Nov 11

The Amazing Storyboard

. . . and what it can do for you.

The subtitle there says it all. What can a storyboard do for you? I feel as if I am a pitchman selling snake oil at the moment and it may seem like that to you for now, but by the end of this article, you should see what I mean. The concept is easy and just what its name implies. It is a story on a board. In days of old, when paper and pen were king, the storyboard was hand lettered on a piece of poster board which was placed on an easel where the creative artists who were responsible for writing scripts and screenplays began their work. It was a visible flowchart sort of diagram that depicted the story in block and relational format using words and pictures when necessary. The purpose was to allow a visual focus for the idea or concept of a plot, usually a cartoon plot. Other creative writers borrowed the concept and authors of complicated books often use them in cascading format to follow their characters and the subplots. As magicians, the storyboard is related and appropriate for developing a routine.

Enough of that. Down to the meat. Every storyboard created for developing a magic routine must have a beginning, middle and end which are linkied together in every way. This isn’t an option. The beginning must relate to both the middle and the end. Henny Youngman, middle 20th Century commedian, was the king of the one liner. He could get laughs from anything he uttered. Partly because he was who he was and the rest because of his delivery. Every one liner was a complete act unto itself. There was no connection between the current one liner being delivered and the last one. That was his style and it worked for him. He would tell what appeared to be an ordinary story and deliver his punch line after having set his audience into a frame of mind that almost forced them to laugh at him.

Today, the old storyboard on poster board has yielded to the Whiteboard(tm) and marker. It was inevitable. In this case, progress is a good thing. It allows me to erase and change my work without having to buy the entire stock of poster boards from the local office supply. Rare is the finished routine that doesn’t have its roots in many, many changes. I won’t be drawing any pictures here but pictures are required, even if they are rudimentary. For a complete rundown on creating a storyboard for a cartoon script, see this link. You can see pretty pictures there. It opens in a pop up window because I don’t want you to never come back. Copy and paste the link if you don’t like pop ups.

In magic, you must specify your plot and place it into the storyboard. The simplest form of storyboard is the “Start – Do the trick – Finish” type. That simple format does describe the entire process and often works as the very earliest form of a plot storyboard used for a magic routine. Getting from there to the finished product is the task at hand.

The Start: The first step is to define how you want to begin your routine. Imagine you are standing on a dark stage, holding your beautiful prop in your hand as the curtain opens and a spotlight bathes you in light. You turn to face the audience by moving only your head and gaze at them for a moment. After a few seconds, pounding drums followed by energetic violins fill the theater with life! You begin your routine.

Quite simple and effective. Very dramatic with an air of elegance for good measure. While it all sounds great and to the audience looks wonderful, the work of getting that from concept to actual execution must be relayed to dozens of people from the director to the lighting person. Each person involved must have detailed instructions on how to do each item and at what time. This is where the storyboard comes in. Sure, you think. That’s fine for Lance Burton but I perform alone and don’t need to do anything except learn the routine from the instruction sheet. Dooming yourself to mediocrity, you my abandon this article now and go to learn the instruction sheet. The rest of you, follow me.

Yes, many of us work alone and don’t need a complicated storyboard. That’s fine and you’re correct. But you do need one, even if it’s very simple. I have stacks of notebooks with ideas from more than 30 years ago. If you stay in magic that long, you will too. My earliest notebooks are wonderful to look at with pictures, notes and ideas written around drawings copied from other works or books. Without a storyboard, they are like Henny Youngman’s one liners. They work to a basic level but I can’t always remember what I was intending to do with the routine later. Thus, I have lost the plot, the basic framework because I didn’t begin a storyboard.

My more modern work almost always has a storyboard attached to every routine. Everything I do in my regular act is in a storyboard which has been preserved digitally using flowchart software adapted from computer programming. You can get a copy of SmartDraw free here. Use the various boxes and shapes to define every aspect of the routine flow from the opening moment to the beginning of your effect. At this point, remember you are only starting the routine. All you are doing is the audience attention grabbing before you do your miracle. Save that for step two and the closing for step three.

