The true aim of magic is to mystify. The same can be said of film. You are asking the audience to step into a realm of your own creation, to be lost there, and to wonder at how you were able to bring them in that world. As Kurt Vonnegut once said, all art is a practical joke, making the audience have an emotional reaction to something that isn’t really happening. You as a filmmaker must use the very tools of mystification found in every great magician’s arsenal.
A good magician will never let you stand where he doesn’t want you to stand. Holding a break in a deck of cards, for example, can be detected from certain viewing angles and is totally obscured from others. In his brilliantly understated The Conversation, Francis Ford Coppola shows us how this technique can be transferred to film.
The film contains a scene in which two characters are meeting in a very large foyer of an ultra-modern office building. There’s just one thing: It’s not really an office building, nor is it a foyer, but you’d never know that by watching it. How is this fact kept hidden? By budgetary constraints. Unable to afford large sets for his piece, Coppola found a walkway between two buildings that just happened to be architecturally interesting. Filming in what was essentially a giant alley, he cropped the shot so that you couldn’t detect the fact that the place had no ceiling. In other words, the camera, along with the storyline, was part of the deception.
We all remember the “funny like a clown” scene in Goodfellas. First, there’s the immense tension of the scene, followed by the reveal that Joe Pesci is only joking. The tension is suddenly relieved, but Scorcese isn’t done with us. Just to keep things interesting, he pulls a neat little trick. He has Joe Pesci draw his gun in jest. Now, we already know he’s joking, so why is this scene still harrowing? Is it because we still don’t trust Joe Pesci’s character? Partially. We know now that he’s just crazy enough to start shooting up the place. But the real subtext of this aftermath is in the shot composition.
To drive the point home, Scorcese fills the frame with Pesci’s arm drawn back like an archer’s. The gun is in the upper left, and Ray Liotta is below him, cowering, in the lower right. The composition screams tension, like a tightly-wound spring that’s about to suddenly uncoil. But it never does. This is the equivalent of a great sleight of hand: staging that fools you into thinking you are going to see something that winds up never revealing itself.
For another example, watch Jack Nicholson hack his way into the bathroom in The Shining. Kubrick’s camera follows the arc of the axe; when it slams into the door, the camera does too, with a visual jolt.
These techniques all fall under the larger principle of misdirection. It is one of the most important things you can learn as a filmmaker. The idea is to make the spectator look exactly where you want them to look, but not to make them feel as if they’re being prodded. The principle can be used in storytelling too (think stolen money as misdirection-as-plot-point in Psycho). Story, dialogue, shot composition — all conspire to lead your audience by the nose before sending them downhill to roll on their own.
Magic? Most definitely.