Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Derren Brown Takes to the Big Screen

We don't know whether Derren Brown uses actors, but now we know that he is an actor.

My prior post, about Derren's apparent use of an actress in his voodoo ring trick, has stirred up a good deal of debate. As stated previously, I prefer not to believe that the participant, Magda Rodriguez, was acting. But the jury is still out on that issue.

One thing we know for sure, though: Derren Brown is an actor. A post in the Derren Brown Fan Forum brought the following to my attention (from Southern Railway):

[Actress Sara Stewart] is fresh from filming an intriguing short film with illusionist Derren Brown which is set to premiere at the Berlin film festival next month. 'It's rather film noir in style,' she explains. 'It's called Medium Rare and I play the owner of a restaurant who ends up hiding a man under one of my tables who is being chased by hoodlums.

Derren plays the part of a waiter, and you can read more about the film at British Film Magazine. A quick Google search revealed that the film has apparently already been shown at a number of film festivals. The director of Medium Rare is Stefan Stuckert, who previously worked for Objective Productions on Derren Brown's TV shows.

Is Derren seriously pursuing an acting career, or is this just a favor for Stuckert? We'll have to wait and see.

The official Medium Rare website contains a calendar of upcoming screenings (at various film festivals).

Thursday, July 24, 2008

REVEALED: Derren Brown Used an Actress in Trick of the Mind

Despite his standard disclaimer, Derren Brown did use an actress in an episode of Trick of the Mind. Thanks to an anonymous tip, I can reveal the following.

The Disclaimer

Derren's Trick of the Mind series, which ran for several years, opened each episode with the following disclaimer:

This program fuses magic, suggestion, psychology, misdirection and showmanship. I achieve all the results you'll see through a varied mixture of those techniques. At no point are actors or stooges used in the show.

Even though we know that Derren uses various forms of deception in his shows, it has been generally accepted that he does not use actors. As Derren has explained on several occasions, he could not get away with using actors even if he wanted to, because eventually one of them would expose him as a fraud.

The Voodoo Doll Trick

That brings us to the "voodoo doll" segment from Trick of the Mind, which is available on-line on Channel 4's official Derren Brown page (where it is called "the magic doll").

In this segment, as you will recall, Derren appears to speak with a true-believer in new-age religion. She says she has been healed with crystals, and so forth. He takes a ring from her and places it inside of a voodoo doll, explaining that he is inserting the woman's soul into the doll.

DB then makes the doll do various things (wave its arms, etc.), and the woman seems to imitate the doll against her will. In the end, Derren shows that the ring was never in the doll, and that he was merely manipulating the woman's faith in such things.

Like several of Derren Brown's other tricks, this one reminds me of a stage hypnotist's show, and I have no trouble believing he could accomplish it without the aid of an actor.

The Actress

As it turns out, though, the new-age believer in the episode is none other than Magda Rodriguez, an actress.

Her resume, available on IMDB, makes it clear that she was a professional actor before appearing on Trick of the Mind. She even includes the appearance on her resume, where she calls the show the "Derrin Brown Show," and describes her role as "Vudu Mind Player." [Spelling is apparently not her strong suit.]

In Defense of Derren

Maybe DB didn't know she was an actress. That is unlikely, because her purpose in going on the show was probably to promote her acting career.

Maybe he knew she was an actress, but she was not really acting in the episode (i.e., acting is her day job, but she was appearing on Derren's show off the clock, as a sincere crystal-healing devotee). I actually believe this is probably the case.

But it does make you wonder, doesn't it? Watch the Voodoo segment again, and see if she seems to be acting. If she was, then how many of Derren's other subjects have been acting?

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Scientists Scrutinize Derren Brown and Others

A Wired.com piece entitle "Magic Tricks Reveal Inner Workings of the Brain" reviewed yesterday's edition of the scientific journal, Trends in Cognitive Sciences. Psychologists David Rensink and David Kuhn believe that successful illusionists know more about the human mind than does modern science.

Rensink and Kuhn, therefore, have begun studying famous modern magicians. Several other articles today suggest that the psychologists are studying illusionists like Derren Brown (See UK Press Association, NewsLite, and Journal Live). I have not read the Trends in Cognitive Sciences piece, though, so I do not know whether it specifically references Derren.

Be sure to read the Wired article, which describes the following methods used by illusionists:

1. Physical misdirection
2. Psychological misdirection
3. Optical Illusion
4. Cognitive Illusion
5. Physical force and mental force

In other news, a new post on the LA Times blog has good things to say about Derren Brown's youtube clips.

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Deciphering Derren: The CARFAX Clue

In episode 1 of Trick or Treat 2, Derren Brown puzzled us all by apparently teaching Glen Brighton a speed-learning system that enabled Glen to take second place in a pub quiz tournament.

Here at About Derren Brown, we speculated about how the trick was done. We even heard from Glen Brighton himself.

