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Interview with Illusionist-Designer Franz Harary

Aired September 27, 2013 - 05:30:00   ET



MONITA RAJPAL, ANCHOR, CNN INTERNATIONAL (voiceover): His shows are designed to shock and confuse with large-scale optical illusions that leave thousands of fans in awe. Among his biggest, making space shuttles appear to disappear and the Taj Mahal some years later.

FRANZ HARARY, ILLUSIONIST: There is real magic here.

RAJPAL (voiceover): Meet Franz Harary. As a master of spectacle, his craft has been likened to counterpart, David Copperfield. But his work may have arguably have been seen by more people. Creating illusions for concerts around the world, he's worked with throngs of A-list stars like Missy Elliot --


RAJPAL (voiceover): -- Michael Jackson, and Usher. Today, after almost three decades in the game, his illusions keep growing. Keeping his multi-million dollar productions and brand of magic constantly in demand.

HARARY: Magic time.

RAJPAL (voiceover): This week, on "Talk Asia", we catch up with the showman in China's gambling capital, Macau, to get a first-hand look into how some of his magic works.

HARARY: OK. Time to meet your inner self. Now.


RAJPAL: Franz Harary, welcome to "Talk Asia".

HARARY: It is a pleasure to be here.

RAJPAL: We are here, in Macau. And it seems to be that Asia is a good place for you. I mean, you've had some amazing followers.

HARARY: If Macau is a good place for me - this place is blowing up. It is - it's not the new Vegas, it's a whole new world. I mean, there's so much - not only money - but so much creativity and there is so much opportunity -


HARARY: -- that not to be here - really, there's no other option, you know?

RAJPAL: You've had such success in Asia, if we look at sold-out crowds in India, in Indonesia, stopping traffic in Taiwan -

HARARY: Wow, you did research.

RAJPAL: What is it about this region, do you think, that seems to gravitate towards what it is you do?

HARARY: It's changed. In 1990, I was just the unique, you know, white American. But that doesn't mean anything anymore. And now what's happened is Asia and South East Asia is moving so quickly - this is also true for the Far East. It's moving so quickly, technologically, that the entire culture - the community -- has become very tainted.

And yet, there's this thing inside of all of us - we're all programmed to want more. They want to believe that there's real magic out there. And yet, everywhere they go, everything is just being written off to technology. So where I come in, is I step in and I say, "Look guys, maybe there's more".

RAJPAL: The pressure's certainly on, though, for you.


RAJPAL: Because of the technology that's available out here. Because of the money - the material wealth - people demand a hell of a lot more for their money.

HARARY: Right. You know, it's a weird thing. Because magic is always slightly ahead of that which is possible with technology. 200 years ago, electricity was magic. You know, now it's nothing, you know? So, as technology moves forward, magic needs to stay just in front of it. At the same time, what I do - magic - allows us, as adults to maintain that sense of childlike wonder which is really what drives creativity, which is what drives technology.

RAJPAL: Well, but science is something that you can explain. That's the whole idea of it.

HARARY: Right.

RAJPAL: It's rational -- it's logic. Magic - if it's one step ahead of it -

HARARY: Right.

RAJPAL: The whole, I guess, the business is, for you, is that you shouldn't be able to explain it. But yet you're saying that you can.

HARARY: Well, yes. There's a weird thing. Firstly, magic happens in your mind. Like, do you have a dollar bill? Do you have - does anybody - one of the camera ops? Dollar bill. Magic happens in your mind. It doesn't happen on camera. It happens only in your imagination. And it's basically the mistranslation of - it's a glitch between the right and left side of your brain.

So, the thing about magic, today, is the stuff that's most impressive is what appears to be low tech. So that's the --

RAJPAL: How did you do that?

HARARY: Magic. You know, that's about as low-tech as it gets. What is most powerful is something simple, you know? Which, by the way, is the other trend, really, where magic is moving right now. It's moving away from the kind of spectacle stuff that I've been doing to the more, you know, intimate stuff, like this.

RAJPAL: You describe yourself, not as a magician, not as an illusionist, but as a designer.

HARARY: Well, I am a magician, but I design magic. You know, it's a - I started when I was a kid. I started in high school, actually, you know, when I got a magic set. And then I discovered that suddenly I was able to do all of these things that my parents couldn't do, that teachers couldn't do - that's very empowering. So, I started breaking down, not how the tricks, but why they work - the psychology of it all.

