Sebastian Midtvage has it all. He has the stage presence, the looks, the charming smile, and the ability to make the hardest sleight of hand look effortless. And I hated him for that. Why should someone younger than me be so much better than me?
Sebastian and I met years ago at the Daytona Festival of Magic and we instantly hit it off. Within hours we had already created a card control that is just unbelievably deceptive. Well, he created it, I just helped fine-tune it. That became the ongoing relationship between us: we created magic and fine tuned it together.
Sebastian was obsessed with the Hofzinser plot. It is a very old card magic “story” where the 4 aces systematically found selected cards or a card. I’ll never forget the first time he showed me one of his versions at a magic lecture we were both attending. I remember thinking to myself, “he can’t be serious … does he think this is good?” It was really bad. I was used to Sebastian showing me miracles that would blow my mind and now he was showing me this thing he called a “trick”. I told him to keep working on it. I didn’t even have any constructive criticism for the routine.
We went our separate ways and I didn’t see Sebastian for a few months. By the time we met up again, he said he had made some improvements to the routines. In his new routine, the aces don’t simply find my card, but the ace corresponding with the suit transforms into my card. I knew there was sleight of hand happening, I just didn’t know when or where. He then said he created another routine. It blew my mind as well! The aces found my card and then turned into a matching four of a kind while the deck was on the table. I didn’t know where the aces went! He then proceeded to do two more routines, each one getting more and more ludicrous. It was pretty clear to me that Sebastian took my critiques to heart and he really worked on his routine.
I had never seen such well-polished routines all following one idea. The idea to record all this work just came naturally. What’s great about this project is that it takes one routine, the Hofzinser plot, and it creates four new routines, each one just as unique as the other. Each trick builds on the last routine producing an unbelievable effect. We decided, obviously, that Sebastian needed to perfect these performances before we move forward. We were not about to produce a sub-par product.
If you know Sebastian, you’ll know he is obsessive over getting something right. I can only imagine that he sat alone in his room for hours on end into the night going over every little detail. He’s not much of a sleeper, he’d prefer to do magic over sleeping. It took him no time at all to get these routines performance ready.
We started brainstorming name ideas and I truly wish we wrote down the awful names we came up with at the time. They were embarrassingly bad but you can’t get to the good ideas without getting all the bad ones out of the way. The Hofzinser Anthology was eventually decided upon. Anthology has a nice, but not too pretentious, feel to it. Right?
We didn’t have money or a studio, but we had a camera and plenty of time. Sebastian and I both knew we wanted to really take our time on this project and really do our best to present these routines as clearly as possible. There was some pretty slick sleight of hand going on that we couldn’t just glance over. We also knew we had to shoot a demo out in the real world (none of this studio performance stuff you see nowadays) to show that this was workable material. Too many products coming out had short flashy demos in a studio that doesn’t show much. We wanted Pinnacle Spades and The Hofzinser Anthology to rise above that.
I drove down to Orlando, FL to begin the project. The first step was performing for real audiences and the best place for that was Universal’s City Walk. It seemed like everyone there was in a good mood because we didn’t have a single bad reaction. It also helped that it is really visual and engaging magic and Sebastian can perform it really well. But, mistakes were made on my end. I did not prepare for a super windy day and all the audio had to be trashed. It was quite disappointing. The visual reactions were great though and I intended on using those.
We had extra time to kill, so why not shoot some of the explanations? All we needed was a well lit and quiet place. It turned out to be really difficult to find in the heart of Orlando; it is a very loud and busy city. As we were walking back to the parking garage we decided to go all the way up to the top level (which happened to be completely empty) in order to shoot some b-roll footage of Sebastian. We had the whole upper level to ourselves … it was awesome! I went down and got my truck and went up the exit to meet Sebastian at the top. The entrance to drive up to the top level was completely barricaded off. That should’ve been a sign to not take my truck up there, but the exit wasn’t barricaded off so up I went!
There was a closed off stairwell up there as well and power outlets; it was perfect. We set right up in that stairwell and got to work shooting the explanations. We shot for literally 8 hours up there and never once got interrupted. It had a really cool industrial feel to it which I liked. It was a needle in a haystack find; a quiet, well-lit location that was free. We wrapped up filming around 7 pm and then headed to my truck to review the footage. It was looking awesome. We were so engrossed in the footage we didn’t notice that we were being surrounded by Universal’s security and police. That was quite a surprise to look up and see that sight.
