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Silent Movie Magic

By Barbara Goldman


Spencer Gordon Magic large

© SPENCER GORDON
The magician's assistant from silent movie Magic.


It takes a lot of hard work, a clear strong vision and a sense of resoluteness to make the art of magic work. It also takes those same traits to produce a silent movie. Portrait, lifestyle and interior photographer Spencer Gordon learned these lessons on a film and still production he did for a silent film he shot and produced entitled Magic.
 
In 2010 on a summer day in late August, Gordon happened to be walking by a client's storefront,145 Antiques, a well-known shop in New York specializing in European antiques that caters to design professionals across the country.  He decided to pop in and say hello to owner Jerry Barnard. Gordon had been thinking about creating a new video piece and thought that it was a project on which they could both collaborate. Barnard loved the idea, and they began immediately to brainstorm ideas and set a tentative shoot date for the first week of October that year.  “I left feeling inspired and energized and immediately started pulling my team together.  However, one major piece was missing—a theme,” says Gordon.
 
A short time later, Gordon was back at 145 Antiques and again brainstorming with wardrobe and prop stylist Amy Auslander about the project. Looking at the elaborate furniture, props and lighting fixtures in the store gave Gordon and Barnard their theme. They would do a silent film telling the story about a magician and his very attractive assistant with a bit of twist to the story. They proceeded to organize a casting call at Gordon’s DUMBO studio.
 
During casting they saw a lot of people but no one seemed to fit the parts envisioned. By a stroke of luck, a man and woman actually came to the antique store who had just the right looks, and the woman also happened to be a trained dancer.  “Diana Ferrante and Cardon Ellis” were cast as the actors in the film.
 
Gordon created a rough outline for the script composed of three scenes but was uncertain about how to resolve the narrative.  John Zhao of Lucky Branded Entertainment entered the scene and came to the rescue.  Zhao is a writer for Lucky and his idea was to turn the tables on the maniacal magician whereby the alluring assistant casts a spell on him. “John helped us shape and fine-tune the narrative arc of the story.  We wound up with a six-scene storyboard with complete shot and prop lists,” adds Gordon.
 
One of the biggest challenges they had in designing the set for this short film was creating six different sets that could be changed quickly because the entire video had to be shot in a single day. They started with the most complicated set, the magician's laboratory, and all the other sets were crafted using the same structure. They were dressed in multiple ways by changing the fabrics, furniture, accessories and lighting fixtures in order to achieve the desired effects.
 
For props and furniture, they looked for distinctive pieces that could fit in the tight space but also added texture and depth for their vision.  Things were going pretty smoothly until Gordon began to face what so many directors face — the loss of talent to better paying jobs. He had to find replacements for his stylist, makeup person and his magician Cardon had a booking for another acting job.
 
The plug was pulled, but production was rescheduled for December.  Cardon who was to play the magician still wasn’t available, but Spencer's loss turned out to be a gain with a real magician coming in to do the part.  Vlad Kraven — even the name conjures up darkness and mystery — became the new magician, and he was able to perform classic yet simple tricks for each of the scenes.  In addition the new stylist Brett Cooper was yet another score with his extensive costume gallery that would work perfectly for the shoot.
 
The day before the shoot, Gordon went to 145 Antiques to pre-light and setup for the first shot.  He carved out the back corner of the store, an area of about 300 square feet with furniture, chandeliers, 2,100 watts of Arri lighting, two camera set ups for video and still and characters moving around the set. He constructed the magician's laboratory, which was the most elaborate of the six scenes, and shot a time lapse of this set-up that can be viewed here
 
On the actual shoot day makeup stylist Justyna Augustynska got to work on the actress Diana whose transformation into the sexy assistant required the application of feathers for her eyelashes. Each feather had to be applied individually, one at a time. For Vlad the magician, the make-up was mascara for his eyes to pop and the addition of a mustache.
 
With six scenes, changing out furniture and set turnovers, Gordon had to re-light each scene depending on where the characters were blocked.  “Not only did I feel the pressure from running two cameras one video and one still camera simultaneously, we were also pressed to finish the shoot in one day,” explains Gordon.
 
This was all a prelude to the grand finale of the film, where the intention was to finish with a bang or quite literally an explosion.  Vlad had brought in a flash pot, a container that holds pyrotechnic powder that creates a flash of white smoke. The use of a flash pot can be a bit dangerous with the flammable powder and it was used here for the transitions in the edit for the magical spell scenes. For the finale, Gordon gave it his best veteran photography guess for setting the exposure for the flash pot. Fortunately his expertise paid off for the first take because the next two tries the flash pot malfunctioned.
 
The final element to the project was the custom music for both the video footage and the stop-animation footage.  Fortunately for Gordon he has photographed many musicians over the years, but the silent film style and vaudeville music that he wanted was something out of their realm. He eventually found three talented musicians up for the challenge.  For the stop-animation film, Alon Nechushtan created a unique piano piece that effectively evoked the dark moodiness and mystery of this magical place. The music for the video footage was done by vocalist Nadia Ackerman and musician Harvey Jones. They created an arrangement of piano, percussion instruments, clarinet and tuba. The piece was inspired from the pit orchestra music from the 1800s and accented select moments in the video, bringing them to life.  Getting professional musicians can be a very expensive production cost, but Gordon was able to get their services through good old fashioned bartering, which he describes as “Barter with the Band” on his blog.
 
Gordon created an air of mystery with his silent film Magic. Silent films from the 1920s had high production values and gave us our first movie stars. These films are being rediscovered and are having a resounding effect on new audiences and reaching more people than ever before. Today there is a great interest in that genre with the restoration of classics by such directors as Francis Ford Coppola, Martin Scorsese and Kevin Brownlow. World-famous composers and pop stars have added their music to these films for a new approach to presentation and have preserved these classics for future generations.  Spencer Gordon has done his bit to keep silent movies alive with Magic.
 
Magic will used as a specific self-promotional marketing tool and will be sent to a select group of Art Buyers and Art Directors as part of a six-week e-mail campaign.  Creatives will receive a specially packaged presentation of a 4GB flash drive pen with the silent film installed on the drive for their viewing. In addition, Magic is being used to promote NYC FotoWorks Motion Portfolio Review  coming this fall. 
 
You can see Gordon’s final videos and also see his site for more of his work and his blog at http://www.spencergordon.com/.
 
 
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