Illusionist Franz Harary on Magic, Illusion, and Working Internationally
By Liam Klenk
Franz Harary is an illusionist of international acclaim who has done a lot of work in Asia over the last few years. His House of Magic at the Studio City casino complex in Macau was groundbreaking. As is his new project in Sanya, Hainan: Magic Stars. To quote CNN: “Franz Harary coined the term Mega Magic to describe his own electrifying brand of grand illusion, making his name synonymous with spectacular magic entertainment.”
Franz Harary’s work in magic and illusion over the last three decades is incredibly diverse and can easily fill tomes of books.
In this interview, he aims to give you a glimpse into his universe:
To understand my magic, we have to quickly go to the beginnings. I started out as a designer of illusions and effects for pop concerts. Back in the day, I worked with Michael Jackson, Madonna, and many others.
Today, I am still working in the music industry. For Usher and Missy Elliot, to name two examples.
Illusion design for the music industry was and is at the root of my work.
It was Michael Jackson who suggested to me many years ago to take everything I had learned and create my first own show. An illusion show that looked like a pop concert.
As pop culture changed over the years, so did my show.
When we began, everything was very much an 80ies look with big hair and bright colors. After several transformations in style we are, today, almost in retro tech.
When Macau came along in 2015, it was an opportunity for me to create a destination.
Rather than a linear experience, this show design was exploratory, allowing the audience to move through the stories and create their own experience.
We researched the needs and characteristics of our target audience extensively before producing and opening the show. And, we discovered that the Chinese audience prefers to be led. So, even though we did create this special immersive environment and experience for them, we still needed to devise a concept to lead them through it.
Magic happens in your mind. It’s a glitch between the right and the left side of your brain. What is most powerful is understanding how people think.
This is how my illusions are created. If I can understand how people think, then I can also control (to a small extent) what they see. And I can use their own imagination “against” them.
In Macau, we ended up with four staging areas. The space opened, tweaked, developed. In the end, it became a single experience. A single show in which the spectators went from one area to the other to enjoy different kinds of magic experiences in each respective space.
House of Magic was the first time I tried this approach in art design.
After Macau, I took everything I had learned and brought it to Sanya, Hainan.
What we have in Hainan is ‘Showtown’. An infrastructure that offers an incredible opportunity to do more than just magic. We have five buildings and, eventually, each will have its own themed experience.
Magic Stars is to date my largest project. In China, everything is bigger. Big still works. So the performance space is about four times the size I usually work with.
It is the same immersive approach, however, that we used in Macau.
The show opened on January 31st 2020. It received incredible reviews. To be honest, probably the best reviews I have ever received.
The show ran well. But, I had the odd feeling that something wasn’t right. Like a strange sense of foreboding. So, I followed my instincts and told my videographer, “Something’s not right. Shoot this first show tonight as if you’ll never be able to shoot it again. As if it is your last chance to get the best shots to present it on film.”
Right after that first show, we were getting ready for the second show of the night. We were all set.
Actually, we were even into our first lighting cue when we got word from the Chinese government that they need to freeze the show for one week effective immediately because of Covid.
Of course, it ended up taking longer than just one week.
It became clear that we needed to get our people out of the country. My team is international with people from almost all continents working together. We needed to get these people back to their homes. And, my wife and I needed to get out, too.
It was an intense emergency evacuation.
We had secured everything backstage. Until just recently, everything was frozen in time. Everything still preset for the second show of that night…
Basically, the show was in deep freeze until, after 6 months, the company said, “We can’t sustain this any longer. We need to re-open the show.” They had spent twenty million dollars on our venture and they were hurting.
But the international part of my team and I couldn’t come back, because China had locked us out due to Covid.
In the end, I had to replace almost my entire team with people I knew in Macau and China.
In addition to myself and 27 other members of my team, three of the original American magicians featured in the show also weren’t able to enter China.
I needed to replace them with magicians who were already in the country. My part as the illusionist was taken over by my Taiwanese illusion director and videographer Marky (LeeYin Wu).
He had documented the entire production process. He knew the show in and out because he had shot it.
Tina from Taiwan continued doing her act, but also took over as dance captain. Geno DeVille, a British magician, and Sung-min from Korea (both of whom already lived in China) replaced Mickey O’Conner and Rocco.
Billy Kong, my Macanese illusion manager, began doubling as swing magician who acts as understudy covering all four magicians of the show.
For Billy, this was an amazing opportunity but also a huge challenge because he was up until then in essence a card magician. A card magician works close-up. Illusion like we are featuring in our show is a very different thing.
Close-up is manipulation from one hand to the other. Illusion is a far more theatrical approach.
You use theatrical technique, distort it. It’s theatre on steroids and redirecting the view of the audience on a whole other level.
The team arrived at the theatre mid-September and went into production. Every night, I would direct them remotely from LA via video call. During those calls, we covered the lighting direction, video, sound, and, of course, the on stage magic.
Everyone managed just fine. And Billy rose to the occasion. He is good and living the dream.
The show re-opened on October 1st, 2020.
All these events and challenges we overcame together reinforced for me what I had already learned over the years: It is better to work with good people who you train to cover what you need, than to work with bad people who are already trained.
I collect talented professionals wherever I go. They stay with me. My costumer for example has been with me for 34 years, my choreographer 12 years, my SM 17 years.
These people are very tight and become a family.
And it is precisely that family attitude which allows us to perform in places other people would shy away from.
China, for example, is very different from the West. The Chinese have an entirely different way of looking at the world. Their life philosophies are the antithesis of what we as Westerners have come to accept as obvious.
But because we are a family, and international, we are able to work and deal with that.
In my current team, a little less than a quarter are Chinese.
Before we finish up, let me add a few more thoughts on magic and illusion:
Magic is by definition anything that is outside of the abilities of science as we know it.
As science moves forward, so the definition of what is magic shifts. Think about it… two hundred years ago, electricity was magic. And soon levitation won’t be magic any longer.
Everything is changing so quickly that nowadays, sometimes, when I perform, the illusion is written off as technology. If people had seen the same thing fifty years ago, they’d most likely have started a religion.
This has affected my art, especially in China.
In essence we work based on the same principles, but now we are stripping everything away to make it look as simple as possible. The poster still looks clean but the actual product has become rudimentary. And this has proven to work well with modern audiences in China as well as around the world.
Another element of magic which cannot be ignored is that magic has different definitions depending on where you go on the planet.
In every part of the world, magic has evolved in such a way as to become the looking glass of the hopes and dreams of the people.
Magic is about overcoming personal anguish. It is always a reflection of the hopes and fears of the culture in which it was born.
As technology is booming, magic becomes yet again a reflection. So it is anybodies guess where the art form will be 20 years from now.
YouTube promo video:
Official website: https://franzharary.com