Sebastian was 16 at the time, so I told him to wait in the truck and I would talk to them. They asked what we were doing up here and I told them that I really liked the location and it made for a great spot to film since it was completely empty. Well apparently that was a big no-no; not only were we trespassing, but we didn’t have filming permits either. The officer asked me to show him my camera, which he then promptly wiped all the footage that we had just shot. That wasn’t enough justice for them though, as I had to hand over my I.D. so that they could copy it telling me that I would not be allowed at any Universal owned location for a year and that I would be arrested if I did. They never even asked about Sebastian who was just sitting there patiently in the car. What we couldn’t believe is that they let us film up there literally all day until they noticed us. Get it together Universal Security!
At this point in the story, it would seem like we were royally screwed, not to worry though, when we were watching the footage in my truck I was also backing it all up. I didn’t lose any footage! Now it was time to get to work on editing. Editing the instructional part of the project was a breeze. Sebastian is a great teacher and we shot chronologically so putting it together took no time at all. The big problem came when I started working on the demo. The reactions were great, the visuals were nice, but the routines were in-audible. I let Sebastian know that we had to put the project on hold until we could re-film the routines in a studio environment so we could make the demo as clear as possible. This time we would be much more careful to not film on private property while trespassing. Lesson learned.
After the fiasco of filming at Universal and getting ourselves into a little bit of trouble, we now had to work on marketing the product. We had a date set, March 1, 2013, AKA 3.1.13. We both liked the idea of the release date being a pattern and the numbers had a bit of a mysterious look to it and so the hope was that there would be hype built up around it.
I got to work on finalizing the DVD and the demo in order to have it ready by the release date. However, as soon as I began to edit I ran into a huge problem; the sound quality was terrible. In one scene it was too loud and then seconds later it would not be loud enough. Sometimes you could hear Sebastian teaching and other times you would just hear the sound of wind on the outside of the parking garage. What should I have expected when I chose not to shoot in a controlled environment?
I had no choice but to have Sebastian travel to Jacksonville to reshoot most of his explanations. I also realized that most of the demo reel did not look very good either and so we reshot much of that as well. We also thought it would be fun to include a bonus routine that I came up with and include it on the DVD. This was all happening two weeks before the set release date!
We ended up having to delete the teaser demo and pretty much tell everyone that we overestimated our own abilities. That was a major blow to the ego. Luckily the new footage looked amazing and the new demo showed the routines more clearly. Instead of creating a flashy demo where the complete routine is never seen, our demo clearly showed Sebastian’s handling for the entire routine without cuts. We were very proud of that.
I went through a lot of post-production delays due to the collapse of The Poker Test. I got the DVD edited and the demo made by June of that year. Which worked out well, as one of the largest magic conventions was about to take place.
Sebastian and I had a DVD made and we were on our way to Las Vegas for MAGIC Live to pitch The Hofzinser Anthology to some magic shops. We were overly optimistic and naive as can be. The friends I showed the demo to all seemed to be excited, almost as excited as us. The magic shops we showed it to seemed interested as well. What we didn’t realize was that they tend to be excited about every “product” that gets pitched.
I am always telling myself “failure is not an option,” but sometimes it just happens. Not everything is in my control; if it were, I would be a lot more successful than I am now. The Hofzinser Anthology failed. We put together a DVD with 4 solid routines that all get increasingly harder in sleight of hand. Sebastian and I learned a very valuable lesson in this project: people don’t really want to learn the hard stuff. Most people want to buy the DVD and the gimmick that they can turn around and do tomorrow. One of the reasons Poker Test sold so well is that both experts and beginners alike can learn and perform it within minutes. The Hofzinser Anthology really caters to a specific crowd of magicians who know sleight of hand. It took me about a month to really get down two of the routines Sebastian came up with. And there are two more that I still can’t do. As it turns out, I am one of those people who does not like learning the hard sleight of hand.
We produced one thousand DVDs to sell and about one hundred actually sold. That is literally ten percent of the product sold. It was a very demoralizing and humbling experience. This was my first venture into the production of someone else’s work and I felt as if I had failed him. I had hopes and dreams to make Pinnacle Spades a powerhouse to compete with Theory11 and Ellusionist, but after a hit like that at 20 years old, it kind of dampens your ambitions to really compete with two of the biggest companies in the industry.
Failure is necessary. I don’t know the struggles that Theory11 and Ellusionist went through, but I am sure they have had their fair share of failures before they got to where they are. … Probably. As cliche as this may sound, if I let failure stop me, then I wasn’t cut out to do this anyways. I will not let this experience stop me or slow me down; instead, I will learn from it and move on to my next project.
I know this was overall a shorter story, but I knew I needed to make my failures public. I think it is necessary for me to remember what I have been through and to let others know that failure isn’t the end of the line, just a blip in your story. You can quit, or keep moving forward. Quitting is easy, don’t take the easy path.