There’s no way to give you more specifics than I just have as every routine will require different steps, motions, words and behind the scenes work. As you do your first one, just be patient and work each item as if you were standing there doing it. In fact, that may be just what you have to do. You can develop a storyboard alone, with a friend or partner and flesh it out over time. This also is an aid to practicing your routine as you are forced to do it many times until you get it all perfect.

Another advantage of a storyboard saved in your journals is this. I once had a call from a golf equipment manufacturer to work a trade show for them. I had lots of video footage and photos to show them but they wanted to know what I could to that would be specific to their trade show. Out come my journals and storyboards which I could actually modify with pencil in meetings with their marketing people to bring them into line with the company needs. Here’s what I came up with for the simple loading of a golf ball in a Mini Chop Cup routine which I had on a storyboard.

The end production of a golf ball is quite simple and as you know very easy to accomplish. Giving away a ball is a good way to impress people but at the end of the day, it’s just another golf ball. What if I made it special? What if I gave it away to a person who was highly amazed to find that it had their own initials on the golf ball? In graphic, flowchart format, I added the following steps. To preface this, I always hire a young lady to assist me at trade shows. Always. It’s part of what I bill the customer and no matter what city I am in, I hire a classy lady to assist by calling the local dance school and arranging to have a dancer meet me there. Why a dancer? Because they are trained to follow directions and they always know how to dress after I speak with them on the phone. Enough about that. On to the plot!
Note: These additions were placed into the overall storyboard in all three segments.

1. Assistant collects business cards of people who are attending the demonstration.

2. She notes one person to me by a secret code who has indicated they are staying for the show. The code? She always picks one wearing a tie and examines the tie by lifting it with her hand as she admires it. If it’s a woman, she admires a piece of jewelry, watch or lapel badge the same way. Basically, she touches the person somehow beyond simply taking their card. Now I know the mark.

3. She goes back to a private area behind me and uses a small, hand press that looks like a nutcracker to emboss the initials from the person’s business card onto a golf ball. We’re set.

4. During my performance, I walk around to the front of my table a few times to work the audience. As I do, she slips the ball into my right jacket pocket or places it behind the table which I had just vacated. In the incredibly small area of the typical trade show booth, that is quite easy and inconspicuous.

5. Singling out the mark, I bring them forward to assist me in the chop cup routine.

6. The final load is presented among much announced fanfare to be one that is permanently marked with the spectator’s intials.

The storyboard helped me to be able to convince the client that I was capable of impressing their customers and making their name memorable to them. Later, I developed a routine using a super lightweight mockup of their new Titanium and Carbon driver which I caused to lift from the table by turning on a fan under it. Heh. Right. They loved it!

I won’t go into the middle or end parts of the storyboard as they are exactly the same as the start but with the appropriate segments customized for your needs. Leave the ending segue unfinished so you can add it where you need it most later.

Oct 28

Hot News!

The popularity of this site has amazed me. In the past two weeks alone, there have been over 1000 hits to the site and the comments to me in e-mail have been overwhelmingly positive. So, in keeping with my altruistic desire to improve the craft of magic which we practice, I am increasing the level of participation in the study of the Dark Art of Conjuring.

I’ve created a new mailing list for those interested in discussion of the Dark Art of Conjuring. The list is for readers of this site who wish to discuss their ideas in a private environment which arrives in their mailboxes rather than having to visit a site to read the information. You may subscribe here until I delete this article: Necromancing Mailing List  or via the menu link to the left at any time.

The list will not contain any articles posted here but will be for the discussion of any aspect of the study and improvement of our collective skills in conjuring.

Oct 26

Tiger, Tiger, Before You Begin

It doesn’t take a wise man to tell you that everything has a beginning in this life. Even the tallest buidlings start out as a scrape in the dirt with a shovel. Thousands of hours later and perhaps a billion dollars later, a massive building ready to take on its assigned tasks and open its doors to the world. It’s a rare thing that doesn’t require a plan to succeed. Every now and again, an accidental happenstance becomes memorable and repeatable. It doesn’t happen often and it’s certainly not something upon which you can rely.

