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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