Issue: Volume: 24 Issue: 9 (September 2001)

Digital Magic

By Karen Moltenbrey

Marco Tempest's act, like that of most illusionists, includes traditional techniques using sleight of hand. But unlike his colleagues, Tempest performs his prestidigitations with help from computer graphics imagery, interacting with 3D images to perform compelling magic.

"It seems as though people are not as interested in theater as they used to be, and instead em brace movies with digital effects," Tempest explains. "So I'm trying to find a way to reach them by making my magic more interesting and dynamic."

According to Tempest, traditional magicians are limited by what they can do on a stage because there are only a few principles of magic, which are repeated through out a performance. "With computer graphics, I can take the magic into a computer or video screen, where anything is possible," he says. "It's a stage without boundaries."

Tempest incorporates all types of digital imagery into his act, combining traditional magic illusions with special effects that often are found in feature films. Per form ing these illusions requires Tempest to carefully synchronize his actions to coincide with pre-rendered animations. "If one element gets out of sync, the illusion is ruined," he says.
Using computer graphics technology to perform compelling illusions requires as much technical savvy as showmanship and precise choreography. Here, Tempest receives a digital hand with his performance, which was achieved with CGI and video projection.

Many of Tempest's digital illusions are new twists to traditional tricks. He doesn't saw a person in half, but he interacts with a multitude of realistic body parts projected onto a large screen. He won't make a coin appear behind a person's ear, but he makes a ball reappear and bounce across various screens. He doesn't make an assistant disappear, but he "transports" a volunteer into a virtual computer game environment.

In one illusion, Marco and a volunteer are walking around inside a computer screen when a mishap occurs, causing the volunteer to shrink-an obvious special effect. Then Tempest walks out onto the stage holding the 3-inch person in the palm of his hand. On the screens behind him, a live camera zooms in and shows that the tiny person is real.
Marco Tempest intertwines traditional illusions with computer-generated images that are projected onto video display screens to create a unique style of magic for the new millennium.

Tempest's studio, like his magic, is unconventional, more closely resembling the workspace of a 3D effects artist than a magician. In stead of traditional props like top hats, rabbits, and compartmentalized boxes, his studio contains the latest in computer equipment and video production tools.

Tempest creates nearly all the 3D models and animations himself using NewTek's Light Wave and software from the project:messiah Group. He edits the imagery, which is practically all pre-rendered at HDTV resolution, with Discreet's smoke running on an SGI Octane.

For compositing the CGI into video foot age, Tempest uses Eyeon Soft ware's Digital Fusion and Discreet's combustion. The magician also uses a range of video production tools, from media projectors to multi-image LED screens on which he displays video driven by Intergraph Zx10 ViZual workstations with graphics cards from 3Dlabs.
Tempest created the Virtual Marco model in LightWave, then added photographic textures in Photoshop. Magpie Pro phoneme-matching software allows the model to react verbally to the audience in real time.

Most of Tempest's engagements are for corporate occasions, for which he prepares customized imagery prior to the performance. After creating the digital images, he transfers them to a digital video disk player, then uses mini-controllers to trigger the sequences in real time during a performance. "This enables me to interact seamlessly with the images," Tempest notes.

Tempest began integrating computer graphics and video technology into his performances a decade ago, when he was already an accomplished magician, as a way of captivating audiences. But the few hardware solutions that were available at the time were too expensive for his budget. Undaunted, the magician revealed his plans to SGI representatives in his native Switzerland, who loaned him the initial equipment-provided that Tempest perform his digital magic at one of their trade shows. "I had three months to learn everything I could about computer graphics," Tempest recalls. "Then I found out that the boxes wouldn't do me much good without 3D modeling and animation software."

Making his digital vision a reality meant that Tempest had to create his own 3D imagery, requiring him to become content creator by day and magician by night. "With the initial equipment, I performed my first version of interacting with some digital apples, which looked more square than round," he says. "And the animation was extremely slow." But as 3D technology has evolved, so has Tempest's act. "I try to find captivating ways of turning the latest digital advances into compelling new illusions," he says.
Tempest adds a new dimension to a traditional card trick by enlisting Virtual Marco to help him read a volunteer's mind and locate a lost playing card.

One of the newer, more interesting illusions performed by Tempest involves a walking, talking virtual version of the illusionist, which can materialize on a large background screen and then interact with live performers. His digital self can even morph into the real deal. "Being a completely digital creation, [Virtual Marco] can do things that a real person can't, such as exchange body parts," Tempest says.

Originally, Tempest had planned to use a low-resolution model for the illusions. "But the more I looked into real-time virtual characters, I knew it would be difficult to sell lower quality work to the audience," he says. The magician, with assistance from an artist, created a wireframe model of his virtual double using LightWave. Modeling the character from scratch proved to be a better choice than using a cyberscan of Tempest, an option that the artists first pursued. But the scan produced about 5 million data points, making it unmanageable.

Next, the artists animated the wireframe model using project: messiah, applying inverse and forward kinematics. To "flesh out" the model, they transferred it back into LightWave, where they applied textures in Adobe Systems' Photoshop, using photographs of Tempest as a reference. The model was then rendered in LightWave and transferred onto videotape. "When I got the first images, it was really eerie," says Tempest of his virtual twin.

The digital character can interact in real time with live audiences through Third Wish Software & Animation's Magpie Pro phoneme-matching technology. The software triggers preset facial animations for each phoneme spoken by an actual person backstage, enabling Virtual Marco to respond to impromptu questions.

"It's the little things that we can do with computer graphics that makes using the medium magical, like when Virtual Marco blows a puff of smoke on the screen and confetti spills out from the monitor," Tempest adds. "All this melts away the border between what's real on the stage and what's CG on the screen. As a result, the audience is unsure of what they are actually seeing. Is it a projected image, a transparent screen, or something else entirely? It's this superimposing of virtual reality onto reality that makes the experience unique."
During his act, Tempest shares the stage with his digital double, Virtual Marco, who is not bound by the limitations of reality. For instance, this CG alter ego can swap body parts or even morph into something or someone else.

Tempest is the first to admit that he is not breaking any new ground as far as digital technology is concerned. Rather, he believes that digital technology is enabling him to break new ground in the field of magic.

Indeed, Tempest is currently one of a few illusionists using digital technology to create magic. He stays a virtual step ahead of potential rivals by keeping abreast of the latest advances in computer graphics. "The only way to develop new illusions is by riding the crest of the technology wave, which puts you on the forefront of new developments," he says. "Other wise, you're just repeating something that [another magician] may be doing. And where's the magic in that?"

Karen Moltenbrey is a senior associate editor of Computer Graphics World.

3Dlabs *
Adobe Systems *
Discreet *
Eyeon Software *
Intergraph *
NewTek *
project:Messiah Group *
Third Wish Software & Animation *

Images courtesy Marco Tempest.