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Editing David Blaine’s ‘Real or Magic’


By Randi Altman

New York— Some jobs turn out to be more magical than others, and for freelance editor Dave Marcus, the recent David Blaine primetime special Real or Magic on ABC was quite a treat.

Marcus (, who spends about half his time working out of NYC’s Radical Media (, had previously worked with Andrew Flakelar, the show’s producer. Flakelar introduced him to Real or Magic’s director, Matthew Akers. And, voila! Marcus was hired as editor, and started work about a month into shooting.


Dave Marcus: The trick was letting the footage speak for itself.

Both Akers and magician, David Blaine wanted this special to be very different from what had been done on Blaine’s previous shows. “David is very sensitive to how in recent years television magic has become cheapened by the use of SFX and staged audiences,” explains Marcus. So the direction was to use as few cuts as possible so the television viewing audience is witnessing exactly what the celebrities and street subjects were witnessing

In keeping with the more authentic verite style that the team was going for, director Matthew Akers shot with a single Sony F55 camera throughout. “Editing with multiple cameras, while sometimes much easier for an editor, would have made some of what we were doing look suspicious since the moment you cutaway is the moment the audience may wonder what actually happened in realtime between the two cuts. So the choice was to use one camera.”

Marcus was excited about working with the 4K resolution that the Sony F55 afforded, “Because Matthew was mostly trying to cover wide on the magic tricks, in some cases the 4K allowed me to zoom in further on shots where it was harder to see the magic effect that David was doing on his card tricks.”

When Marcus came on board he had over six weeks of footage to start working with. Calling on Apple Final Cut Pro 7, hooked up to an Xsan at Radical, Marcus and assistant editor Anne Allen were tasked with going through footage from about 50 shoot days – anywhere from two to four hours of footage a day. “It was an interesting process, because I had so many versions of the same tricks to choose from. I learned early on from Blaine exactly what were the ‘golden’ moments he wanted for his special and from there I was able to narrow down our choices from the hundreds of hours of footage.”

The special had to be 64 minutes, divided up into nine acts so that left Marcus with the need to keep each act around seven minutes on average

One section of the special was particularly challenging. It involved Blaine’s water spouting trick. “For the water spouting act, I had 100 or more versions!. And for awhile it was actually two acts rather than one”.

What was the issue? “Normally David masters a trick and we just show the result of his mastery. In this case, this was a real human feat that David has spent 20 years obsessed with but never fully able to execute at a level where it looks amazing and magical. So a good portion of the overall footage was actually David practicing the water spouting.”


There was a question of showing a lot of that practice footage to the audience. “We had to be careful about how we told the story and to not completely gross out the audience,” he laughs. “And we had to construct the story so it had a satisfying ending. It took a long time to get to the place we needed to go. We were hoping to get to the point where he absolutely nails it, but like the rest of the show, we were truthful in the storytelling. Spouting is a work in progress so we wanted to show that. It’s rare to get a glimpse into that world with David, and we wanted to lift the curtain a little bit to show what it takes to master something like water spouting.”

Real or Magic was Blaine’s first hour-and-a-half special, going 30 minutes longer than what he’s typically done. “This meant we had more content to fill.”

This special didn’t revolve around one big stunt -— like his other shows, where he was buried, in ice, standing on a pillar, or catching a bullet in his teeth. “He always has a stunt as the story through-line – where you are seeing the process and going back to a live feed. With that, there is enough content to fill a story and get you from beginning to end. For this one, we didn’t have a stunt. So another big challenge was, ‘What story are we telling?’


Ultimately, they settled on letting the footage speak for itself. “He was doing these crazy things like sticking ice picks through his hand and needles through his arm and finally we became satisfied with letting the through-line be about the question of what is real and what is magic… so in a way we let the ice pick trick be the main story, that takes us from beginning to end.”

The key was in the set-up of the ice-pick trick. “Our opening act originally was a long scene with Kanye West as he watches in quiet amazement as David put’s an ice-pick through his hand. It was much more of a documentary scene, but it was great since you get to see Kanye like you’ve never seen him before. However, we also had a very high energy intercut scene of Will Smith and the guys from Breaking Bad (Bryan Cranston and Aaron Paul) reacting to this trick as well. We wavered for months on whether the opening Act should be Kanye’s scene or Will Smith and the Breaking Bad guys, where we would put the other scene in the middle of the show. Finally a week before we locked I showed Blaine and Akers something I cut back in August, which was a mash-up of the two scenes intercut together, and they loved it. This allowed us to set up the trick properly for the beginning, then in the middle of the show go to Blaine’s doctor’s office where he get’s his hand x-rayed with the ice pick in it. For our last act we close with Ricky Gervais completely stumped by David sticking a needle through his bicep. It was really all about playing off the main theme of real or magic perfectly. To this day some of my more skeptical friends still wonder whether what they saw in the show was real or not. But I’m keeping my mouth shut.”


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