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The Brainstorm Session 2

THE BRAINSTORM:  Sub-Trunk Revolution.

By Lawrence Larouche

Greetings once again from the FactoryFantastic where we do our best to challenge the status quo.  This installment revolves around one of the most popular and perhaps overdone tricks in the magician’s arsenal… The Sub-Trunk or Metamorphosis.  Invented by John Nevil Maskelyne, this illusion is more often associated with escape artist Harry Houdini who used to perform it with his wife Bess in the early 1900’s.  There have been some wonderful variations of this illusion throughout the years including Excalibur by Alan Wakeling, where several swords are inserted around the captive to hold them in place, and Aquarian (also created by Alan Wakeling) performed by Mark Wilson where a glass tank is filled up with water and a bikini clad assistant is locked inside.  One of the most impressive renditions of this effect is The Pendragons version, which is performed with such speed that it comes as close to real magic as you can get.  If you have just arrived from another planet and you haven’t seen this marvel, check it out on Youtube! Canada’s own  Greg Frewin has also created a very unique rendition of the metamorphosis employing several methods that lead up to a very distinctive transformation.

You may have noticed the appearance of a new version that has come on the market called ‘Suspended Animation’ where an assistant is placed in a plexi-glass box balanced on the top of a pedestal. A curtain is still used to conceal the switch, which is usually quite fast.  It seems like everyone is concentrating on the speed of the switch rather than the magical aspects of the transformation itself.  I will step out on a limb and suggest that our infatuation with the speed of execution has distracted us from using our imaginations. Lets take our wooden crates, hoops and curtains and put them aside and take a deep cleansing breath and prepare to rethink this trick.




In 1992 I began working on my own contribution to this effect.  I didn’t have any problems with the over-all presentation of the standard trick however I opted to go without the whole examination process. Those who want to believe will believe, and those who think there is a trap door, will always think there is a trap door… even if there isn’t.  I decided to concentrate on the visual presentation, building a sub-trunk that would stand out amongst the endless collection of wooden crates. Isn’t that what we should all strive for as performers? “Make it your own.” Consider these last four words as the Brainstorm’s official mantra! If we see something out there that we would like to incorporate into our act, we do not steal it!  We isolate what we like about it and find a way to reinvent it and make it our own.   Even when it comes to the Sub-Trunk there are infinite choices that we can make to personalize it.  Here is a video of our Dragon Cage Metamorphosis.

   Lets explore some other possibilities; after all, the area of containment does not always have to be a crate or box. What if we went in another direction?  What if your assistant sat down on top of a typical restaurant table and was covered in a red cloth. The magician waves his hand skyward and a cascade of wine glasses float down and stack up around the seated assistant.




A sheet of plexi-glass is then laid atop of the four walls and finally a lighted candelabra is placed on the top. The magician then pulls a purple cloth off another table and leaps up onto a chair.  He throws a glance at the stack of glasses that entombs his assistant and suddenly throws the cloth up in front of his body in typical fashion.   The cloth does not fall downward but instead changes from purple to red.  Beneath the glasses the red cloth turns to purple.  The red cloth is lowered to reveal the assistant standing on top of the chair.  Perhaps she could have a wine glass in her hand from which she could take a sip.  She jumps down onto the floor and walks over to the stack of glasses and removes the candelabra. If these glasses are plastic she could reach for one key support glass and pull it out, causing the collapse of all other glasses.  The purple cloth slowly rises from the surrounding debris of plastic glasses and is whipped away to reveal the magician. 

  Now… I suppose you are asking how we would achieve this miracle. Unfortunately I am not here to show you how to achieve these magical marvels, (although I can think of two or three different methods involving mirrors, springs, fishing-line and a whole lot of practice) I am writing this column to encourage creativity.


 Lets try another one.  How about locking your assistant in a block of ice and using a snowstorm to cover the switch.




You bring out, what looks like a hollowed-out block of ice. The assistant is wrapped in a fur cloth and placed inside the ice-cube.  A thick slab of ice is placed on top of the cube and is locked in place with a collection of icicles. This could make a beautiful image if lights were placed under the ice-cube.  Now if you want to do things in the traditional way, you can jump up onto the ice-cube and perform a snowstorm. The challenge would be create enough snow to cover the switch.  Perhaps you could have an archway of ice and snow over the performance area which can hide a separate delivery system for the additional snow. This method seems risky, but you could combine it with another masking element, such as ‘snow-rings’ that come down in 6-inch segments and stack up on top of each other until the magician is totally encased. As the Final ring settles on the magicians head, all the rings split apart to reveal the previously imprisoned assistant. 

