David Coppefield - The Exposive Encounter
The Exposive Encounter.
That's the first David Copperfield television special that I saw. And, this was a great time to get into David Copperfield, because The Explosive Encounter was really the first superstar special (continuing the transition that started with The Bermuda Triangle.) The show lived up to its name; the entire production exploded. The lighting was better. The music was better. The theater and theatre were better. This special, and the next few specials set the bar for my perception of magic—right when I was getting started.
Yes, The Statue of Liberty put David Copperfield on the radar, so to speak, but the Bermuda Triangle and The Explosive Encounter branded him as the preemminent Illusionist of our time. More importantly, he followed through on this title with absolutely magnificent television specials including Niagara Falls, Orient Express, Flying, and Fires of Passion. And, he topped it all off with the Greatest Hits special: 15 Years of Magic.
With these specials, David Copperfield entered into a very exclusive club, one that also has Robert-Houdin and Houdini as members. Each of these did something with their magic that was inimitable, or at least unable to be successfully duplicated. They all presented something that was in perfect harmony with cultural style, social sophistication, and the technology of the day.
David Copperfield owned the era of theatrical grand illusion.
He had the best touring theater show and presented the best magic that television had ever seen. And he was a tremendous showman throughout it all. In fact, you can probably illustrate any showmanship lesson with one illusion from a David Copperfield show. This isn't accidental. David and his team put in an incredible amount of effort into the show—far beyond what anyone would think.
I remember seeing his rehearsal in Dallas before the evening show. I arrived with a friend of mine who was working for High End Systems at the time, so when they cleared the theater, we told them we were part of the lighting crew. He was working on a vanish that happens over the heads of the audience at the time. I won't reveal any illusion secrets, but the real secrets were found in witnessing the level of detail with which each illusion is examined and rehearsed. It is phenomenal. It is a continual striving for perfection.
I'll give you another example from the show that very evening. There is a great elevator appearance that Copperfield performs. As it happened, that night one of the shades that cover the side of the elevator jammed, leaving one side of the illusion completely exposed. By the time anyone could even begin to notice this, an assistant had calmly stepped out, tapped the side of the illusion causing a backup non-motorized shade to fall instantly over the exposed side. Moments later, David appeared from the elevator as if nothing had gone awry.
And then it hit me—nothing went wrong! Sure, something got jammed, but this had been expected, planned for, and rehearsed. The response to the situation was so smooth that I was probably one of the only ones who even noticed anything was different. It was one of the most valuable lessons in professional performance that I've received. Brainstorm everything that can go wrong; construct solutions, and rehearse them so that when you need to use them, you can do so instantly and seamlessly such that the audience never knows anything went wrong. Apparently, a lot of stage magicians have yet to get this memo.
The assistants in Copperfield's shows are probably underappreciated by everyone in the audience, but there's one person that appreciates them tremendously, and that's David himself. Not only for performing their role in the above example and similar situations, but for their incredible talent to be either visible or invisible, as needed. There can be six assistants on stage, and your attention will still be on David Copperfield if that's what the desired result is. But, if the illusion calls for the assistant to receive attention, it's like they magically appear out of thin air and capture your attention. What a powerful tool this is! Contrast this with the assistants you see in other stage shows who distract the audience by trying to take attention when the audience should be focused on the performer but can barely hold the attention of the audience when the magician actually needs them to.
For the women who share the stage with David, I wouldn't categorize them as assistants, per se. They are a fantastic combination of dancer, assistant, and actor—and I've never seen any other magician with a supporting cast that even appraoches this calibre. If you want to be reminded of this, go have a look at The Brazilian Water Levitation from The Orient Express TV Special. The choreography is full of dramatic tension and sensuality, consistent with Copperfield's performing style. There is a story being told, and if the magic was removed from this whole piece, it's a story you'd still want to see. That's one of the real secrets.
This particular illusion provides an easy segue into matters of lighting, staging, and music. As someone who spent a little time touring as a lighting designer, I love great lighting, and Copperfield shows never disappoint. Watch the end of any illusion and pay attention to the lighting. You'll see how the timing and focus of each fixture help frame the moment and direct the attention of the audience. Similarly, if you watch the opening of each illusion, you'll see how lighting sets the tone for the entire piece. Lighting manipulates energy. A strong moment will be made stronger with proper lighting; an upbeat routine will feel more energetic; a slow and dramatic routine will feel more emotional. Of course, proper lighting is abolutely necessary in certain illusions, but that goes without saying. To name a few examples of great lighting that come to mind, have a look at Cocoon, The Death Saw, and The Fan.
