Now You See Me: Magic makes a return to the movies

"Magic movies are always cursed": Jesse Eisenberg and Isla Fisher talk to the BBC

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While you weren't looking, magic has slowly been pulling itself back into the spotlight.

Thanks to modern illusionists like David Blaine, Criss Angel and Britain's Dynamo and Derren Brown, magic and illusion have never been more popular.

Now Hollywood has taken note and a raft of magic-themed films are set to be unleashed in cinemas.

Following on from Steve Carrell's The Incredible Burt Wonderstone released in March, the next magical film to hit the big screen is Now You See Me.

Starring Jesse Eisenberg, Isla Fisher, Woody Harrelson and Dave Franco, the quartet play a group of illusionists who use magic to rob banks.

It's an unusual element to add to a heist movie because although magic is becoming more fashionable, it has often suffered the stigma of being a bit corny.

"I remember early on, I was given a note not to use the word magic or magicians during any interview," says Fisher.

"I had to refer to us as illusionists because (the studio) were worried people wouldn't respond to the magic. It's ironic, because people love the magic in this movie."

clockwise from left, Dave Franco, Jesse Eisenberg, Isla Fisher and Woody Harrelson The group use trickery to rob banks

Other upcoming magic-based films include The Immigrant, starring Jeremy Renner as an illusionist opposite Marion Cotillard, Dreamworks animation Rumblewick, and comedy Rabbit, starring Chris Tucker as an escapologist.

Hollywood gripped

So what has fuelled the sudden resurgence?

"Hollywood is quite excited about magicians right now," says David Kwong, founder of the Misdirectors Guild which specialises in illusions for film and TV and is involved with all the above productions.

"It goes through these phases where they get obsessed with themes and now they've caught on to magic. The marketplace is so inundated with superhero films it's refreshing to have."

Kwong was the magic adviser on Now You See Me, and having already worked on Burt Wonderstone - which reflected on old-fashioned Las Vegas magicians - his job was to the ensure the illusionists in this film were brought up to date.

"Many people consider magicians to be one step above birthday party clowns, but we really tried hard to make these characters the magicians of tomorrow," he says.

"We wanted them to perform tricks that aren't quite possible today, but seemed within the realms of possibility in the future."

The inherent challenge with making a movie about magic is making the audience believe what they are watching is a real illusion and not computer trickery.

Jesse Eisenberg Jesse Eisenberg spent months honing his magician skills

"Illusions take thousands of hours of practice for something that plays out in just a few seconds," Kwong says.

Consequently, the actors spent months learning the skills of their respective characters to perform them convincingly on screen.

Fisher studied escapology, Franco tackled card manipulation and Harrelson became proficient in mentalism - the art of reading minds.

"I learned sleight of hand magic and intimate close-up card tricks," Eisenberg says, although he did have a hand double to do the more complex "cardistry" - card juggling - moves.

Learning secrets

"The goal was to do as much magic practically to give it the feel of authenticity that a computer wouldn't be able to," he adds.

It's not just on the big screen that magic has been making a comeback - both the BBC and ITV brought magic programmes back to Saturday night prime time in 2011, while Dynamo's Magician Impossible is about to begin its third series on Watch.

US crime series The Mentalist has also helped raise awareness of mentalism as the lead character uses his mind-reading skills to solve crimes.

"Most people don't know what the word really means - they think a mentalist is a crazy person," says mentalist Doug Segal.

"The easiest way to explain it is by saying that where magic is sleight of hand, mentalism is sleight of mind - I can put a thought in your head or pluck one out."

Segal believes magic's resurgence is down to the evolution it has experienced over the past 20 years from the stereotypical "cheesy" old formats to new takes on the genre as demonstrated by Blaine's street magic or Brown's mind manipulation, making magic "cool" again.

Isla Fisher The group give the money they steal from banks to their magic show audiences

"It's been a long road, but people are turning their backs on it and doing something unique." he says.

For his part, Segal's act - which he will be taking to this year's Edinburgh Fringe - is a cross between comedy stand-up, mentalism and teaching the audience how to become mentalists themselves.

And given magic's nature to baffle, crowds are only too eager to learn the secrets behind the unexplainable.

It is that curiosity that Kwong hopes will lead to a new generation of magicians.

"The most gratifying thing I've heard when people see Now You See Me is that kids are going to want to be magicians again," he says.

"We're in the height of a phase at the moment. I don't know how long it will last, but I think this film is emblematic of where magic is headed - becoming more based on sleight of hand and dexterity.

"And it's that coolness we hope inspires young people to become magicians."

Now You See Me is out now on general release.

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