I got a lucky break with Michael Jackson, when you were a little kid, in 1984. And Michael saw what I did, hired me to become his magician, and then I ended up designing all of his magic -- for his shows, for his home - and then I kind of became that guy who creates magic for pop concerts.

RAJPAL: Well, let's talk about Michael Jackson, then. Let's talk about how you send off your videotape - at that time, it was videotape -

HARARY: Yes, yes, yes. VHS.

RAJPAL: -- to his people at 21 years old.

HARARY: Yes. Well, back then, I was 20. I, like everybody, I worshiped him. I wanted to be him. I learned all the moves, you know? I wanted to be Michael Jackson. And so, as a magician - going to school at the University of Michigan, Eastern Michigan University - and I was surrounded by music and by all these resources.

And so, I thought, "OK, OK, what can I do? What can I do? I know how to do magic for half-time shows - for football shows - because I've been doing that.


HARARY: So I got together my friends and I made a car appear in a parking lot. And I sent it to Michael Jackson's - I think the record company, at the time.


HARARY: And I never thought it was going to happen. I never thought he'd see it. And about a month later, I get a call. It's like, "Ah, what?" My heart stopped. This was like - it might as well have been the Pope calling me, you know? So the next thing you know is I'm on a plane to LA to meet Michael.

Michael and I totally clicked. I was 20, he was 25 at the time. We just became friends. I never finished school. I did four years of a five- year degree. I never got my diploma. But I became Michael's magician for the victory tour. And then for everything else he did after that.

And then, from there, his sister, Janet and, at the time, Madonna and Prince and yadda, yadda, yadda. And today it's Missy Elliot and Usher and Justin Bieber and everybody, you know. Because there is this need in the music industry, to do the next thing.


HARARY: It's magic time. Check this out. Guys, bring it up. CNN, this is for you. Now.





HARARY: CNN, follow me. I've got something to show you. I'm going to show you some magic. Actually, I'm going to show you better than magic. I'm going to show you something real. Check this out.

What you're about to watch is not electronic camera trickery. It certainly is not a digital effect. It's real and it's live and it's being shared by the audience here, on location. And, more importantly, that the camera is CNN.

Look at this. Over here, we have nothing. Well, we're basically trapped. We're isolated under this awning, here. We can't leave, because outside there, it's raining like hell. That means that all of the magic is going to happen right here. Right on this spot. And my entire set of tools is nothing more than that yellow piece of fabric. There are no mirrors. There are no trap doors. No secret compartments. This is as real life as it gets. Now, you've also probably noticed that that camera has not cut away. We've held on to one shot and we will not stop until after magic has occurred.

On a side note, the illusion you're about to see is something I came up with when I was 16. I invented this in high school. I did it with my friends. I sent the video tape to Michael Jackson. That sort of launched my career. Today, we're doing it for our live audience, right over here. Guys - you're all good?

All right. And having said that, it's magic time. Check this out. Guys, bring it up. CNN, this is for you. Now. Do it. Yes. Come on it. Look. It's real.


RAJPAL: Let's talk about what has been described as your perfect illusion. Which was making the Taj Mahal disappear.

HARARY: What I learned about the Taj Mahal is that magic is a hell of a lot more powerful than I realized. That was a long time ago. That was, when I vanished the Taj was 1998. And since then, I've spent a lot of time in India and, really, I've come to love India. But, back then, I didn't understand the culture. And I didn't understand the rhythm to life. What it means to be Indian - what it means to live as an Indian.

So I get to the Taj, and I'm there with my crew, and I'm all, "Happy, happy, happy - I know we're going to do a trick". And suddenly, everything comes to a stop, because authorities and a lot of guys with machine guns are suddenly standing there and go, "We don't know what you're doing, but we don't think we like it. Because this is the Taj".

The Taj is, as you know, it is India. Even though I'm distorting reality to my viewer, it's very real. And they truly believed that I would somehow affect the Taj. So it was like, "OK, what do we do here?" So I had to distract all of the guys with machine guns just long enough for us to pull this thing off and make it appear to my audience, which was like, about 100 people, that, for a moment, anyway, the Taj became invisible. You know.

But really, as I said, what I learned, more than anything, was how powerful magic can be in the eyes of the viewer. And how it can be used for good or bad.

RAJPAL: Let's go back to Hank Moorehouse and - what did you learn from him, at his magic school?

HARARY: Hank taught me that, to be a magician, whatever you do, magically, needs to mean something to the audience, you know? You need to figure out how your audience thinks and you need to become them. You need to - you need to become a kid and make your audience feel as though they're kids.

