I recently found an article that I wrote while in my senior year at film school and after reading it through I thought that there might be some useful nuggets in there. Movie magic is something that I’ve heard people talk about for years, but no one has been able really give a good description of it. This was my own attempt:
As a small boy I knew exactly what I wanted to be when I grew up, just as many other children do. I wanted to be Indiana Jones. The good guy. The funny guy. The brave guy. However as children often do, I changed my mind from time to time. Eventually I had my sights set on another venture in life. I wanted to be Peter Pan, soaring through the skies, fighting pirates and just being a kid forever.
My childhood was shaped by the images that flashed before my eyes on a glowing screen about twenty inches across. There is something inherently mystical about the world of film that captures our imaginations. As children we tend to be more capable of giving ourselves to a world that doesn’t exist. We have not yet entered the realm of paying for car insurance, worrying about the mortgage, or the making sure that the car is running properly.
When we grow older, films can become something completely different. They can function as escapist, educational, or simply as background noise while we rest our eyes after a long day at work. What do most children have to escape from? We do not yet have all of the responsibilities of the world laid upon our shoulders when we are young. Films mean something else to us at that age. They possess a quality which I will refer to as movie magic.
When we grow older, films can become something completely different. They can function as escapist, educational, or simply as background noise while we rest our eyes after a long day at work.What do most children have to escape from? We do not yet have all of the responsibilities of the world laid upon our shoulders when we are young. Films mean something else to us at that age. They possess a quality which I will refer to as movie magic.
Magic is a very broad idea and a word used to categorize things that are not easily categorized or explained. It can be applied to a rabbit instantaneously appearing from an empty hat, a torrent of rain in the middle of a drought, or even the way a girl you fancy looks back at you and smiles. I would argue that one of the most important aspects to making a film work is including an element of magic. It occurs when we connect with the audience not just on an emotional level, but even deeper than that.
Movie magic succeeds at the point when the viewer gets that tingle in the pit of their stomach. Their whole body is connected to something in the film at that particular moment, be it a character, a setting, or a situation. At the point when they become a part of the film, no matter how fantastic or outlandish it may be, this is when we have the audience. It’s not enough to make an audience believe in your world, you have to make them WANT to believe it.
Magic can be seen in stories spanning across cultures and millenia. From the tales of Heracles to the poetry of King Arthur and even to graphic novels of today, we have never lost touch with our yearning for that little something more. We want more than what we have, and it’s not just out of greed. As a species we are drawn to mystery, to things that do not have a tangible or easily found explanation. Since the very beginning humans have been telling stories as a means of sharing information but also to exercise that part of our brains called the imagination. It is not something to be taken lightly.
Without the use of imagination we would not have the wonders of technology that we have today. Imaginations are fueled by things that are not, yet could be. “Imagine if we could fly!” “Imagine if we were on another planet!” It is the pairing of imagination with ingenuity that allows us to advance. As children we seem to be more in tune with our imagination than later on in life. To imagine is simply to accept something magical as possibility.
I emphasize the accessibility of magic to youthful minds as a key factor to consider when constructing films for a specific reason. It is first the film maker’s duty to determine what type of film they wish to create and what sort of connection, if any, they desire to share with their audience. If the hope is that the viewer will connect deeply to the material, then my advice would be to keep in mind the thought process of a child. This doesn’t mean telling a story more simply or dumbing it down so that your local second grader can follow along. It means looking at your film with a certain naivete or innocence.
As children we see adult characters and we want to be them. They have power, which is something children do not generally possess. As adults we see childlike characters and we want to be them. Here it is the purity and carefree lifestyles we long for again. It is a certain nostalgia that we can experience, where we remember exactly what it was like to have our entire future ahead of us. Not caring how we would get there, but nonetheless knowing that it was completely within our grasp.
For myself, the element of magic tends to have a supernatural touch. A photograph that flutters in the breeze and seemingly has a will of its own. Pixie dust that allows anyone it touches to fly. Things that cannot easily be seen in the world on our side of the glowing screen. The realms of fantasy and science fiction tend to make the magic more apparent to us as an audience. We may even use the word “magic” in these films to rationalize what is happening. But magic can come in all shapes and sizes. The moment when the underdog sports team overcomes the odds and wins the championship. The moment when the main character finds out that his struggles and actions actually did make a difference.
The magic is a connection. Whether it be between people, places, or moments, it is that point when the audience accepts your world and wants to play along. To give up and give in to what you have created. Not every movie requires it, and certainly not every scene, but the magic is a thread which weaves throughout the course of our cinematic journey. It is the building block upon which the entire story may stand and a little bit goes a long way.