Aug 20, 2006

Animation and Magic

I saw a movie last night I highly recommend, "The Illusionist".
It's the sort of film that makes me feel viscerally why it is I love movies, and why I want to make them. It also happens to be a very low-budget production by typical standards(the average of a studio release now hovering somewhere around 60 million), I believe "The Illusionist" was made for under 20 million--an amazing accomplishment.
But imagination and intelligence are there in abundance, and the very mixed, date-night audience was held in rapt attention, the kind of vibe that you seldom get: a room filled with people all paying total attention to the screen. It was sold out too, a good sign...although that owed something to the fact that it's playing in a very limited release this weekend.

Your mileage, as they say, may vary, but if you want to see or love underplayed acting, mystery, restraint as a form of tension, and old-style wonderful make-believe--and if you love animation the odds are you do--I'll have to think you'd enjoy this. If you don't, that's okay too, mind you--I can also understand if it simply isn't someone's cup, but in any case, give it a chance. It'll probably open wider soon.

Why am I bringing this up in an animation blog? Well, some of the most delightful bits in "The Illusionist" are the humblest--the sleight of hand performed in real time in front of the camera(the magic performances advised and no doubt staged in some instances by the incomparable Ricky Jay). And animation has a sort of bond with magic, stage magic. Some of the earliest forms of animation were put to use in magic acts of the last and previous centuries, via magic lanterns and other effects. And all magic depends upon--can't in fact work without--the audiences' suspension of disbelief, a delight in experiencing something that can't be and believing it to be real. That's a fair definition of film animation, too.

It's perhaps not so odd, then, to discover how many animation artists are interested in magic, or are magicians themselves.
The first one I met was Joe Ranft.

Joe on the road--Route 66, in fact, as part of "Cars" research--getting a barber's once-over. From

Joe was our story teacher at Calarts--it was both his first teaching experience and our first as students in such a class. He taught us from 1st year through 2nd. Joe's gifts as a story guy and teacher are worthy of an entire post dedicated to that subject alone, but apropos of magic there's one particularly wonderful memory I have of him.

One night after the evening class had ended, a few of us TAs and others had been mixing cocktails and had a pleasantly tipsy buzz on when it came up that Joe (who was hanging out as he did before making his drive back south from Valencia) knew magic.
All over that like a seagull on a potato chip, I begged and begged Joe to please, please do some magic--and he agreed.
I believe he had a half-dollar on him(what self-respecting magician wouldn't?), someone produced some cards, and I have never had such fun watching magic done. Close-up magic is just that: we were all leaning over the table in the design room, crowding around him, staring directly at his hands while he produced the most deft effects I've ever seen. I remember the frisson of amazement and sheer joy I had, the back of my neck tingling watching him do impossible things.

What I remember too as specially impressive was how once he'd agreed to do magic, his demeanor changed. Always affable and sometimes just the tiniest bit shy in his manner, he transformed himself into a Joe that was completely different. His professional magician's persona was put on, and we got a real performance, very serious. His little audience (about 3 or 4 of us) was utterly in his thrall.
Upon finishing he just as quickly became just Joe again. Also magic!

Since then I've met other animation artists who grew up amateur magicians. There's a very strong corollary there, especially for animators and story artists, as Joe was: the art demands a strong performance ethic, an understanding of exactly how to direct the audience's attention where you want it at all times(or risk losing the joke/moment/trick), and a desire to delight and hypnotize your audience. Joe was a natural teacher; He had the furthest thing from a bombastic personality, but he was totally committed to his craft and that shone through brightly and clearly. He also had a genuine enthusiasm to see anything grow: a student's talent, an idea or a sequence--same thing. He'd give anyone's questions serious attention.
He'd say "this doesn't work at all--here's why". He'd laugh loudly and infectiously if he liked something--or loved it. if you were lucky. He was one of the most lovable personalities I've ever known, and surely ever will.

Of course I've nothing like the years upon years of close contact with him that his friends at Disney and later Pixar had; I hadn't seen him in at least 12 years when he died. But I'd thought about him often (which says everything about him, nothing in particular about me).
I always looked forward to seeing him somewhere soon, at any some function up north or down here--and I knew that if we did run across each other I'd greet him with a running jump and a hug. Not because I do that to everybody(I'm shy, too), but because he was just that sort of person. I wanted to tell him what I was doing now, thank him for all he did for me, ask about his kids and wife and his life up there, all sorts of things.
He might well have been embarrassed, but I wouldn't have been, because after all these years I still have huge wells of affection and gratitude for him and I am sure he'd have understood that. Because I was just one of hundreds of people who felt exactly the same way. And embarrassed or not he'd have gone out of his way to be kind to me as he did with everyone else. I'm sure I'll continue to be inspired by his example for the rest of my life.

That's magic.


Cookedart said...


That's an amazing story - I had no idea Joe taught at Calarts (much less anyone who was taught by him there!)

Thanks for the wonderful story - please feel free to share more insights!

I've gotta say, I can see the magic in his boards (from the few I've seen).

Oh yeah, and there's one more magic-themed movie coming out this year, dubbed The Prestige by "Batman Begins" and "Memento" director Chris Nolan.


David Germain said...

Hey, Jenny, are you participating in the Friz Freleng blogathon tomorrow? I got my Friz post up now. :)

bozoette said...