Do you still - do you have the dollar bill? Let me show you something. Now, as you know, working in Hong Kong, around here, there is this connection between money and fish. You know? If you walk into an office, there's always goldfish in the lobby.

So I thought, "All right. To a kid in this area, there's probably literally a connection between money and fish. So why not see if we can't realize that?" That's for you. Also, you can get your -

RAJPAL: I just gave you that money, so - there was no fish in here.

HARARY: So, it's in your mind. There are no fish in the money, but, to a little kid, money equals fish. So why not realize that? Why not see if you can't use magic as a tool to realize this fantastic world that's already going on in your imagination. And that's what Hank taught me. Because I was a kid when I met him, you know?

RAJPAL: The thing is, someone like me - and I'm sure, for someone like you - when you try to dissect something like this - how? What are you trying to tap into - into your audience - in order for us to really be able to see what you want us to see?

HARARY: It's understanding how people think. And what I've learned is, if I can understand how they think, then, to a degree - a very small bit - I can control what you see. And what I do on a stage or, you know, on television is, I create a scene that's very comfortable. But then I distort those rhythms just a tiny little bit without you knowing it.

The left side of your brain is just going down this happy path, and suddenly, when it gets to the end, there's something not quite right. So it tries to fill in that missing information. And this glitch seems impossible. And so, instantly you accredit it to magic or religion or whatever your belief base is.

RAJPAL: So you're tapping into that slight delay?

HARARY: I'm tapping into that glitch of how you reason and how your logic systems work. And I use your own imagination against you, if that makes any sense.

RAJPAL: A sense of wonder?


RAJPAL: And a sense of escapism -


RAJPAL: -- doesn't come cheap. When you look at all the production around you -


RAJPAL: How much does creating an illusion cost?

HARARY: Ha, ha, ha, ha, ha, ha. That's a good question. It doesn't need to cost much. This costs the price of three fish. You know, which - nothing much, you know? But it depends on the scale in which you play. Now, again, I've kind of made a name for myself making cars, boats, planes, and buildings appear and vanish and all that. And what costs money there is not the airplane or the car - you can usually get it for free.


HARARY: But it's the technology around it. Because what I need to do is, again, control the environment to where you, as a viewer, feel completely relaxed. And there's no suspicion of anything. But to do that, means reverse engineering the entire environment. I'll bring in mirrors and effects and optics and all the toys in the world. And then I need to make them disappear. I need to make them completely invisible.


HARARY: And that's where it can get really, really costly. Yes?

RAJPAL: Are you afraid of revealing too much? Even to your crew?

HARARY: There was a time that I used to have people sign non- disclosures. The reality is, now, anybody who really cares can go online and they can see - it doesn't matter. Because even if you know how it works -


HARARY: -- your brain still tricks you. And we - we want to know that Santa Claus is real.


HARARY: That the Easter Bunny is real, you know?

RAJPAL: There's still the sense of wonder.

HARARY: It's there, you know? So, even though you might know the secret, that initial impact is still there. And that's what I sell. You know, me and my team - I sell that little adrenaline rush when you go, "Ah, what? Really?" And that's it. And if I can get just that from you, I'm happy.


RAJPAL: What kind of magic do you believe in?

HARARY: I believe there's real magic out there. I have seen things that I can't understand.




HARARY: So watch. Check this out.

OK. Tramine (ph), if you can put y our hands out, just like this. OK, here we are. OK, Tramine (ph), grab on right there, just like that. And grab on right over here. Stay right there. All right. Watch this. Let's split a girl into two. Now.

RAJPAL: Goodness, where on earth did you come from?

HARARY: Ta-da.


RAJPAL: So you've got Franz - you've got the magician, you've got Franz the psychologist, you've got Franz the salesman -

HARARY: But you're about the same thing, yes. Ah, well, the salesman is -

RAJPAL: Right?

HARARY: -- the psychologist and, one could argue, the magician, you know?

RAJPAL: What have been some of the - when you're building up your business and your empire -

HARARY: Right.

RAJPAL: What have been some of the difficult lessons you've had to learn?

HARARY: It's always - respect your audience and know that they are giving you a gift. When that audience comes to you, or when they turn on the camera, they are giving you the gift of their time, you know? And that's precious.

RAJPAL: There's a lot of risk, also involved, isn't it?


RAJPAL: Because, as we were talking about before, there's this sense of trying to constantly better yourself.

HARARY: Right, right.

RAJPAL: And that, in itself, is - we've just - it's very expensive as well. There's a lot of trust involved. Secrecy is involved as well.

