Movie Magic

A little magic goes a long way, particularly when you partner with someone who exemplifies creativity. In this case, the partners are Magicana, the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) Bell Lightbox, and the magic is the March Break Magic and Movie Camp.

While meeting with representatives from the centre late last year, I suggested that they partner with Magicana to provide a Magic and Movie March Break for kids. Magic and the Movies go back a long way. In fact, the movie business owes a great deal to magicians. Not only did magicians and their magic lantern shows help begat the technology that make motion pictures, but magicians were also pioneer producers and exhibitors of film.

George Méliès, for example, was a magician who purchased the theatre of Robert-Houdin in Paris, located a stone’s throw from the studio of the Lumière Brothers. Méliès soon afterward documented his stage spectacles on film, breaking through barriers of live theatre, creating cinematic special effects, to transport his audiences to exotic locations – including the moon!

Magicians were also amongst the first exhibitors of motion pictures, making them a feature of their traveling stage show. David Devant, the great British conjuror, brought motion pictures to the English Provinces and Carl Hertz, an American by birth, introduced traveling motion picture exhibitions down under – that’s Australia.

I knew that, with its program My Magic Hands, Magicana had a great deal of experience introducing children to the artistic process, empowering them to make decisions, communicate their ideas, and perform. Combine that know-how with the expertise and facilities of the Bell Lightbox Centre, and you create a golden opportunity.

The result was truly magic. The children learned the fundamentals of several magic tricks, how to develop a character, script dialogue and action, practice, rehearse and then, perform. They also learned, courtesy of TIFF, how to storyboard their ideas, pitch a script, shoot the action, edit the material and screen the results for the audience. Not bad for a week’s work!

The program sold-out quickly and the kids had a ball. It’s a programming initiative that I predict will become a perennial. If you have or know of kids that would be interested in participating in this type of program, contact TIFF and let them know that you are interested.



Homing Hopper

“Where did THAT come from?”  I’m often asked this question not because I made an object like automobile appear in thin air but because, when I am asked to contribute creative solutions, my comments or suggestions at first glance appear to come out of nowhere.

I found myself asking myself the same question while screening Brian Johnson’s film Yes and No at the Toronto International Film Festival, and again after meeting Dennis Lee, the poet whose words inspired the cinematic treatment, at the post-screening party.

I already knew the answer, at least in some respect. The work came from their imagination and, more importantly, from the knowledge both Brian and Dennis had in store, knowledge that allowed their imaginations to create tangible works rather than thoughts that just swirled inside their brains.

Inventive but pragmatic solutions require someone with both imagination and knowledge. And, as Timothy Williamson points on his article in the New York Times, knowledge – far from being something that inhibits creativity – makes the imagination focused and productive.  He writes,

“Constraining imagination by knowledge does not make it redundant. We rarely know an explicit formula that tells us what to do in a complex situation. We have to work out what to do by thinking through the possibilities in ways that are simultaneously imaginative and realistic, and not less imaginative when more realistic. Knowledge, far from limiting imagination, enables it to serve its central function.”

Stewart James was one of the most prolific creators of magic in the twentieth century.  He created over a thousand magical pieces while most other magicians were lucky to create a dozen. Among his many innovations was the “Headline Prediction”. Stewart was the first to create and perform this sort of prediction.  His initial prediction and one that generated a great deal of publicity, was: ”Germany invades Poland”. That’s right, Stewart correctly predicted the outbreak of World War II!

I’ve written extensively about Stewart and his many modes of generating ideas in Advantage Play. Stewart had a myriad of techniques – idea kindlers – to generate ideas. All, however, were based on a foundation of knowledge. Stewart was extremely well versed in the principles and practice of magic. As far as Stewart was concerned, solutions pre-existed.  He simply had to explore his subconscious to find them. So, he regarded himself as an explorer like Christopher Columbus. Instead of looking for the New World, however, Stewart explored the uncharted areas of his imagination. He knew it was a  dangerous journey though, and easy to lose one’s way in the imagination. He saw first-hand some of his closest creative friends lose their minds as they spent too much time in their imagination.

Stewart used his superior knowledge of principles, practices and procedures as the constellations that guided his explorations. They also brought him home. He thought he could discover even more solutions, however, if he had a Homing Hopper as his guide.

A Homing Hopper, of course, was a product of Stewart’s imagination. It was a hybrid creature: part Homing Pigeon and part Grasshopper. The Grasshopper could jump from idea to idea, safe in the knowledge that it would never get lost in the depths of the imagination because the Homing Pigeon would bring the mind back to safe ground.

One pundit said that Stewart was in his own little world, but that was okay because they knew him there. I feel the same way.


Just over a year ago I received an email from Brian Johnson, film critic for Macleans magazine and, as I was to discover, a filmmaker in his own right.

 He asked if I would help bring some magic to a short film he was creating based on the poetry of Dennis Lee.

I love collaborating with other artists because it is always such a learning experience.  This was no exception. It was a particularly challenging shoot simply because, while Brian had created a special deck of cards for me to manipulate, one with visual imagery inspired by the poetry, he wanted me to improvise the magic during the filming.

Adding to the challenge was that we had a short window in which to film because he wanted to capture the magic with natural light, at dusk, just before nightfall.

Well, I finally get a chance to see the film, YesNo, this Sunday as it is will receive its official screening as part of the Toronto International Film Festival as part of the TIFF Shortcuts Canada Programme.  You’ll see from the listing that the film features narration by a stellar cast of Canadian authors, poets and musicians including Leonard Cohen, Margaret Attwood, Michael Ondaatje, and Karen Solie.

Although Brian offered to send me a copy of the film prior to the official screening, I declined the offer because I wanted to see it initially as it was meant to be seen: on a large screen in a theatre with hundreds of other people.

The film will also be screened at the Atlantic Film Festival, the Woodstock Film Festival, and the Vancouver Film Festival.