I think that's a lovely story! And I definitely see the connection between animation and magic -- when I was a little girl, my uncle showed me a simple little flipbook, and I was convinced it was magic. Thanks for visiting.

Jhhl said...

The original trick film /magician was Georges Méliès himself! He ran a magic theatre and inherited Houdon's tricks, while making htem hmself. Go find the excellentMéliès documentary (readers too) Méliès The Magician (1997) to see a great number of these films and be astounded at this polymath.

Anonymous said...

As always, very insightful, Jenny.

And, you're right about Joe. Even a brief conversation with him on a street corner made my evening just a little bit better. Of course, his magic was an extra added treat.

Do you think maybe God sent Joe here to enlighten and entertain us? I sure do.

Jenny Lerew said...

Hi Floyd-thanks, and--absolutely, I agree with you. I don't have any doubt about it. : )

Anonymous said...

Great post, Jenny. I remember hanging out after story class to watch Joe do magic for us. He was always dead serious when he was doing magic, but as soon as the show was over, he was back to his goofy self again. Joe was just the best.

the doodlers said...

Wow! I wish more movie reviewers would take the trouble that you have, to express the depth of feeling a good film can spark!

Thanks for the sweet insight to Joe Ranft. Missed deeply, though we never met him.

Unknown said...

wow jenny that's a very beautiful story, and you told it so well. i'm a recent art school grad so i know what you mean by that love and respect one has for that instructor that pushed you and helped with your craft. that insight i feel will always remain with us.

Anonymous said...

One of the big colloraries shared by magic and animation is the ability to think abstractly. It's all over Ward Kimball's best work in The Three Caballeros and in Mars and Beyond. But it turns up everywhere. If you're boarding something using a limbo set you're thinking in the same terms as the Theatre of the Black Arts.

Rusty Mills said...

Jenny and Floyd I agree so much with you about Joe. He's one of those people that though he's gone he left so much for us. That is the ultimate magic trick.

No doubt Joe would have loved seeing this movie too. Thanks for the insight Jenny!

Unknown said...

What a great blog post, Jenny!

Siamang said...

I didn't like The Illusionist. It was for two simple reasons. One was that the ending is the entire premise of the movie... you can spot it a mile off.

Two is that the "magic" in the film is totally impossible. These aren't stage illusions at all, but things that you can only do with modern motion-picture visual effects.

If the idea of the film is that this man is an "illusionist" and not a wizard in a magical world, he is doing things that cannot be done by any magician who ever lived.

This guy does things that Professor Dumbledore would be hard-pressed to pull off, and would be completely impossible for Gandalf.

So there's no "danger" in the movie. This guy can snap his fingers and turn into mist any time he wants to. Therefore no tension.

Jenny Lerew said...

Hmmm...I (of course) felt very differently abou it. But for the record: the illusions shown on stage--the orange tree, the "portrait"--are in fact real, authentic illusions created and performed in the 19th century(The 'orange tree' was created by the famous Houdin, the man Houdini named himself after--even the butterflies carrying the hanky were part of the original act).

Of course there was likely some help in the film from CG, but you're actually incorrect in thinking "they cannot be done by any magician who ever lived". They can and they were. Now, the ultimate "illusions" Eisenheim created were something else--but also, based in actual fact of stage magic AND of "spirit mediums" of the time, with the obvious caveats I won't spoil for the people who haven't seen it yet. ; )
I know it seem incredible, but believe me(I saw a fantastic, several-episode-long documentary on Discovery Channel or somewhere about the history of magic--the "tricks" done in front of audiences back then would blow your mind! They were much more elaborate and sophisticated than you'd expect for 100-150 years ago; of course, as with all magic the underlying principles are actually usually very simple, which is why it's so terrible to learn the secrets of illusions--it makes them sadly small).

And while I read some reviews where the writer too could guess the ending, I couldn't--but likely only because I didn't want to. I was enjoying it all so much--the performances, the atmosphere--that I deliberately let the story wash over & envelop me, going wherever it would. I really didn't mind how it would end up.
As I said, YMMV. No problem with that.
The audience I saw it with--a hard-bitten LA crowd--applauded at the end--well after 1am, I might add. ; )

Anonymous said...

Great post!! Truly spiring!
As for the relation between magicians and animators reminded me of the Illusion of life. Frank and Ollie state that magicians and animators have a relation/common ability: STAGING.
An animator or story artist has to show a clear point, this is the same thing a magician does to trick us, show us only what they want us to see.

This is why they interact closely with the audience, its easier to trick us.

Siamang said...

I do know something about the history of magic. Just a couple of months ago I visited the Museum of Magic and Prestidigitation in Paris, which housed the largest collection of the illusions of Robert Houdin. I was pleased to see Houdin's mechanical orange-tree illusion prop in person.

The factual nature of the orange-tree illusion is absolutely nothing next to a hero who could turn into vapor when police officers try to grab him. Such a hero has no match in any mortal policeman.

I didn't want to predict the ending either. It would have helped if the director didn't telegraph the clues. It also would have helped if the plot didn't mimick the novel "Carter Beats the Devil", by Glen David Gold.

The plot of the novel is much more elaborate and far better told, as well as being entirely realistic with regard to the presentation of stage illusions.

The political intrigue is quite a bit more interesting, as it regards the assasination of Warren Harding. This film is as if someone decided to simplify every aspect of this novel, even to the inclusion of the investigating policeman in the service of a corrupt regime.