A close relative of lighting is staging and set design. It's also another element that has a profound effect but is rarely consciously noticed by many viewers. For example, in the elevator appearance, Heaven on the Seventh Floor, you'll notice there is an urban backdrop behind the illusion. This helps that small elevator fill the entire stage, and engages the audience exponentially more than having an illusion sit on stage by itself in front of a uninteresting solid color curtain. David Copperfield didn't stop with great set design, though. Many of the illusions seem to move by themselves. Some of them open and close, others will faciliate movement, and some of the large illusions will even rotate on stage. This is quite magical in and of itself and further illustrates the amount of thought that David Copperfield and his team put into each and every piece. Go have a look at The Unexplained Forces television special. It is particulary good about color, set design, and other elements of staging.
After all, the stage is all but dead without good lighting and set design.
There are three ways to fill a stage: with sets, energy, or both. How many magicians save up for that one illusion so they can call themselves an illusionist, but do nothing about lighting or setting the stage up properly? Then, they wonder why they don't get the response they were hoping for. You may not be able to get the illusions to rotate on stage, but I'm going to suggest that an illusion is not ready for the stage without proper lighting and staging, at least.
Turning to music, I could sing the praises David Copperfield's musical choices for some long-yet-unspecified amount of time. Besides being appropriate for David's character as a modern magician, they were also really good songs. As a kid, I wasn't exposed to a lot of popular music, so watching DC specials on TV actually helped expand my musical horizons. I think I joined Columbia House just to get a few CD's by Peter Gabriel, Phil Collins, and Johnny Clegg & Savuka. (Incidentally, I think I still owe Columbia House two CD purchases at the regular price.)
Moving on, The Brazilian Water Levitation mentioned earlier is a terrific example of music compilmenting the performance. Besides being tribal and sensual and fitting with the theme, the song provides these interesting moments that can be capitalized on, like when the torches suddenly burn brighter as the music hits a powerful note. Watch the Floating Rose, and notice how the performance itself has its own intro, verse, and chorus that flows with the music. In other words, the magic and music blend into a seamless composition. Look at Origami and see how the slow drama completely reverses the standard presentation of the illusion, and makes it resonate with the spectators. He's not just folding her up into a little box. She's lost to him and beyond reach, yet he's magically able to reunite with her, transformed.
These examples all illustrate that the music wasn't made to fit the magic, or vice versa, but a lot of time was invested into finding magic and music that naturally fit together. Contrast this with the canned royalty-free music that other illusionists use. Well, at least it's consistent with their ridiculous costumes.
This essay wouldn't be complete without speaking to technique. There is a reason that magicians from all over the world made sure to see every David Copperfield television special, and that's because the technique was so much greater than what you could find anywhere else in magic. While David wanted the average home viewer to be entertained and amazed, I think he also wanted magicians to be scratching their heads after seeing the performances; therefore, additional time and energy was spent to ensure that it was not only entertaining, but also the best magical technique that could be achieved. This isn't the case with some of the other television magicians. Their technique is either standard faire or transparent, and while it could be said to be entertaining to those who watch, the demographic is significantly narrowed.
Copperfield's demographic is everyone.
I'm writing all this to share with you my appreciation of David Copperfield as an illusionist, as a person, and as an artist. (And, I don't use that term loosely.) Sure, he has plenty of people who tell him he's great all the time, but I believe it means something to have someone take the time to understand how much effort is involved in so many areas and share why they appreciate what you do. I'm also aware that some magicians aren't big fans of having big fans who are also magicians, but it would be dishonest of me to downplay the role of David Copperfield in shaping my views of magic and showmanship. And I believe that if more people understood why David has achieved such tremendous success in magic, we'd have fewer people going out there and harming the perception of magic with their blissful ignorance.
There are two other things worth mentioning. Firstly, there are at least three people who have played significant roles in furthering the success and shaping the image of David Copperfield. Joanie Spina almost goes without saying. She was heavily involved in the superstar image that emerged around The Bermuda Triangle/Explosive Encounter years and helped maintain this image throughout the 90's. The second is Homer Liwag, who is often found behind the scenes, helping to create something great for the show. If it's related to video, design, or any form of multimedia, there's a strong possibility that Homer deserves the credit. Finally, there's Chris Kenner, who also joined David Copperfield on his rise to super stardom and helped keep David Coppefield at the top. Chris does so much for the production that you wonder how he gets any sleep—until you learn that he doesn't get any sleep. After all, he's the one that takes the calls that come in at 4am. I look at what I've learned from just watching David Copperfield specials, and I can only imagine how much more Chris Kenner knows from experiencing it all. And, he's happy to candidly share his experience with anyone who asks.*
Finally, there's David Copperfield as a person. He is an engaging storyteller and can be quite warm, personable, and generous with his time. He takes countless people on tours of his warehouse every year, appears at various conventions of magicians, and takes time out to meet members of his audience after each show. Not to mention, he also stays involved with Project Magic, which aims to help patients rehabilitate themselves by learning sleight-of-hand. Recently, we all learned that David Copperfield is also a father! Is it any wonder then that he seems more full of life, more youthful, and more energetic than ever. Congratulations and Happy Birthday, David.
I look forward to seeing what you've still got up your sleeve.
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