The Carfax Clue

A cryptic comment from dvdwlsh offered the following clue to unraveling DB's trick:

"Carfax". Explore that and you find your answers. Well played, Derren.

"Carfax" was one of two correct answers given by Glen to trivia questions asked by Derren in the episode.

totalsuperbot expanded on that clue by commenting:

I searched Carfax and found some papers/articles on...''Capture and rumination, functional avoidance, and executive control (CaRFAX): Three processes that underlie overgeneral memory ''Google Carfax Memory. I didn't get time to look into it further.

A Little Research

I did, in fact, Google "Carfax Memory." The results were not helpful, but they all pointed to a particular book, entitled Autobiographical Memory Specificity and Psychopathology (a special issue of "Cognition & Emotion" published by Psychology Press).

I was determined to get to the bottom of this Carfax issue, even if it ended up being a red herring. So, I went to work locating a copy of the book. (I unfortunately did not have a copy in my personal library, having inadvertently allowed my subscription to "Cognition & Emotion" to lapse).

The book arrived today and is, for the most part, indecipherable. A collection of scientific papers about memory, it is clearly written for an audience of psychological scholars. Despite the technical language, though, I think the book's concluding remarks might shed some light on the theory behind Derren's memory trick:

The papers in this collection show enormous promise that the phenomenon of overgeneral memory is being understood more and more clearly, both what causes it and the mechanisms that underlie it. As we said at the outset, memory is like a crossroads. Our ability to learn from experience and to remember what has happened in the immediate and remote past stands at the centre of all information processing, and at the centre of how we understand ourselves and navigate successfully through our world. We have seen that memory can be adversely affected (a) when our retrieval is hijacked by other material that is self-relevant, triggering analytic, conceptually based processing (capture and rumination: CaR); (b) when our retrieval is aborted due to learned passive avoidance strategies (functional avoidance: FA); (c) when retrieval is affected either at the early specification stage or at the affective gating stage by reduced effort, initiative or resources (executive control or capacity: X). We started by comparing memory with the crossroads at the centre of Oxford. You may already know the name of this crossroads, or may have guessed: It is called Carfax.


If this CaRFAX psychological theory is relevant to Derren's Brown's trick, maybe DB used psychological principles to remove one or more of the three mental processes listed above, and therefore improve Glen's ability to remember specific facts (i.e., to not over-generalize).

In defense of this theory, Derren does frequently refer to studies about the mind in his shows.

On the other hand, the Carfax reference could be to the crossroads at Oxford, to crossroads generally, or to nothing at all.

If you have any thoughts on the matter, please let me know via comment (below) or e-mail.

Friday, July 18, 2008

Be Like Derren Part 5: Learn Some Mind-Reading Tricks

Even if you have no intention of becoming a stage performer, you can enjoy learning a few simple mind-reading tricks to entertain your friends. There are numerous mentalism books available in book stores.

I recently read Easy Mind-Reading Tricks by Robert Mandelberg. For a complete novice like myself, it is an excellent introduction to mentalism.

Before I began reading Mandelberg's book, I was afraid it would be loaded with transparent illusions. While the tricks are simple, however, they are not childish. Most of them really are impressive to an adult audience.

Here is a description of one of the effects, which is typical of those provided by Mandelberg (you will have to refer to the book to see how it is performed):

Page, Line, Word. The mentalist writes a word on a slip of paper and seals it in an envelope, which is entrusted to an audience member. A volunteer then writes down three numbers, which are intended to refer to the page, line, and word number of a word in a specific large book. A second volunteer takes these coordinates and locates them in the book. The mentalist's envelope is opened, revealing that he/she correctly predicted the word that would be chosen from the book.

Mandelberg provides helpful performance tips throughout, as well as observations about the techniques mentalists employ. Highly recommended for those who have never performed mind-reading tricks!

For more "Be Like Derren" info, see the list of Recommended Materials.

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

How Jerry Sadowitz Launched Derren Brown

Jerry Sadowitz is a popular, boundary-pushing comedian and magician. He's best known for his profanity-laced comic tirades (I would provide a link to his website if it were not so offensive), but is also recognized as a talented magician.

Sadowitz became acquainted with a very young Derren Brown in the mid-1990's, and ultimately helped launch his career by introducing him to television producers Andrew O'Connor and Michael Vine.

As early as 1997, O'Connor and Vine had been searching for a mind reader to include in a television series. Kevin Lygo, Channel 4’s head of entertainment, agreed that a mind-reading show could work. O'Connor initially approached Andy Nyman, an actor and magician, to create the mind control series. Nyman preferred to focus on his acting career, and therefore turned down the opportunity.

At the time, Michael Vine was managing Jerry Sadowitz. Vine traveled to Glasgow to see the magician perform. While there, he confided in Sadowitz that he and O’Connor were looking for a mentalist, and Sadowitz recommended Derren Brown for the television role.

