Monday, 14 September 2009

Derren Brown's lottery illusion

I never thought I'd get sucked into all the hype about Derren Brown's "predicting the lottery" stunt last Wednesday. For one thing, I don't have a TV! However, I take part in quite an entertaining discussion group about archive TV and radio called The Mausoleum Club Forum, and there was quite a buzz about the programme there so I thought I'd have a look at some of the online clips to see what all the fuss was about. I've ended up spending the past few days looking at numerous blogs and forums to find out what was being said about the trick, and it's turned into quite an obsession.

Needless to say, I don't believe any of the misinformation put out in Brown's supposed "explanation" of the trick last Friday. The consensus amongst those who seem reasonably clued-in is that the whole thing was a split-screen illusion. There are various sites purporting to explain it, one of the most popular being here. Essentially, the idea is that the left-hand side of the screen was frozen during the period between the draw being announced and Brown walking over to reveal his "prediction", allowing the numbered balls to be put in place.

The main clue that supposedly gives this away is that the left-hand ball rises slightly as Brown reads out the numbers in numerical order, an exercise that allows him to buy time as the payoff is reached. The other important point is that, by general agreement, the bulk of the programme was shot with a fixed camera, with added digital "jitter" to give the illusion of a handheld camera.

I pretty much went along with the split-screen idea until I saw the slowed-down video clip at the bottom of the page. First of all, it shows all the balls appearing to rise slightly, with the left-hand one moving further than the others. That, of course, could be down to poor execution of the trick. But secondly, and more importantly, the balls rise gradually to their new positions. If there were a cut from a frozen shot to a real-time one at this point, one would expect them to jump from one position to the other (as they do when the video loops back to the original point).

[EDIT: It's been pointed out here and elsewhere that the above effect could have been caused by mixing techniques. I have no expertise in this area so am willing to accept the idea. However, it in no way invalidates what follows.]

So, could it be that the whole thing was shot in real-time, and the split-screen theory is wrong? What could have caused the balls to magically rise to their new positions at the crucial moment?

There's one theory here which hasn't gained much attention. Although I don't think it's right, I think it may contain the crucial observation that could reveal the actual secret:

"However, if the camera had been moving, one would have seen the balls and the wall move relative to each other – however, it is clearly the case that despite the scene jittering about, the balls and the wall never move relative to each other – thus this effect must have been created by processing of the 2D image collected by the camera, to digitally create an effect of jitter (effectively moving around the window being shown within a larger 2D space).
This leads us on to the question of why Derren would want to create the illusion that the camera was moving when in fact it was not. "

The author then goes on to suggest that a long pole was protruded through a hole in the wall through the "blind-space" behind the balls. I think this is far too clumsy and probably wouldn't have been practical for several reasons. Instead, I believe that Brown used one of the oldest tricks in the conjuror's book: a false backdrop!

Here's a picture of Studio 1 at Riverside, where the show was filmed. The wall at the back of the studio is brickwork, making it easy to camouflage. Just to the left of the ball stand there is a vertical pillar, and there is another one some way to the right. A photo could have been placed masking the space between these two pillars, with its top edge appearing to run along the line of brickwork immediately beneath the row of balls. There only needs to be enough space between the stand and the backdrop for Brown to walk behind the stand, leaving plenty of room at the back of the stage for an assistant with a set of balls and a device for pushing them onto the stand. The "balls" you see for most of the programme may not be balls at all, but simply shells enabling the actual balls to be pushed into them.

But where's the bottom of the photo? I'm not sure, but there does happen to be a cable conveniently stretched across the floor for much of that distance. This could mark the bottom of the picture, although what happens to the left of that behind the stand isn't clear. Note, though, that where the cable seems to disappear behind the stand, the two sections don't quite match up. Could this be because they were added on to the picture afterwards?

The false backdrop theory helps to answer a question raised by "yellowtriumph" on the Mausoleum Club Forum, which doesn't seem to have been picked up anywhere else:

"One thing I can't fathom, and its minor, when he walks to his balls he walks behind them, when he walks back to the tv screen he walks in front of them? There must be a reason?"

If there's only enough space between the stand and the backdrop for Brown to stand there, he wouldn't have been able to turn round to walk back to the TV set.

I'm by no means convinced that this theory's right. But if it is, then I think it provides a more satisfying explanation than straightforward camera trickery. Of course, the camera position is still crucial to the illusion, as a fixed angle has to be maintained throughout. But at least Brown can claim that no electronic manipulation of the image was used to create the desired effect.

I initially thought I was alone in suggesting this but it turns out that the Daily Mail suggests it as an option. I haven't seen the idea mooted anywhere else. Could it be that the split screen provides too convenient an explanation?

1 comment:

adir said...

Just a small point - the reason the balls gradually rise up rather than jump is because, if the split-screen theory is correct, any vision mixer worth his salt would MIX or DISSOLVE between the shots rather than do a cut. A crude cut would be far more likely to give the game away. A slow mix is what you would do. It's what I would do - I used to be a vision mixer!