Magic wands are so last season.
Any true magician—you know, the ones who can do real magic—manipulate their fingers in impossibly intricate positions to cast their spells. By the time they’ve mastered these skills, magicians can recognize one another in a sea of muggles by their muscular hands.
That whimsical flourish in Lev Grossman’s best-selling The Magicians trilogy created a slight visualization obstacle for the producers adapting the books into Syfy’s The Magicians. Recently renewed for a second season, the dark drama follows a group of students tapped for a treacherous course of study to hone their real magic abilities at Brakebills Preparatory College of Magic.
"The idea of learning magic through very intricate and difficult finger positions is in Lev Grossman’s books," says executive producer Sera Gamble. "When you get to Brakebills, you’re handed these piles of textbooks that are like études for the hands—almost like piano practice books. We were trying to figure out how to do this visually, when [executive producer] John McNamara’s assistant, Jay Gard, said, 'Have you gone on YouTube and checked out the finger tutters?'"
Tutting, a hip-hop dance of angular movements through hand and arm popping, has origins in 1970s funk dance. But finger tutting, which involves intricately interweaving fingers, more recently caught the spotlight through a Samsung Galaxy SII phone branded-content video, starring master finger tutter JayFunk, and Taylor Swift’s "Shake It Off" video, which featured John "Pnut" Hunt after his tutting video "Greasy Fingers" went viral. "Those were very inspiring to us," says Gamble.
It wasn’t so mainstream that it still looked fresh but widespread enough so that casting calls in New Orleans and Vancouver locations for dancers to play Brakebills students practicing spells drew talented tutters.
For the actors, the production enlisted choreographers Paul Becker and Kevin Li (who cameoed in episode four as the dean’s assistant) to create step-by-step video instructions for finger movements to fit spell types, characters, and actor abilities. They were also on set to assist with movements.
In creating their magical language, the producers wanted the flavor of each spell to vary between characters and reflect their backgrounds and magic level. In turn, the actors translated the difficulty and frustration in mastering tutting moves into their characters’ attempts at mastering spells.
"The through-line of the books is that magic is really hard," says Gamble. "The practice doesn’t come as easily as you want. It’s very inconsistent, arduous, and even, at times, boring. The actors having to learn this brand new skill that’s very difficult and awkward ended up being helpful in their character development."
Every episode requires 8 to 10 tuts, and those movements need to convey the meaning behind the spell. Becker and Li spent a day or two (or all-nighters for last-minute requests) choreographing sequences—tweaking them according to production notes—before putting them on tape and sending them to the actors to rehearse.
"Some of the notes the producers gave us were pretty deep," laughs Becker. "There’s usually a back story for each spell and movement. They may seem like small things that take a few seconds, but actually a lot goes into it.
"The actors have to sit at a table and do it over and over till they get it right," he adds. "It’s so complicated, because it’s such small movements, and no one is used to moving their fingers this way. It requires fine motor skills and is a different beast than memorizing a dance with your entire body. It messes with your mind more."
For Gamble, the tutters brought a new ingredient to the collaboration. "Especially with a fantasy show, a huge amount of our job is world building," she says. "We want the world we create in The Magicians to feel specific, real, and detailed enough so that as time goes on, it feels genuine. We do that as much as we can in the script, and then actors and costume designers add to that. Tutting is another way to put The Magicians’ imprint on this facet of magic, making it different from any other magic show or movie that you’ve seen."
"Every new story in the series brings magical problems and opportunities to invent new things" that further structure that world, says Gamble. "From one episode to the next, we end up asking ourselves story questions that might yield a magical substance or secret handshake. But, in terms of a cohesive language, the tutting has been the most interesting."