• Nicholas J. Johnson

The magician I hate most in the world

I don't like being negative about other magicians, particularly those who've also dedicated their careers to science and critical thinking.


But I hate magician, Dr Matt Pritchard.


Matt is a physicist and science magician whose YouTube optical illusions have officially broken my brain.


I have no idea how he is achieving these optical effects and it's filling me with rage.


Matt performs these illusions without the help of CGI, camera tricks, or sneaking backstage assistants.


In the Mystery of The Spheres, he makes dozens of colourful balls appear under a helmet. But how? Does it make use of the refractive index of water? Are there mirrors involved? Or is the water-filled vase just misdirection?



I thought I knew where the ball was in Can You Keep Track Of The Ball? until he showed a second video recorded from the side:



But the Amazing LEGO Elephant Vanish is what has me really stumped. Matt has personally assured me that there are no hidden air blasters or retractable pullies. But, even so, the LEGO elephant vanishes from the table in less than a second.



I am completely stumped. I've applied every magician's method and technique to the tricks and keep coming up short. But perhaps that is that problem, I'm only using the methods I already know, rather than trying to create brand new ones.


This cognitive bias—the urge to solve problems with skills and tools you already have—is called Maslow's Hammer:

"I suppose it is tempting, if the only tool you have is a hammer, to treat everything as if it were a nail."

As a professional magician, I'm biased towards solving these illusions using the tools at my disposal instead of thinking outside the box (which I was certain had mirrors in it)


So I'm throwing it over to you. If you can help me solve the mystery of the vanishing elephant, I'll give you a copy of Champions of Illusion, my favourite book of optical illusions.


Please...help!


You can find out more about the psychology and neuroscience of illusion with Deceptology


EDIT: Matt has been kind enough to respond to this post. Here are his comments in full"


I think you hit the nail on the head there with Maslow.


One of the things that (I believe) makes the illusions so deceptive is they’re made away from the familiar context. Is what I’m doing grand illusion scale down in size or close-up magic with a stage show presentation? Each domain has its own set of tools and techniques that an expert is familiar with (and therefore deconstruct). By working in the overlap, I can draw ideas from both sides which can throw the expert off balance or lead them down false routes.


At times it feels like playing a game of intellectual judo and using the opponent’s strength and speed against them. One major advantage I have with crossing domains is often a weakness in one will disappear. For instance, if you were to film some of these effects on a stage it would cost tens of thousands of dollars to stage.


The size of the props, the number of people required, and the cost of resetting with each failed attempt. I can film the same effect 40 times in an evening but to do that at full scale would be a week’s work. Plus, some effects wouldn’t be physically practical at a larger size due to strength or weight considerations. The other thing that I think causes magicians to be fooled by the videos is they will often feature a scientific principle or a material that I don’t believe has been used in magic before.


The mix of old & new techniques used out of context creates difficulty in deconstructing. I stumbled into creating these videos by accident. When the pandemic lockdown hit, my work as a performer and presenter vanished overnight. Alone in my office, with none of my usual creative outlets, I started making optical illusions.


I enjoyed the mindfulness of slowly crafting the props, the creative challenge of making from a limited supply of tools & materials, and the learning that came from working in the new medium of film. I also slowly gathered a community of supporters from across the globe who enjoyed the videos but importantly gave critical feedback. It became a cat and mouse game with each new video I corrected and subverted the flaws from the previous round.


Each new wave of critical attacks (done with good humour and intentions) only served to accelerate the development. I learnt so much from other specialisms too. For example, CGI artists who create their own deceptive realities from code rather than cardboard proved to be excellent observers in my world too. Early on I set myself some ‘rules’ to follow when creating new pieces. “No camera trickery, sneaky editing or hidden help.” These ‘'rules', especially the camera trickery one, could be interpreted in different ways. The way I would justify my interpretation is “can this effect be viewed live in a theatre?”


These constraints, as much as I despise them when things don’t work, has forced me down routes I’d never have gone down if I’d taken the easier path. The latest video with the Bermuda triangle was one of the multiple setbacks and maybe a night I wished I could secretly recruit my wife to be behind the scenes to give some more freedom.


I’m glad I didn’t succumb to the temptation though.