So, very careful planning must be made to create your memorable act from a box full of illusions that you bought from dozens of magic shops to confuse your competition. Oh, yes. Everyone does it you know. You buy the latest and greatest illusions and tricks to be one up on your competition. Whit Hayden told me once that he has been doing essentially the same act for the past 25 years. We’re on the same page on that one. I’ve been doing nearly the same act for as long as Whit. The obvious thing that goes through people’s minds when they hear that is, “Doesn’t your audience get tired of your show?” You might think so but in this case, the careful development of a full show routine and a set of segues between individual routines gives the act constant vigor and a built in renewability. I actually get customers who hire me because they like a particular routine. Most comment on how different it was from the last time they saw it. Careful routine develoment makes all the difference – literally.

Before you go off and toss your present act into the round file, I’ll make it clear that I don’t recommend everyone run out right now and take this advice of creating a show that can last 25 years. Whit will tell you the same thing as I will. It took a decade or more to actually forge the acts we do into what they are today. They work because of our trial and error, failures and successes. The constant tweaking of words, presentation, movement, timing, delivery and prop improvements didn’t happen over a slow weekend when we had nothing else to do. They were fine tuned during the hundreds or thousands of real world presentations and made into what are now signature pieces.

One odd thing I will mention here is the psychology of the viewer or the audience in magic. As a working pro, you will no doubt experience an epiphany of sorts at some time in your carreer. You will discover the real difference between a magician audience member and a lay audience member. When you do and then simultaneously discover that you cannot possibly evaluate your own show as a result, you will begin to understand the real issues with performing magic. A magician audience member looks at the technical subtlety and delivery of the performer. His ability to fool the magicain is obvious in the comments of magicians who review magic acts. “He blew my socks off!” ” He really fooled me and that’s hard to do!” A lay audience member who reviews a show will say something else. “What a great time I had!” “Everyone was having such a great time we hated for it to end!”

If you don’t see my meaning, stop reading this right now. I mean it. Go off and do something else. Go for a walk. Meet a new friend. Go fishing. Take the dog out for a walk. Take a college course. Do anything else but magic for a living.

The rest of you, pay attention. You must develop your routines in front of real audiences over a long period of time. Your basic routine will start as an idea in your mind, naturally, and work its way into a practial handling and presentation for a series of effects and you must use them in the real world on real people to see and gauge their reactions. Adjust them according the the reaction you get always striving to get the ideal reaction. Don’t try and define the ideal reaction. Watch for it and decide if getting that reaction is repeatable by doing what you did to get it the first time. As you can imagine, this is no easy job to accomplish. This is why it takes decades to fine tune a routine into one that can be performed for a lifetime. Not surprisingly, this is also why magicians don’t like seeing their routines performed by someone else.

I had originally intended to go from my last article into one on story board development. It was a good plan which I modified after I got a few e-mail messages from dedicated readers of Necromancing who needed a bit more background into basics of routine development than is available from traditional magic oriented sources. The best advice I can give at the moment is to look into books that deal with script writing or screenwriting. This really is a complex art you know. It takes a lot of work to get from learning that wonderful effect and presenting it as if it were your very own to an audience who believes it is your very own.

Oct 15

To Forum or Not?

At the moment, I have not set up a forum but would entertain the idea if enough interest was shown. There are certainly enough magic related forums out there and I would not be interested in becoming just another one. This isn’t simply vanity addressing this issue. It’s a matter of watering down the intensity of discussion on a forum that wasn’t necessary. So, comments are welcome on this one. Should I install a forum for readers?

Oct 02

It Begins Here

Some magicians like the performance of magic using comedy and some like using the dark and mysterious. Audiences like both. Don’t be fooled into believing that your desires always match those of your audiences. Always be adaptable; never predictable.

There’s a time and place for every type of magic. This site is dedicated to those who wish to cultivate a meaningful presentation or one that brings heightened levels of mystery into the performance of conjuring. Welcome.