Virtual Magic Home Filming Guide

Written by James Alan.
Last updated October 25, 2020

This is a quick guide to help you film some magic while at home. We’re not trying to create professional filmmakers, just to help you record a simple performance and look like you’re weirdo recording in your basement (even though most of us are weirdos in one way or another and it’s a pandemic and we’re all at home so a basement’s as good a place as any. Personally, I’m a weirdo in my apartment.)

As with many things involving technology, you can solve a lot of problems by buying expensive stuff, but this guide is intended to make use of things you probably already own. You’re most likely filming your performance with your smartphone, or maybe the webcam you use to make Zoom calls. And we know that most homes were never built with the intention that they become mini TV studios.

A lot of this is simply trial and error: trying it once, reviewing the footage and trying to fix things you don’t feel good about, rinse, repeat. So be prepared to give it multiple tries, and don’t get discouraged. If your act involves a lot of preparation, maybe don’t fold the entire silk fountain on the first take. Give it a run-through (or four) to make sure you know how it will look.

Below, we’ll describe all the things you have to keep in mind to make sure your recording looks great. If you need a second opinion about whether your setup is working well before you record the actual performance, or if you want additional help with your recording, get in touch with us at ibmring17@gmail.com and one of our board members would be happy to help. 

Framing

Rule Number One: No Vertical Video !!! That means when you are filming, turn the phone sideways for a wide shot.

GOOD 🙂

BAD 🙁

Next, try to position the camera at eye level. This can be a problem if you are performing standing up as most cheap tripods don’t reach nearly high enough. The best solution is usually stacks of books or shoeboxes. It keeps the audience from having the forced perspective of looking up at your nose hairs.

You also want to speak facing the lens, which means that when someone watches at home, it looks like you’re looking at them. (If your device has preview screen on it, keep in mind that the camera lens may be a few inches away from where the preview shows up. Depending on how close you are to the camera, looking at yourself in the preview might make it look like you’re looking off on an angle.)

Take a picture of the background you will be filming against and look to see if there are any distractions. I do all of my virtual magic now in front of these bookcases (mainly because it’s the only flat wall I have.)

Right now, I’m between shows, so there are distractions. Notice the swiffer cloth, the piece of paper, the remote control and the bag hanging that has audio cables in it.

I walk past them a dozen times a day and don’t notice them, but if you turn a video camera on them, they become distractions.

Also, if I’m not careful to position the camera properly, I run out of background, and other distractions start to creep in, like this wall outlet:

For you, it might be the edge of a doorway, the corner of a picture frame. Shooting magic, actually requires a shocking amount of background. In this photo, I’m sitting down, and I’m only a few inches from that blue backdrop, but the amount of the backdrop in the photo is nearly ten feet wide.

If you don’t have a great, distraction-free wall to shoot against in your home, consider using the largest set of curtains you have.

However keep in mind that you do want to focus attention as much as possible. The old adage of TV magic holds true. If the action is taking place in front of your chest, then that means we get to watch the magic and see your face at the same time. And you will be taking up more of the screen. If you need to hold props lower down, for example if you were doing an Elmsley count in front of your stomach, that means a wider shot in which you appear smaller on screen.

Resolution

Some devices like cell phones have two cameras: one you use to take photos, and one you use to take selfies, or speak with someone on a video call. In general the camera on the selfie side is less powerful and will give you a lower resolution video than the regular camera.

Cameraperson?

If you don’t have a tripod and are having someone hold the phone/camera – maybe you want them to be able to move in and get a close-up of something – make that their only job. If they have to reach around to, say, pick a card, the phone will shift and jerk.

Audience Volunteers

If you are using an audience volunteer (for safety reasons this should be someone who already lives with you) position yourselves so we can see both of your faces.

GOOD 🙂
BAD 🙁

We will also take it on the honour system that you have not set up anything with your audience volunteers. You don’t have to say so. We trust you!

Lighting

Cameras work on light. The more the better. Most modern cameras/ phones/ webcams will still work in low light but they will compensate by producing grainer lower resolution images. Lots of light is essential. But there’s a little more to it than that.

You want the light to be in front of you. If the lights are in the ceiling and directly above you, this can cause shadows in odd places on your face:

Kylo Ben

Although lots of bright lights can also cast a lot of shadows:

Natural sunlight is wonderful to use if you can face towards a window. These two selfies are taken in front of the same window. In one I’m facing towards the window, in the other, the window is behind me.

Same amount of light, but if you’re between the light and the camera, it doesn’t help. And if the sun is setting and blasting through your window, that’s probably too much light for most cameras to cope with.

Of course, it’s also possible to film outside.

You do get more light to work with, but you generally have much less control over the noise around you. Which brings us to…

Sound

You’re most likely working with the microphone that’s on you phone, so there’s not much you can do. The best think is to speak clearly, without shouting, towards the phone. Also try to cut out any background noise:

  • TV, radio or talking nearby
  • Air conditioners
  • Waiting until the construction company across the street is done
  • Close windows that might let in outside noises
  • Muting anything that will ding if you receive an email or a text message
  • Start over if there’s a serious interruption like a siren passing.

Remember, even noises that you hardly notice in the moment (a noisy bird cawing outside your window or the sound of your humidifier rumbling in the background) can be distracting to an audience watching the recording). 

Music

If you are using music, if at all possible, send it separately and don’t included it in in your recording. That is, don’t play the music on your home stereo and record it it as part of your performance. We can add it in afterwards and it will sound much better.

We will not be able to include any copyrighted music that you don’t have permission to use. Use of copyrighted music in a YouTube stream can cause major interruptions or cause the video to be taken down.

Sending Files

There are a number of free services for sending large files. Consider www.wetransfer.com.

If you need help uploading or transferring your file, email ibmring17@gmail.com and we’ll talk you through it

Editing

Specifically for this show, don’t worry about any editing. For example, if you’re filming yourself there will probably be a moment at the beginning and end of the recording where you are seen walking towards the camera to turn it on/off. Don’t worry about it. We’ll edit it out.

To make editing easier, it’s extremely helpful that you have 3-5 seconds at the start and end of your clip where you are standing still. After you hit record, walk to your spot and just stand still and breathe for a few seconds before beginning. At the end of the trick, remain still for a few seconds, looking at the camera, then go and hit STOP.

Thanks for reading all of that. If you have any questions, please let us know: ibmring17@gmail.com

Extra Study Material

With special thanks to Colin & Kat

(Larry is also a great magician and you can f
ind him at many a magic convention lurking.)