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?”

Pippa Considine

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