Adam Rodness and Stu Stone of Toronto’s 5’7 Films probably won’t ever be confused for David Blaine or David Copperfield, but the industry vets have a few tricks up their sleeve when it comes to making a children’s magic series.
The creative team’s latest production—CBC Kids series The Thrillusionists—recently launched on the Canadian pubcaster’s YouTube channel and CBC.ca, with a linear premiere expected later this month. The 10 x four-minute series follows a trio of teenage magicians—Joey Machin (pictured), Brad Bond and Maya Franzoi—as they attempt to pull off real-life magic tricks and illusions in front of young audiences at various high-profile Toronto locations, including Ripley’s Aquarium and the Air Canada Centre.
While many producers might be hesitant to shoot a magic series because there’s so little room for error, the cast and crew of The Thrillusionists were in good hands under the leadership of Rodness and Stone. As the show’s creators and executive producers, the duo leaned heavily on previous work experience including 5’7 Films’ feature-length teen horror feature, The Haunted House on Kirby Road, and its upcoming sequel, Scarecrows.
Stone was particularly invaluable to the production, having previously served as a producer on magician Criss Angel’s BeLIEve Spike TV series. In fact, Stone enlisted one of BeLIEve‘s master magicians, Jesse Feinberg, as a consultant and executive producer on The Thrillusionists.
“On BeLIEve, I was thrown into the deep end as far as magic goes. It was a surreal experience, not only in terms of the actual magic that Criss performs, but also in how the show was shot,” says Stone. “Filming a magic show is not like shooting a traditional reality show or scripted TV show where you go in, get the shot and move on. You have to deal with a lot of variables because you have to get the trick right, you have to fool someone in person and then also try to fool the audience at home. By the time the show wrapped, I felt like I gained a new skill set and wondered what else I could do.”
The decision to make a kids magic show was eventually confirmed after Stone and Rodness gained new skills in using practical magic in The Haunted House on Kirby Road.
“It was a fun, low-budget movie so we decided to use practical magic for all of the scary scenes in the film,” says Stone. “It was another great learning experience, so from there we knocked on every door we could to get a magic show going. The kids space seemed like a natural place to explore because children love magic and there wasn’t much for this demo other than shows about learning magic.”
After a number of passes by broadcasters, CBC Kids got wind of the project and agreed to help develop The Thrillusionists. The next step—one of the production team’s biggest challenges—was casting. “We did a massive search to get kids who, firstly, knew magic and, two, were comfortable doing tricks on camera to lead a show,” says Rodness. “We were lucky to find three amazing performers in Joey, Brad and Maya. They’re only teens, but they had been doing magic for years.”
As for shooting, Stone says the series had a very tight schedule to meet CBC Kids’ delivery dates, and some of the locations posed their own set of obstacles. “When we went to Ripley’s Aquarium, for example, we had a big illusion planned, but we had to go in at 5:30 a.m. and be done by 8 a.m. when they opened. The pressure was on at that point to make it happen,” he says.
For Rodness, the largest challenge was getting each illusion in one take. “Because we had to get the tricks in one take, we shot with two cameras for more coverage, but we didn’t do any edited tricks and what you see on the show is how it happened. As soon as you see the camera cut then all of a sudden the audience assumes it’s an editing trick. So that was a challenge,” he says.
Rodness also notes the importance of rehearsals when it comes to making a successful kids magic show. “The rehearsals were crucial,” he says. “We wanted to do something that had never been done before, but the budget was low so we were fortunate to have an amazing team that believed in our project.”
According to Stone, the timing is right for a live-action kids magic series. He believes there is a gap in the market for children’s reality series in general, and says magic continues to be a way for people to escape reality. On the adult side, magic- and illusion-based TV series are hotter than ever, with Syfy’s The Magicians recently landing a fourth season and ABC’s new series Deception launching next month. As for all-ages films and animated TV shows, Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald is set for a big theatrical premiere in November, and French prodco TeamTO has School of Magic in the works. The latter follows the success of other magic-themed shows including Sprout’s Wombat and Rabbit, Brown Bag’s Sadie Sparks, and Animasia/Netflix series Harry & Bunnie.
“An animated or scripted magic series is more controllable. With a reality component, you have to really hope that your director, producers, talent and department heads are all on the same page. Without this, you could fail,” says Stone.
Going forward, Rodness and Stone hope to build up The Thrillusionists brand and get the show’s hosts to a place where they are ready to do more, especially in terms of live performances. “This isn’t different from any other major kids property where you go see PAW Patrol Live or Sesame Street On Ice,” says Stone. “For our press tour, the kids recently performed at Canada’s Wonderland and will be doing a live show for CBC Kids days. We will start small so they can gain experience and then hopefully we can take it to the next level. They’re eager to perform in front of larger audiences.”