A Kind of Magic

 In Articles about Paul Kieve

Article from IDEASFACTORY West Midlands, 2005

Unlike a certain other wizard, Paul Kieve’s study of sorcery didn’t begin at Platform 9 3/4 at Kings Cross. And forget about it being written in the stars because, according to the man who is now one of Britain’s top illusionists and official magic consultant for the Guinness Book of Records, his entry into the arcane arts was hardly the result of some divine destiny.

“I was lucky because my hobby was something I could go out there and do,” explains Paul, who has been obsessed with magic since receiving a toy tricks set as a kid. “Magic
is a performing art at the end of the day but I never consciously thought ‘I could do this as a career’. I just had a few lucky breaks and followed my nose.

“When I started there was more of a variety circuit than there is now, so you’d get work doing end-of-the-pier stuff with Sue Pollard or someone,” he goes on. “I just took on jobs that interested me, which took me on a career path I could never have planned. I’ve ended up in a place where there’s really no-one else doing what I do. So if people need something quirky or odd doing, I tend to get the call.”


It may not sound as mystical as Hogwarts, but Paul could teach Harry Potter a thing or two. In fact he has: One of his most high-profile jobs has been arranging physical
magic sequences for Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, teaching Daniel Radcliffe how to perform his tricks as well as supervising special effects for the Marauders Map sequence.

“I was contacted by the Harry Potter production office because [director] Alfonso Cuaron wanted to increase the amount of background magic in the film without having to rely solely on CGI,” reveals Paul. “CGI sequences are very expensive and the other advantage of doing things physically is that you can see them through the camera. Actors interact with something that’s happening in real time and space, which is very attractive to a director.”

“The first meetings I had were quite nerve-wracking,” he admits. “I was the first illusionist to work on any of the films, so I felt that I was representing not just myself but my profession as a whole. They asked me to demonstrate about fifty things and show them some of my previous work on video before they gave me the job.”


Young Potter isn’t the only wizard to have benefited from Paul’s wisdom; he was also responsible for designing an on-line wizardry course to promote the Sci-Fi Channel’s recent mini-series adaptation of Ursula Le Guin’s Earthsea novels. But the magic spreads beyond the silver screen:

As well as being a performer in his own right, Paul is also highly indemand as a consultant and special effects designer for the stage.

His bulging portfolio includes a number of illusions and effects for musicals and plays such as The Witches of Eastwick, the English National Ballet’s version of Alice in Wonderland and the stage adaptation of Roald Dahl’s The Witches, which recently completed its run at the Birmingham REP.

But whilst Paul is called upon to add a sense of the supernatural, he is utterly down-to-earth about the processes involved.

“My role is a collaborative one with the director, writer and set designer,” he reveals. “Unlike performing a magic show where you can just wheel on any prop you like and put a glammy girl inside without having to justify it, for a stage show the illusion has to fit into the context of the story which is more of a challenge.”

“There is a technical aspect to it, but I don’t like explaining how things actually work. People know that actors are just wearing costumes and speaking other people’s words, but they still believe that there’s an art behind it. But for some reason when you tell people how an illusion is performed they just go, ‘Oh; so it’s just a bit of wire,’ which demeans it in some way,” Paul laments.


One of the most spectacular scenes in The Witches comes when the lead character is transformed into a mouse: The actor must appear to shrink, and be replaced by a model mouse. On this particular production Paul collaborated with local puppet maker Craig Denston, who began his career at Birmingham’s Cannon Hill Puppet Theatre and has
subsequently crafted puppets and masks for numerous stage shows at The REP and elsewhere.

Craig believes that while the hand of a craftsman is essential for his creations to function properly, it takes the eye of an artist really to bring them to life.

“First and foremost you need to remember that you’re designing a character,” he asserts “I was trained as an illustrator;  just as I’d labour for hours getting an eyebrow right in a drawing, I’ll do exactly the same for a puppet to give it personality.”

“Puppeteering is about performance, but the skill of making them is much more like sculpting. They’re quite separate disciplines,” Craig insists. “But whilst puppets can do all sorts of things that actors can’t, when you’re working on a stage show you have to be aware of the dimensions of the set and how the puppets will have to interact with the actors. You can’t always show off really clever tricks,” he admits. “There’s just as much onus on the actors to work well with the puppets and treat them as another member of the cast.”


Although today’s audiences are used to having their eyeballs fried by spectacular special effects at the cinema, Craig believes that live illusions and puppeteering add an extra element to a shows that computers simply can’t simulate. “I don’t feel like I have to compete with CGI at all,” he shrugs. “Unless they come up with a way of projecting a three-dimensional character into space my job should be pretty safe.”

“Films are actually a great source of inspiration for me because I find a lot of traditional puppet theatre very unadventurous,” admits Craig. “Films like Finding Nemo and A Bug’s Life are great because they’re very design-led and the characters are so colourful, which is exactly what I try to do with my theatre work. But on stage I think they actually appear more real.”


Paul concurs, but acknowledges that the success of the Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings franchises – and the popularity of TV performers like Derren Brown – have made people aware that there’s more to the magician’s art than pulling rabbits out of hats.

“The Paul Daniels era is long gone, thankfully; when he was the only magician on TV people began to think that that was all that magic was,” says Paul. “These movies have put an idea of magic and mysticism in the air, so there are plenty of opportunities for people who can perform magic well.”

“Even David Blaine’s act where he went without food for weeks was important. It might have been a little misjudged for this country, and when I went down there loads of people were just taking the Mickey. But everyone was having a good time whether they were laughing at him or not, and he transported people away from their everyday lives for a few minutes whilst they watched him – which is what a magician’s supposed to do, after all.”

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