  Many years ago, while walking through a museum in Mexico, I came up with an idea to perform a sub-trunk in an art gallery setting. I imagined the magician locking the assistant in the trunk and walking over to a life-size painting of the assistant.  He takes the painting off the wall and brings it in front of himself as though he were examining it.  The back of the painting is now facing the audience, obscuring him from view.  After a second the painting is turned around to reveal the assistant now looking at a painting of the magician.  This switch could be greatly enhanced by executing it somewhere other than on top of the trunk. This method is not without it’s drawbacks most of which involve angle issues. But with a little ingenuity and imagination a solution can be found.

  Perhaps one more idea before I wrap things up.  As I was going through my catalog of ideas and I came across some old drawings of a sub-trunk concept which ended with the production of a giant fish tank filled with water and fish and of course a very wet magician. It was achieved with a large, modified  double tip- trunk. I have always wanted to combine a Tip Over Trunk with a Sub-Trunk. This could be an interesting way to add a kicker ending with a production of additional characters. There are changes that will have to be made to the inner box in order to make it work but nothing that is insurmountable.


 The magician introduces the trunk which sits on a rolling table.

While the magician reveals the various aspects of the "Double Tip Over Sub-Trunk"...the stage hands lock up the lovely assistant in a metal framework reminiscent of the restraining contraption in the movie Silence Of The Lambs

The magician demonstrates the electrified surface of the smaller box by poking it with a metal rod resulting in a shower of sparks.

He then rotates the box and folds down the sides of the outer box which is covered in tiny spikes.  A balloon is dropped onto the spikes which pops.

The assistant is suspended in the smaller box which is folded into the larger box.

After locking up the boxes, the magician runs across the stage and jumps up onto a separate platform which has a classic plunger box sitting on top of it.  The magician pushes down on the plunger which is supposed to blow up the box but instead starts a spark that move along the wire towards his platform. 

As the spark moves closer to the platform, the magician lifts up the shield which eventually covers him up.

After an explosion, the shield splits apart to reveal the lovely assistant.  She jumps down and runs across the stage and climbs on top of the box.

She stops her foot which triggers the side of the box to fall open revealing a tank of water populated by lots of different fish and the magician is on the bottom surrounded in seaweed. 

This would be a highly impractical prop to transport but I do love the idea of producing a giant fish tank at the end of the presentation.  I did build the "Shifting" Double Tip-Over Trunk for a different production trick.  I remember it being really complicated.  The advantage of the design is that you can fold down the outer box and show that there is nothing hiding.

Anyway... Coming up with ideas is easy. Having the resources to achieve these miracles can be the real challenge. Not everyone can afford to have a professional illusion builder deliver their creations to their front door. Designing illusions that are within our means can be both frustrating and enlightening.  If you can get past the frustration of not being able to fulfill the original plan, sometimes the alternative solutions can turn out to be brilliant.  

  I look forward to seeing if anyone takes on some of these challenging concepts.   

  Until next time, open your mind to alternative ideas and embrace the challenge of keeping our beloved art form alive and evolving well into the 21st century.



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The Brainstorm Sessions

the following article is one of a series that I originally wrote for the Northern Peaks Magic Magazine which was distributed to members of the Canadian Association of Magicians.  My intension was to inspire the next generation of magicians to come up with some new ideas.  As a result I occasionally touched upon aspects of methodology that shouldn't be made available to the general public, So I have decided to render these questionable sentences unreadable. please enjoy your glimpse behind the curtain of mystery and know that magicians are always hard at work trying to come up with new ways to amaze you.

Welcome to the first installment of The Brainstorm Sessions.  For almost thirty years I have been performing and building illusions for both my fellow magicians and myself.  During this time I have accumulated a mountain of artwork revolving around objects of wonder and amazement.  The walls of my office abound with sketches and photographs of magical props and concepts waiting to be lifted off the page and thrust into the spotlight.  

In an attempt to help magicians develop and build their own illusions, I have opened the doors of my Factory Fantastic.  Within the walls of this somewhat eccentric studio, my guest magicians sit and discuss infinite possibilities. We watch videos, examine photographs, scan books and magazines and eventually produce several sketches.  Choices are made and a plan is set into motion, the end result being the creation of a unique illusion that is an extension of their personality. Every magician should aspire to have his or her own look and a trademark personality.  Consider magicians such as Jeff McBride, Rudy Coby, Criss Angel or Lance Burton. 

