Ruffalo) as they use their skills to rob banks and give their spoils to the needy.
The signature David Copperfield trick, Portal, which teleports an audience member to a beach in Hawaii, inspired the film’s first bank-robbing trick—in which a bank president in a Las Vegas audience appears to be teleported back to his vault in France. But the entire movie arc unfolds like a giant magic trick: set up, dropped clues, misdirection, and finally, the surprise payoff.
"Magic is all storytelling," says Kwong. "It has an arc that’s introduced, then played out for the big reveal. There’s a foreshadowing along the way. I like the idea of putting clues out there is plain sight—introducing the simplest of magic tricks, then making their concept play out in a big way."
For several years, Kwong’s dual skill sets in narrative and magic landed advisory gigs for magic-themed film projects. He worked as a studio development executive, most recently at Dreamworks Animation, archivist for Ricky Jay, and worked with David Copperfield. Three years ago, burgeoning requests prompted him to found a more formal consultancy, The Misdirectors Guild, that included colleagues with various magic specialties. Since then, Kwong or the Guild have been involved in films like Paranormal Activity 4; The Incredible Burt Wonderstone; the upcoming Jeremy Renner vehicle, The Immigrant; and a secret project with J.J. Abrams’ company, Bad Robot.
Kwong brainstormed early in the development phase with director Louis Leterrier and screenwriters Ed Solomon, Ed Ricourt, and Boaz Yakin to make the illusions in the film as plausible as possible, while furthering the plot. He then spent eight months on the set in New Orleans teaching the cast card manipulation.
"All the illusions in the film are based on real practical effects," says Kwong. "Even a 3-D projection done on the side of a building is now used as a marketing tool. The actors employed a fair amount of real sleight of hand."
Franco, whose character engages in "sleight-of-hand-to-hand combat" with Ruffalo’s detective by throwing cards, got proficient enough to slice into fruit. "You don’t master sleight-of-hand in eight months, but you can learn isolated flourishes for the camera," adds Kwong. "Jesse learned how to change one card to another, but he didn’t learn the whole trick in which it’s done. It’s more of a need-to-know basis. You don’t want to give away too many secrets to laymen."
CGI was employed in hand doubling for more elaborate moves and one trick where Fisher’s character floats above the audience in a bubble. "They’re portrayed as the magicians of tomorrow," he says. "The director asked me what tricks I wanted to do, but never quite had the method for them."
"One of the things I did want to try to convey is the amount of preparation," Kwong adds. "Magicians might spend thousands of hours on an illusion that will ultimately only be performed in a split second. It’s perfecting 'fake spontaneity’ that keeps magicians always a step ahead of their audience."
Kwong’s work on Now You See Me was a dovetailing of his two worlds. After it wrapped, he realized he could leave Dreamworks to pursue magic full-time. "Working on this film also helped me grow as a performer and perfect my storytelling," says Kwong. "I’m a puzzler and this movie is very much like a puzzle. Now my entire stage show comprises different magic tricks that are all part of a larger puzzle that becomes evident in the final reveal."