"I'm not using magic," says Paul Kieve, when asked how he can make a man walk through a door in a live theatrical performance. "I'm creating the illusion of magic."
Kieve, 44, is a bonafide illusionist, fresh off the success of his work on the Broadway resurrection of "Ghost," the 1990 Patrick Swayze film that was turned into a musical by Bruce Joel Lubin.
Given the effects involved in the original film--Swayze walks through doors, and puts his hands through solid objects--a stage production would no doubt require some feats of magic. What makes Kieve special is that he's pretty much pioneering this intelligent combination of using technology and magic to create spectacles. While magic has always been technical (timing and lighting are crutches for any performing wizard) some of the things Kieve has accomplished with "Ghost" would not have been possible five or ten years ago.
Tradition Enhances Technology
"I rely hugely on timing," he says. The last ten minutes of the final sequence in "Ghost" are a hodgepodge of illusionist action. Sam Wheat (Richard Fleeshman) appears, seemingly, out of nowhere to save Molly (Caissie Levy) Then, when Carl (Bryce Pinkham) is shot, some clever audience attention misdirection allows his corpse to be swapped out for someone else's body so he can become a ghost. The timing, the projections and the lighting are all important," and that, says Kieve, has advanced tremendously in the past 10 years.
Notable moments include ghost-Sam trying to get out of apartment. He first tentatively puts his fingers through a solid door, then reaches in, and finally sidles right through it. One of the most brilliant combinations of illusions and projection mapping happen in a sequence where Sam tries to follow his killer onto a subway, and encounters another ghost. The train itself is projected onto the stage, so you can see what is happening inside. The people and the objects inside fly through the air, while the projections make it seem like the train is turning corners, until finally we catch a glimpse of its taillights as it rounds a bend and disappears. The projections also make it seem as if Sam has walked in and out of the moving train. In other scenes, New York's Financial District and Brooklyn neighborhoods are created in painstaking detail.
The special effects in "Ghost" are tremendous. But Kieve's contribution is what moves the show into the realm of spectacle. He said he doesn't call himself a special effects guy because smoke and pyrotechnics, while difficult, are still in the realm of possible. "I am asked to do impossible things," he says.
Hobbits and Harry Potter
Kieve, who holds himself to the magician's code of conduct and won't disclose how any of those effects were done ("It wasn't Pepper's Ghost," he says, when asked if that's how he made Sam walk through a door), has steered plenty of other high-profile magic work as well. He was responsible for making Frodo and Bilbo disappear on stage in the "Lord of the Rings" musical. While it's apparent why a magician's sleight of hand might be particularly useful for live performances, Kieve's tricks have played a crucial role on screen, where you'd expect the effects and postproduction to have it all covered. Kieve worked on levitation tricks for Martin Scorsese's "Hugo," and created the self-folding Marauder's Map in "Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban."
It's strange to think that any director would forgo CGI and go to the trouble, but Kieve maintains that using magical effects is preferable. "In 'Harry Potter,' the director wanted a live magician because it gives him direct control," says Kieve. "When it goes into CGI he doesn't really have control. I can't do a Quidditch match, but I can do floating objects." And he can--as when he played a wizard in a scene from 'Azakaban' at the Three Broomsticks, the only actual appearance of a magician in a Potter film.
Kieve -- who is an illusionist's version of a "nerd" of sorts -- has also consulted and trained actors on how magicians should act. He was magic teacher to "Harry Potter" actors Daniel Radcliffe and Rupert Grint, as well as other Hogwarts students, for scenes where they're seen playing with a host of magic objects. Most recently, he trained Joan Rivers to be a magic assistant for a television show. For reference, he has a library of more than 2,000 tomes, from as far back as the 1860s, that detail some of the most famous wizards of the past few centuries, from Houdini to George Melies, the French illusionist and filmmaker who is the subject of "Hugo."
Sade's Man Hands
Kieve's interest in illusion first start to develop when, like so many of us, he received a magic kit as a kid. He got his break years later as a hand stand-in for singer Sade. He shaved his arms and painted his nails in order to perform card tricks in her place in the video for "Your Love is King." (Fast- forward to 1:25 and you'll see that back in the '80s, audiences must have not been as attuned to the concept of "man hands" as they are today.) He worked as a performing magician for many years and then got a call from the Theatre Royal Stamford East, which was developing a stage production of "The Invisible Man." That's when he met director Matthew Warchus and designer Rob Howell, who he later worked with for "Lord of the Rings," who is also the director of "Ghost."
The fact that the trio knows each other so well is probably one of the major reasons "Ghost" happened the way it did. Kieve said that the production was unique because it started with expectations—"we want to make a man walk through doors "-- then went to the illusion. The set came last, and was designed around the illusion. "Matthew had a vision that 'Ghost' should be many things, including a musical, magic show, rock concert and a love story," says Kieve. "The point was that nothing is gratuitous." Nothing floats just because it would look cool. As Kieve puts it, "you have to decide where to play your aces."
Although Kieve hasn't really done too many commercials, he recently worked on an advertisement for Volkswagen--the automobile company needed to make a car invisible. Because the work is still in production, he can't say more.
Kieve is currently nominated for a Drama Desk award for set design, along with Howell and lighting and projection designer John Driscoll. Howell and Driscoll are also up for a Tony in the scenic design category. Unfortunately, neither of the theater world's biggest award shows recognize "magical effects" as a category. But Kieve doesn't let that get to him: "If ever I feel a bit done out about the fact that there is no Tony for effects then I console myself by saying there is no musical arrangement award either," he says.