A Day In The Life Of A Master Of Illusion

If you are going to call a story “a day in the life,” it is probably a good idea to be exact about exactly what day it is! The date was January the 17th 2020 and I had flown into Los Angeles to film some segments for the seventh season of the CW Network’s internationally successful magic show Masters of Illusion. I had appeared in an earlier incarnation of the show almost 20 years before, and it was great to be booked to appear again. I thought it would be fun to share with our readers how the day went down.

Throughout December I worked with various executives at Associated Television International to arrange which five routines I would tape for Masters. With about 45 different magicians filming multiple segments everything needs to be very carefully planned. Eventually, my airfare was booked and on January 16th I traveled from my hometown of Austin, Texas, and checked into the Courtyard by Marriott next to Burbank airport. I traveled with just a hanging bag with my wardrobe and a computer case filled with props. I travel light.

Checking into the hotel it was apparent that it was filled with magicians and there was a serious magic vibe reminiscent of the opening night at a mini Magic Live convention. I enjoyed a pizza and beer at the bar with my old friend Louie Foxx before retiring for an early night. Any full day shooting a TV show you can pretty much guarantee it will include a very early start. As I went up to my room I noticed there was a Harry Potter poster in the lobby, it seemed like a good omen so I took a selfie with it. 

The next morning at 7:00AM the magicians who were shooting that day met in the lobby and grabbed the first of the many cups of coffee required to wake us up. I had a latte with two extra shots of espresso; I needed those extra shots as I was still on Texas time. A large pile of anvil cases, prop boxes, and suitcases gathered in the hotel lobby, and soon both luggage and a motley crew of magic folk (mostly dressed in black) were transported to the studio in the nearby town of Sylmar. You could easily spot the magicians by their excessive hair products—it goes with the turf. My locks were firmly sculpted and sprayed into their normal Gordon Ramsey state of confusion.

Arriving at the studio, it was immediately evident what a well-oiled machine the Masters production has become over the years. We were escorted to our dressing rooms, and shown where we could find more coffee and a stash of tasty doughnuts. Doughnuts are an integral part of any television production regime. I had two jelly filled; I had made sure my new black suit fitted comfortably the night before and knew I could handle that second doughnut.

The performer’s first important duty was attending a table meeting with the show’s producers, director, and stage manager. We all spent a few minutes chatting about what we needed, and how the production team could help us get our job done smoothly and efficiently. I was delighted to meet up with my old friend Gay Blackstone at this meeting. Gay is one of the producers of the show and knows more about magic than almost anyone I know. She is a rock at the center of this show.

On route back from the production meeting I bumped into David Martin who is also a producer of the show. David is another smooth and skilled cog in the Masters of Illusion team. He is a fellow Brit and when we met he silently handed me a teabag of very fine English Breakfast Tea. This was a good thing because if I had drunk any more coffee I would have needed scraping from the ceiling of the soundstage. I drank my tea and had another doughnut while waiting to be called for make-up. By 9:00AM every performer was dressed in their performing wardrobe and wearing full make-up. We then started to do the thing that takes up most of the day on a TV set—waiting around. This was a perfect time to catch up with old friends like Murray SawChuck, Ed Alonzo, and Dan Sperry, and to take a few backstage selfies.

The Masters of Illusion physical set is a very impressive one with many brightly lit moving parts. The production team had put together a schedule that allowed a maximum of filming to take place in a minimum of time. The larger illusion effects were shot on the stage, close-up performers were filmed at tables amongst the audience, and some non-prop comedy guys like me were filmed in the aisles. It was like a Rubik’s cube of performers. It was impressive how expert the production team was at staging and shooting these various segments. They made it look casual but it wasn’t; I have appeared on many TV shows over the years and these guys really know how to film magic.

At about 12:30 PM I was wired up with a microphone by the sound department. They were a fun team, one of whom remembered me from my previous Masters appearance. I then filmed three of my short segments back to back without a single retake. Each of my segments was as short and sharp as I could make it, focusing on “set-up,” and “reveal.” Masters of Illusion plays around the globe and is seen in many non-English speaking countries so the international success of the show has a lot to do with the carefully streamlined “cut to the chase” magic that it features.

After we had finished filming my first three segments the entire production halted for a well-earned lunch break. A delicious catered meal had arrived from a local Buca Di Beppo restaurant and was laid out on long tables backstage. For the next hour, the entire cast and crew devoted themselves to enjoying various Italian delicacies with the same dedication they had shown for the morning’s taping. This was the time when we magicians managed to really catch up, and discuss how things were progressing.

After lunch, I quickly nailed shooting my last two segments. As soon as my set was filmed I was relieved of my microphone, and I realized that my work was done. While the camera is rolling the entire studio and every technician is focused solely on you. The moment taping is complete the attention refocuses on the next performer. It is like being a small (but vital) cog in a well-oiled machine. Within 45 minutes of removing that microphone, I had received my check and was sitting in a van on route back to my hotel. I walked through the doors of the Marriott at 3:00 PM and Harry Potter smiled down from the wall to greet me, and I flashed him back a grin.

There is always a little psychological let down when you have finished shooting a TV set, and I wondered what the best way to relax was. As I so often do, I asked myself, “What would James Bond do under these circumstances?” I was pretty sure he would have gone to the hotel bar and ordered a double vodka on the rocks, so that is exactly what I did. Sitting at the bar I ran the previous 24 hours through my mind and decided, not for the first time, that my very favorite part of shooting a TV gig is when it is successfully concluded.

The events I have described are now squarely in my rearview mirror, and I am home in Austin where last Friday I watched the premiere episode of Masters of Illusion, Season Seven. However, I decided it would be fun to give our readers a taste of what it is like participating in a magic series. It is a weird combination of fun, potential panic, and intense concentration. Like everyone else, I am now looking forward to watching the next season of Masters unfold on my screen on a weekly basis, but It was unquestionably a great pleasure to have been a part of this finely calibrated production.


~ by Nick Lewin on June 29, 2020.

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