HARARY: Right.

RAJPAL: Copyright as well?

HARARY: Well you can't - well, that's the problem. You can copyright, but there are so many magicians. Every week, I get another email from another magic buddy of mine from somewhere in the world that says, "Hey, look, some guy in, you know, wherever, just ripped you off again". And boom, there it is on YouTube. There's my illusion. And it's just - it's a cat-and-mouse game, you know?

So I find myself spending so much money on legal fees to defend all this stuff, you know? If I took the same amount of money that I spend on this team of lawyers that's protecting the stuff that I've got - if I took that money and produced new product - new illusions - I could be so much further down the road. But it's just - it's trying to hold on to what you've already created.

Because it's not like a singer. A singer can write a song, and others can sing it. And the more people that sing it, the better you are. In my case, if somebody else does my stuff, it dilutes the impact. Because now, when I do it myself, you know, it's - the magic is gone. The surprise is gone.

RAJPAL: Has there ever been something that someone has done that you cannot explain?

HARARY: Yes, yes.

RAJPAL: Has there ever been magic that you can't explain?

HARARY: Yes, yes. And it's not in Vegas.


HARARY: A group of magicians in Bangladesh that - they don't even call themselves magicians - they're more like spiritualists. And they do stuff in the dirt. And they have no money. I mean, just - completely poor, you know? But the magic that they do fried me. Just nailed me. Because they developed this off of a psychological formula that is completely alien to anything that you and I would, you know, would be a part of.

And they're doing magic on the street, literally, with dirt, with leaves, with twigs. And you watch this and you go, "That's it, I'm an idiot. Everything that I thought I knew means nothing. Because I've just been reduced to a child right here", you know?

So, what they taught me - one, is that I don't know everything. But they also gave me that rush. It was like, "whoosh". That feeling of suddenly, there's more. And, when I walked away, I realized this is what I'm trying to give my audience. This is what I'm trying to create for them. And it doesn't require $40 million in production or 200 people.

RAJPAL: What kind of magic do you believe in?

HARARY: I believe there's real magic out there. I know that's a dangerous thing to say, because you can sound like an idiot. Especially in the wrong places. But I have seen things that I can't understand. I saw things in Malaysia - a guy grabbed my wrist and started giving me detailed ugly accounts of my past. Like, "How did this happen?" And this was long before I had any kind of celebrity, you know?

I've seen things that I can't explain. And so I know that there's stuff out there. And, analytically speaking, I'm sure what I'm going through is the same process that people went through 200 years ago with electricity, you know? I'm sure there's some other wave that we haven't tapped in yet to or discovered yet. And that, right now, is magic to me. And 50 years from now, it might not be. But, you know.

RAJPAL: Do you think, then, perhaps - because there are those that belong in the spirituality side camp - then those who believe in the science camp.

HARARY: Right.

RAJPAL: That those - if you say that there is something out there that is inexplicable -

HARARY: Right.

RAJPAL: It offers some sense of relief, in that you don't have to have all the answers right then.

HARARY: Absolutely.

RAJPAL: And you, as a magician - as a designer, an illusionist - are a conduit, of a reminder of that.

HARARY: That's everything. There's so much we don't understand. And now, when you get into dark matter and really, the fabric of the universe - you realize that there are no rules. And what I do, as a magician, even the illusions I create are just the tip of the iceberg. They're just scratching the surface. You know, and I believe that we really are just infants when it's coming to understand our reality.

And I think that what I do is just kind of poke you a little bit and say, "Don't get too comfortable, because there's more. Don't get too relaxed, there's a lot more out there". And I think, as I said earlier, probably the most valuable thing that I do is not even entertain my audience. But I'm a catalyst to creativity and to imagination. Which then forwards technology and science. So I think they're very - very closely interlocked.

RAJPAL: "Catalyst to creativity". I like that.

HARARY: That should have been my T-shirt.

RAJPAL: That should have been your logo - your new logo.


RAJPAL: Franz Harary, it has been a pleasure. Thank you very much for your time.

HARARY: The pleasure is all - we should do one more thing.


RAJPAL: My turn?

HARARY: Yes, it is your turn. Come on over here.

RAJPAL: So I get to see the inner workings of it all?

HARARY: In fact, let's do that. Let's find your inner-self. If you can bring your hands out.

RAJPAL: I'm curious to know what my inner-self looks like.

HARARY: Hold that just like that and be happy. If you could hold on - just hold out your hands. I'll take the fabric. All right. OK, time to meet your inner self, now.