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Filming magic: the making of Card Shark for Nat Geo

03 June 2013

The three-card Monte is believed to be the oldest card trick in the world.  It is still played on streets across-the-globe today and uses misdirection and sleight-of-hand to fleece thousands of innocent passers-by every year.  Although its origins lie in magic, the Monte is a con, pure and simple.

Card Shark – a co-production between Windfall Films and So Shoot Me TV – airs tonight at 9pm on National Geographic Channel. The programme takes an in-depth look at the history of cards, card magic and card cheating. But when magic is your topic how exactly do you film it?

So Shoot Me TV’s Kate Leonard-Morgan and Mark Leslie, together with Windfall Films’ Carlo Massarella, explain how they captured the secrets behind card magic through a mixture of stunts, street demonstrations and clever camera work.

The specialist
Drummond Money-Coutts is the perfect exponent of the card shark’s dark art. As magician to the world’s elite, he has honed his craft on the party circuit, eschewing the expected path working for his family’s bank. His undeniable talent, telegenic looks and good old-fashioned charm could, in another life, have made him a fortune duping a succession of hapless punters. Fortunate for us then that Drummond is one of the good guys!

The Game
The Three-card Monte is the basis for all the tricks in the programme.  Three playing cards are placed face down on the table – a queen and two ‘twos’.  Drummond then reveals the target card, before rearranging the cards quickly. The player is given an opportunity to select which one is the queen. Regardless of how many times he is challenged, as Drummond demonstrates the dealer always wins.
Drummond explains that he has used a simple switch manoeuvre, revealing where and how it was done. But it is imperceptible.

Capturing the action
It is commonly believed that sleight-of-hand works because, as the saying goes, ‘the hand is quicker than the eye’ – but this is usually not the case. In addition to manual dexterity (the result of thousands of hours’ worth of practice), sleight-of-hand depends on the use of psychology, timing, misdirection and natural choreography to achieve its magical effects – all of which was captured on camera.
We used a mix of visual styles, both on location (choreographed at a card table) and on the streets.
At the card table, we wanted to capture the action without exposing the magic.  We shot the series using a Red One and a Sony PDW800 as main cameras, as well as C300s and go-pros. Using multiple angles, we were able to challenge the viewer to keep up with Drummond’s moves.  Where we do explain the method, we used high-speed cameras to reveal the manoeuvres. 

In contrast, when we took to the streets we used multiple hand-held cameras to capture the action and to create a more immediate feel.

Shooting on location
Card Shark was filmed in London, Paris and Bangkok. Each location had its own challenges, but nothing could have prepared Drummond and the team for the extremes of weather we faced.  In London and Paris, we filmed on the coldest days of the year so far (-4 in London and -12 in Paris!), where the myriad challenges included keeping the kit functioning, the batteries charged and the magician’s hands from seizing up!  In Bangkok, we had to deal with the other end of the climatic spectrum: the heat and humidity posed just as many problems – to the equipment and the tricks.  Most of all we had to expect the unexpected.

The final stunt, involving Drummond, a Muay Thai boxer and shot glasses of sulphuric acid stretched us all to the limit.  We covered the scene with six cameras, on a jib, legs, hand-held and fixed to the table.  The trick had to be filmed live, as it couldn’t be interrupted and we had to guarantee complete coverage.  We wanted the live audience and the viewers to have a clear, comprehensive view of all the action and to be in no doubt of the very real danger Drummond was in… and to feel the stress levels as they rose.

What we’ve ended up with is a programme that poses just as many questions as it provides answers. Chief among which remains, for us, and for the viewers:
“How on earth did he do that?”

All Comments
Guido Spekman
Guido Spekman  | February 12, 2014
Louw Claassens is right........
What is used is "drain cleaner". Before the show was recoreded, they 'wet' the sponge with drain cleaner and let it dry up a bit. During the show, he threw a bit of water onto the sponge and the chemical reaction is; exactly.. It pulverises...
Louw Claassens
Louw Claassens  | November 22, 2013
Amazing as the Sulpuric Acid trick was (and I have the greatest respect for this man, his skill and and art), I am a chemist by profession and by pure observation, the acid in the bottle marked as 97% sulphuric acid is far too watery to qualify. Sulphuric acid of this concentration is thick and syrupy and is visually distinguishable from water when being poured out.

I believe the effect created by pouring the "acid" on the sponge, is some chemical effect of water (which I believe is in the glass) on a substance which resembles sponge but reacts to water (such as the reaction of antacid with water).

afral  | September 28, 2013
I watched that acid episode. Something stuck in my mind. And I felt kinda stupid right now about the act.

He poured the water and acid in all glasses. He re-arranged the glasses, and absolutely he knew where the acid is. And at last 2 glasses, he rearranged once again the glasses. What is the point of 3 card Monte if he knew already the position of acid? Supposedly, the one who rearrange is the boxer, and DMC guess according to what he read from the boxer's expression. This is kinda stupid, seriously.

From what I see - There is no way DMC will be poured with acid as he knew the acid position.

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