Inspiration From The Unexpected

Technoillusionist Marco Tempest spoke at Ted@Cannes and showed advertisers that they can still make magic, even in an age of full disclosure, transparency, and disruptive technological progress.


When Marco Tempest was a teen in Zurich in the 1980s, he wrote a letter to Steve Jobs asking for one of the shiny new boxes that he was selling at the time. He recalled the letter on Tuesday as he spoke to an audience of advertising industry professionals at the 60th International Festival of Creativity—the Cannes Lions.


“How about,” he recalls asking Jobs, “the NeXT wave of magic?”

One day, to his surprise, Tempest received the shiny new box. With the coveted NeXT machine in his possession, he started to prepare the promised magic show. But as he worked, he realized that the amazing feats of computational illusion he saw in the movies were far beyond the capabilities of the machines of the day, even ones backed by Steve Jobs. Tempest wasn’t deterred from keeping his promise, though. He used a video tape and mocked-up NeXT machine to simulate touch-screen wizardry that was still a decade away. “The theme of prototyping the future with a little trickery has followed me for a long time,” he noted.

Marco Tempest is a “technoillusionist”—a showman who combines magic and science to create illusions. It is the 21st century application of the magician’s arts, and, in keeping with the transparent and collaborative ethic by which Tempest lives, he came to Cannes to reveal the secrets of his craft, or so it seemed. Like those other great narrative magicians, Penn and Teller, Tempest reveals exactly how he is manipulating the audience’s attention, even as he leaves you gobsmacked about what he just did.

In his talk to the Cannes delegates, Tempest revealed what he sees as the elements of magic. Such insight, he said, doesn’t reduce the wonder of seeing the magic in action. While few people can match his magical skills, everyone can learn from the style of storytelling embedded in the elements of magic.

Here are the three points he made to attendees:

Click to enlarge

Element 1: Early Adoption of Technology

Arthur C. Clarke wrote that “any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” That was certainly true in ancient times, Tempest said, when temple-goers were wowed by ghostly music, spontaneous flames, or seemingly divine movement. While the supplicants may have thought it the magic of the gods, it was nothing more than the high-tech of its day: hydraulics, pneumatics, and chemistry. While magic as entertainment may have more recent roots, it has always maintained its close link to science.

Magicians are, in Tempest’s words, “the original early-adopters.” He’s taken that one step further: he not only draws on new technology but invents it as well.

Element 2: Psychology

While magicians may dabble in physics, chemistry, and optics, they depend on psychology. Magicians are thought of as masters of sleight-of-hand, but Tempest believes that his work doesn’t rely on deceiving the eye. It’s the brain that gets fooled. “Magicians,” he said, “know that the brain can be lazy. The brain looks for patterns in the environment and assumes that the things it sees now are exactly the same as the things it has seen before.” The magician takes advantage of this by making use of familiar props, words, and actions. Of course, this smear of the ordinary distracts the viewer from the deception going on.

Take the famous Prince’s Card Trick, which Tempest updated to the 21st century by using giant cards projected behind him. In this trick, the magician asks you to select a card from four that he offers. After a quick shuffle, one card is taken away. The magician invariably removes the card you picked. But, as Tempest pointed out, a principle called “change blindness” (which is exactly what it sounds like) is at work. You’ll never find your card at the end of the trick because all three cards shown in the second round are new. They’re just so similar to the first batch that you don’t notice the change.

Of course, Tempest didn’t reveal his method on stage. Magicians have to keep their secrets, after all.


Element 3: A Secret Collaboration

Magic, like all arts, uses an “imitation of reality [that] is meant to evoke emotions or memories of the genuine article,” Tempest explained. But the secrecy surrounding magic is what separates it from the other arts. A painting isn’t any less beautiful because you know how perspective works. But once you know the secret to a trick, it looses its power to amaze.

Tempest believes in a wider definition of magic. He aspires to create magical experiences, transporting us just as great theater, great art, and great music do. Collaboration, not secrecy, is the way to give audiences an incredible experience. Tempest brings in new tools and new ideas, cajoling companies to let him play with their shiny new toys.

That allows him to make his illusions even more confounding. Returning to where he began with his NeXT machine, Tempest makes illusions that help the audience “visualize the future through advanced technology.” The future, he said, equals the present, plus a little magic. Inverting Arthur C. Clarke, Tempest concluded, “Sometimes a well-performed piece of magic can look like a piece of advanced technology.” The science will catch up to the magic, but we need the magician to help us prototype the future—to make his illusion into our reality.

Jeremy Katz is Worldwide Editorial Director of Ogilvy & Mather.