When we see someone perform a seemingly impossible task, we afford something even more valuable than entertainment. We’re given a chance to question what each of us are capable of. Even when we know that an entertainer is doing a trick, and not actually bending the laws of reality, the idea that she can convincingly simulate this power is thrilling and engaging. The legendary turn-of-the-century performer Harry Houdini brought these thrills to his audiences across the world.
Despite the century separating modern audiences from his performances, we still have footage of some of his most memorable acts. If we see through the visual design of these short films, we see how he was able to command the attention of his audiences to craft a retainable message of empowerment and redefined possibility.
How He Escaped A Chair
To start, take a look at this trick: Houdini’s escape after he ties himself to a chair. The video shows Houdini surrounded by three men, all working rapidly to bind him head to toe to the chair. Then, two leave, and one observes while Houdini struggles, tips the chair over, and quickly frees himself.
So, what principles of design go into this ancient video (believed to have been filmed in 1920)? Well, several of the same ones that we acknowledge as principles of Scribology: purposeful use of framing, motion, and image density.
Let’s discuss image density first. That’s the amount of images in the frame. In this example, the frame is full, even though there are only four people. The others obscure Houdini, in the center, for much of the film. This conscious design choice to pack the frame with figures means that it’s hard to tell exactly what’s going on. We don’t know exactly who is tying which rope in which place.
Motion Can Misdirect
Then, there’s the motion of the men: fast, frenetic, and swirling. Combined with the dense image composition, it’s a truly confusing frame. The principle of motion tells us that movement will always draw the eye through the lizard brain. So, when we see Houdini’s assistants moving at great speed and swirling ropes around and around the magician, our eyes don’t focus on Houdini, or any other part of the frame. Our wiring keeps us glued to the assistants. We refer to this, if you enjoy magic, as ‘misdirection.’
Why does magic use design principles to misdirect, instead of focus, its audience? Because Houdini, and all magicians, need the audience’s focus divided for the trick to be convincing. Another great achievement in limiting the viewer’s focus comes through the framing of the shot.
All the figures, very much including Houdini, are in extreme long shots. Combined with the grainy film-stock of the time, this distance keeps us from uncovering any details that would ruin the trick. Close framings of Houdini’s face, body, and hands would reveal his technique—and that revelation would spoil the illusion. By keeping the image dense, mobile, and distantly framed, Houdini’s trick has been captured in the perfect way. This ensures an engaging trick with a retainable message about strength and possibility.
He Jumped From A Bridge While Handcuffed
Now, let’s look at this legendary Houdini trick, also captured on film in 1910: the handcuffed bridge jump. Literally higher-stakes, this trick involves a handcuffed Houdini leaping off of a tall bridge into a river, freeing himself from the cuffs underwater, and emerging triumphant.
The design principles that made Houdini’s chair escape an eminently memorable video are at play here, as are some others.
We immediately recognize the framing as purposeful, but it’s even more innovative than the chair escape. Our framing is fairly close to Houdini, holding him a long shot while he undresses on the bridge. Why frame the illusionist closely this time?
Well, simply put, this is the preamble to the trick, so the viewer’s not going to see anything they shouldn’t. They will simply see Houdini’s face, muscles, and confident movements. Along with the framing, Houdini’s form engages the viewer. This is what we would expect from the design principle of the human form. People are drawn to the shape of other people. Seeing Houdini up close before the trick hammers in engagement with the man before he does something special.
Purposefully Out Of Sync
Once viewers see Houdini get handcuffed, there’s a purposeful violation of the rule of synchronization. While typically synchronization would be hard to discuss in a silent video like this, there’s more to synchronization than sound and visuals operating coherently. There’s visual coherence required, too. By breaking that visual language to show an inter-title (Houdini – His first appearance in motion pictures – 1910), He disengaged the viewer from himself and the ‘story’ of the trick for a second.
However, something had to be covered up, or the message of Houdini’s abilities would be lost. All other elements and principles of design must serve the message. With this context in mind, viewers quickly reengage with Houdini when the camera finds him again. Then, it’s another masterclass in image density and framing as the camera holds an extreme long shot of the bridge. We see not only its size and Houdini’s relative tininess, but hundreds of other human forms, moving and pushing to see the escape artist’s plunge.
After he rises safely from the water, hands free, Houdini swims to shore successful. The long, grainy shot doesn’t show us what he does underwater, if anything; we simply see a handcuffed man emerge free to roaring onlookers.
A Lasting Legacy
Houdini was a genius, but perhaps his best trick had more to do with his longevity than any individual feat. Houdini embraced the new technology of motion pictures. He knew how to star in filmed productions that would use design principles strategically and carefully. Only a few short years after the dawn of cinema, Houdini had figured out how to use its tools for misdirection, relatability, and more.
Harry Houdini was a true collaborator, even though his magic usually appeared to feature only him. He worked with filmmakers to create a message not just for his crowds, but for the future. It’s a retainable message of imagination and possibility.
He knew he could use principles like framing, motion, image density, and synchronization to keep his art engaging and memorable. He was right. It’s been over a hundred years since Houdini performed, and his videos continue to enthrall us. This is what principled content creation can do, for longer than even he, perhaps, imagined: cement a message in viewers’ minds, and keep the magic alive.