September 12, 2009

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Derren Brown's Lottery Trick - Damp Squib

This week's "big event" on Channel 4 was very disappointing. In a closed studio with high secuirty and no live audience (for security reasons, he claims), psychological illusionist Derren Brown appears to predict all 6 winning lottery numbers in advance.

This whole trick plays into the inherent irrationalism of most people who play the lottery. There is a 14 million-to-one chance that he actually predicted the 6 numbers in advance. And it's highly unlikely that he somehow managed to fix the draw, too.

So how did he do it? Well, I actually think it's very, very simple. The trick itself was a camera trick as old as the moving image itself: split screen. We see a single camera view throughout the entire sequence - even though we're told there are two cameramen there. A locked off camera for 7 minutes and no cuts is very, very rare to see on live TV these days. For the duration of the illusion, the screen has Derren's selection of predicted numbers on a plinth one one side of the screen and himself with a TV showing the live lottery broadcast from the BBC on the other side. He only briefly moves over to where the plinth is at the start and then some time after the live draw. It's perfectly possible, indeed highly likely, that when he moved back to where the TV was placed, the image was then split at that point to show the plinth recorded earlier, masking any magician's assistant who might have come in and replaced the selection of numbers moments AFTER the draw.

"Oh, but you can see the camera moving slightly throughout the trick", says my friend (who has just finished off the last of the beers and now about to pop out to the shop to get some more, aren't you?) This is where the timeless split screen effect has been updated for the computerficated highly-def world. Watch this shaky video of a UFO. Surely it must be real because it would be almost impossible to match the camera shake with the UFO and the background so perfectly.

Basically, you shoot your source video in a higher resolution than the finished video requires, and then the "shake" can be added in digitally to create the illusion that it must be live and genuine. The camera movements in the Derren Brown trick are small, and - if you'll notice - quite mechanical. My guess is that left and right video feeds shot in 1080p are being merged into a single HD image then a smaller image frame is used so that small pans and zooms can be achieved to produce lower-definition, but still broadcast quality, video.

Note that we do NOT see the predicted numbers until after the draw. The lack of independent eyes in the studio, plus this fact and the very unusual single camera style screams "camera trick" to me.

"Oh, but what about the kids on the bus?" Yes, apparantly in the audience for the show where Derren explains how he did the trick - two whole days later - they were shown video of Derren and some kids on an open-topped bus riding through Oxford Street in November 2008, the Xmas lights being highly visible. Each child holds up a card with one of the lottery numbers drawn on Wednesday, "proving" that he actually predicted the numbers almost a year ago. How did he do that? Well, two days is a long time - plenty of time to edit video you shot on an open-topped topped bus driving along Oxford Street in November 2008 of 6 kids hold up a card for all 50 individual lottery numbers down to the winning six. Surprisingly, this "amazing" proof was not shown in the TV version, so only the audience there got to see it. Which makes me wonder what weaknesses it might have revealed in the illusion. I wasn't there and I haven't seen it, but I'd hazard a guess that at no point in that fabled video sequence do we see all 6 numbers held up on cards in the same shot - or perhaps even any two at the same time. If you were there, and you know different, then please correct me. But, being a rationalist, I will ultimately require hard evidence rather than someone's recollection of what they think they saw. I want to see this video!

So there you have it. A pretty simple trick. Not especially watchable TV. And a massive amount of media hype. Which, I think, is the real illusion. The fact that anybody's talking about it is truly baffling.

Posted 12 years, 3 months ago on September 12, 2009