Each one of these magicians has a completely different persona.  Their props are an extension of that personality.  Jeff’s props are born from a world of mysticism and ritual, Rudy Coby’s look like they were pulled out of the pages of a comic book, Criss Angel manipulates the elements of the urban jungle, Lance surrounds himself with a combination of early Victorian, contemporary gothic and beyond.  In the hands of these capable performers, even the standard collection of effects become unique. They make the illusions their own!  

Whether you get your illusion ideas while watching another magician or from one of the many illusion books circulating within the magic community, you should always consider what you see as merely… a good starting point. It is how you reinterpret the effect that can help define you as a performer.  Even when considering the most standard of magical props such as the Sub-Trunk or Cutting A lady In Two or even a simple Sword Basket… there are always twists and turns you can employ to help your illusion stand out amongst the ocean of standard boxes. I affectionately refer to this creative process as “MAJINXIMIZING” an illusion!  I always ask myself ‘how can I make this illusion more interesting to watch?’.  Expanding the magical aspects of the prop by incorporating additional mechanical abilities or combining concepts and methods to create something totally unique. 

Lets take for example, the classic Harbin Zig Zag illusion.  I have always wanted to replace the front panels of the illusion with white plexi-glass. The holes would be in the same place as the original. After the assistant settles into position, a light would be turned on within the cabnet. The front door would be illuminated revealing the silhouette of the assistant on the surface of the plexi-glass. I always thought that this added feature would enhance the convincing elements of this already ingenious creation. I’ve never owned a Zig-Zag illusion myself but I hope to get a chance to employ this added feature sometime in the near future.  I do have a Cut In Two in the show and what we call The Splicer Machine was indeed an interesting creative journey.

By 1992 my wife and I had been performing for several years and we ended our show with an effect we called The Hypnotic Brick.  The presentation began with me placing Cynthia into a hypnotic trance rendering her incapable of moving or more specifically… bending.  I would lift her body and perch it between two steel pillars, one under her feet and the other under her head and shoulders.   A cement block was placed on her stomach and three knives under her back. I then proceeded to take a sledgehammer and smash the block into pieces. As many of you in the trade may be aware, this is more of a demonstration of physics than it is of “magic”. So I decided to expand the presentation to include cutting her in half.  In my own mind the logic was sound.  I hypnotize my lovely assistant and prove to the audience that she cannot move by smashing a brick on her stomach. I then take it one big step further and cut her in half.

After examining the technical drawings of the “Thin Model Sawing” I realized that there were going to have to be a lot of changes made to the structure if it was going to work for our presentation.   In the end the only thing that I kept from the original design was the method of body positioning. Everything else had to change.

The first challenge was the fact that Cynthia was already stretched out between two pillars.  That meant that the box was going to have to come down over her and basically wrap around her body.  The ever-popular bevel base would have to go and in its place I designed two supporting arms, which stretch out along the bottom of each box. These arms held the boxes ready on either side of the pillars.

After the smashing of the brick,  I would tilt the boxes down over Cynthia. Once the boxes were in place, the doors would have to be closed under the body.  At first, this proved to be mechanically clumsy but eventually worked itself out.   The box itself was a little thicker than the thin model version however the entire front side of the box opened towards the audience revealing much more of the body.  I found this to be more convincing than the two little windows on the traditional thin model.  It also meant that I didn’t have to worry about people watching from the side or even from behind. 

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The one obvious feature that made The Splicer Machine unique was the method of separation.  Instead of simply pulling the body apart on the horizontal plane, the body opened up like a draw bridge. Cynthia’s head and torso tilted upward resulting in her being upside down and her legs tilted in the opposite direction leaving them hanging in an upright position. The image was quite striking and became the single most remembered aspect of the effect.  The Splicer Machine became one of our signature pieces and throughout the years I made several modifications making it more compact and easier to perform. The first version needed two additional assistants to maneuver around the stage.  It looked like a menacing monster.

Ironically there were several complaints that the smashing of the brick portion of the effect was too violent so we eventually eliminated it from the presentation and simply cut Cynthia in half. By eliminating the “hypnotic–brick” portion I was able to make changes to the physical structure allowing me to perform the illusion without additional help.   