Derren Brown was still performing traditional magic tricks, but he was becoming increasingly interested in mentalism. Accordingly, his act was gradually transitioning toward mind reading effects.

Vine, who would later become Derren’s manager, invited the young mentalist to London to meet with O’Connor. Derren met with O’Connor and Vine for dinner and impressed them with a couple of tricks. Soon thereafter, O’Connor saw Derren perform at the Mind Magic convention in London.

O'Connor described his first viewing of a Derren Brown performance: "When I saw Derren I was blown away. He uses no cards or props. He has created a unique fusion of neuro-linguistic programming, magic tricks and pop psychology that even leaves magicians baffled."

O'Connor still wanted Andy Nyman involved in the production, though, and managed to sign him on as a writer on the show. For his part, Nyman has expressed no regret about taking a backseat to Derren Brown. "Derren was a far better choice for the job than me because he's a genuinely odd bloke,… He's really quite unsettling."

The rest is history. Derren and Nyman have delivered numerous successful series for O'Connor, and they don't give any sign of stopping.

At some level, I am sure Jerry Sadowitz derives satisfaction from having launched Derren Brown's career.

Saturday, July 12, 2008

Kluge Cites Derren Brown

Today's Telegraph reviews the book Kluge by Gary Marcus (which was released several months ago), and provides the following note relating to Derren Brown:

Marcus brings a schoolboyish brio to the table, exulting in rude spoonerisms and littering the footnotes with links to Derren Brown on YouTube - indeed, the whole thing might have been pitched at a teenage readership.

I pulled the book Kluge and found that it is not exactly "littered" with footnotes about Derren Brown. But there is one footnote to a Derren Brown YouTube clip -- the "person swap" episode.

"Person swap" is the one in which Derren is on a sidewalk asking a random person for directions, and while the person is busy explaining directions, someone else carrying a large object passes between the person and Derren. DB walks off behind the object and is replaced by a completely different person.

In most cases, the person giving directions does not notice that he/she is no longer speaking to Derren. The mind is so caught up in the task at hand that it is oblivious to a rather obvious change.

If you want to check Kluge yourself, the Derren Brown footnote is on page 20. Author Marcus uses DB to demonstrate that the human mind is not constructed perfectly, which is part of the larger argument that evolution creates usable -- but not perfect -- solutions to problems. These imperfect solutions are called kluges.

Tuesday, July 8, 2008

Derren Brown and Joan Rivers, together at last?

The Stage News just announced the formation of a new PR agency called Clout Communications, which will, among other things, represent Derren Brown.

The group's founders include Greg Day, who used to do PR for Channel 4. I assume that is where the Derren Brown connection comes from (because Channel 4 has broadcast all of his UK shows to date).

Clout Communications' other clients include Joan Rivers. Let's hope she is not incorporated into any of Derren's future programs...

Sunday, July 6, 2008

Derren Brown and Atheism

A new post today on the gospelmagic4u blog (written by an Anglican priest and magician) discusses Derren Brown's atheism.

As you are likely aware, Derren’s successful (and entertaining) book, “Tricks of the Mind,” provides enticing clues as to how his tricks are performed. Those clues, however, are sandwiched between two sermons on atheism. The book begins with a 15-page account of how Derren rejected his Christian faith and concludes with a 99-page section about “bad thinking” which seems primarily targeted at religion.

Gospelmagic4u's blog entry is apparently directed to other Christians, and uses Derren's life as an example of how some overbearing religious people alienate others. It also offers a mild rebuttal of Derren's atheistic views.

Derren’s account of his own religious history is, essentially, that: He was raised as a devout Christian, became innocently involved in a practice (hypnotism) that his fellow parishioners rejected, reexamined his beliefs, decided that the beliefs were irrational, and therefore became an atheist.

Derren has commented that at age 29 he decided he no longer believed in God. That was about the time his first television special aired.

Derren claims that as a young Christian he zealously tried to evangelize others, smugly making arguments for the existence of God. Critics might point out that the adult Derren Brown is fairly smug about the pro-atheism arguments with which he evangelizes his millions of viewers.

An illusionist's religious views are unlikely to affect many believers. But, surely, a committed skeptic like Derren Brown would want his fans to be skeptical of all claims made by authority figures – even his own.

Thursday, July 3, 2008

New Version of Derren Brown's "Tricks of the Mind"

Hold onto your copy of Derren Brown's "Tricks of the Mind" -- as iTricks noted this week, it is now a collector's item.

The Independent reported this week that future copies of the book will not include the portion where DB criticizes Richard Bandler, the founder of Neuro Linguistic Programming (NLP).

Although the Independent didn't say so, obviously Bandler must have threatened a defamation lawsuit against Derren. I don't recall DB's comments about Bandler being overly critical -- in fact, the harshest statement quoted in the article was Derren's comment that it is "hard to tell whether [Bandler is] hugely effective or a great, brilliant, captivating con."

Oh, well -- no one likes to be sued.