Throughout the years I have often thought about expanding on the routine taking a more comical route.  Inspired by the spare wheel in my car, I thought it would be funny to have something happen to the legs.  They could fall through the stage floor or the box could spontaneously develop a mind of its own and zoom off into the wings taking the legs with it.  I would stand there for a moment somewhat dumbfounded, then sheepishly wander over to a cabinet and pull out a large suitcase with the word EMERGENCY painted across it’s cover. I would quickly lay it on the stage beside Cynthia’s torso and opens the lid.  Taking crowbar out of the case I would insert it into the side of the suitcase and starts cranking it up and down.  Suddenly a set of metal legs start rising out of the case and works their way up until they reached the waiting body.  I would connect the legs to the box frame containing Cynthia’s upper half of Cynthia and cautiously stands back.  The box is opened and Cynthia steps onto her new legs suddenly realizing what has happened.  Infuriated she stomps off the stage in search of her own legs.  

Great imaginations have come up with some wonderful versions of the cut in two illusion, but if I had to pick one that really stands out as the perfect story it would have to be The Death Saw created by Don Wayne for David Copperfield.  If for some reason you haven’t seen this jewel, look it up on youtube.  It’s perfect.  Every questionable element is cleverly concealed within the fabric of the story. ███ ████████ ██ ██████ ███████ ████ █ ██████ █████ ███ ████ ████ ██ █████████ ██ ██████████ ███ ██████ ██ ███████████ ██ ███ ████ ██ ██ ████████  ████ ██ █████ ███ ██████████ █████ ████ █████  ██████ ██ ████ █ ███████ ██████ ███ █████████ ██ ██ ██████ ███████ ███ ████ ██ ██ ███ ██ ████ ███ ███ █████████  █ ████ ████ ██████ ████ ███ ███████ ██ █ █████████ ██ ███ ███████ ██ ██ █ ████ ████ ███ ████ █ ████████ ███████ Perhaps knowing why you are cutting your assistant in two will provide a solution.  Are you bisecting her to find something lost inside or perhaps you are trying to create two girls out of one or maybe the assistant is a robot that needs repairs. Maybe you were supposed to be stretching her and she accidentally snaps in two.  All these scenarios involve special costumes and props that can act as temporary masking to conceal the preparation.  If you have a large cast of characters you can have the assistant lifted into the air by a group of dancers who carry her across the stage and lower her onto the table that is hidden by the dancer’s bodies.  A moment later they separate to reveal the assistant stretched out on the table, locked in restraints.  However not every magician can afford a cast of that size, in fact some magicians work alone. For these lone performers there are some very clever methods of “self-division”.

Andrew Mayne has a couple of clever methods: one called Bisection and a new one called In Half.  Both of these illusions are very affordable for the young up and coming magicians and I feel they leave plenty of room for expansion. Check them out on his website.  As I watched The Bisection video I couldn’t help but wonder if this illusion was the spark of inspiration for the David Copperfield “Laser” illusion.  It was originally called Man Apart and was created by Steve Fearson who sold the exclusive rights of this illusion to Mr. Copperfield for an undisclosed amount. Not an illusion to be performed in the round but a very interesting illusion nonetheless. You can see both Copperfield’s version of this illusion and the ususal parade of terrible attempts to copy this illusion on youtube. 

If you are willing to make a slightly more significant investment, there is a modified version of Modern Art called ‘Modern Art Reloaded.’ This is an illusion produced by Pro-Magic made available with Jim Stienmyer’s permission. It’s a very effective “do it to yourself” illusion where the magician has total control of the apparatus. I think it’s a great reinvention of an already very clever trick.

I wonder what the future holds for this classic effect. I myself have over a dozen different concepts for the dismemberment of the human body. As I find myself nearing the end of my performing career, I prepare to pass on these wonderful concepts to the next generation who will have their work cut out for them. Competing with the visual splendor of today’s film industry where all miracles can be achieved by the diligent work of CGI artists. Perhaps we should prepare to put more effort into the story leading up to the illusion. Try to make what is happening on stage as important as how it is happening. What I mean by this is to create a really intriguing scenario that engages the audience’s imagination so much, that they almost forget to ask how it is being done. When I suggest that we push the envelope,  I mean more than just painting the box a different color. I mean change it’s shape, take it apart and put it together in a new way. Find a way to hide the box or even get rid of it altogether.

In the next installment we will continue to throw more ideas into the pot and stir them around and see what we can come up with.  If you have anything to share you can contact me through my website www.majinx.com or email me at lawrence@majinx.com 

Until next time remember to ask yourself how many impossible things have you believed in lately?

Lawrence / AKA Professor Wick