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Bringing the Magic of Cardistry to Life with Franco Pascali

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Final Cut’s Chris Amos and director Jacob Rosenberg on crafting the enchanting short film

Bringing the Magic of Cardistry to Life with Franco Pascali

The Reserve Label’s director Jacob Rosenberg recently released a short film about young (and incredibly impressive) LA-based magician Franco Pascali, edited by Final Cut’s Chris Amos. Final Cut caught up with Jacob and Chris to discuss the nature of making magic on film, capturing subject matter that defies explanation, and how they keep the passion (projects) alive.

Final Cut> Jacob, in the description of your Vimeo Staff Pick short film 'Franco Pascali', you say:

“When I met Franco Pascali, I was struck by how much I felt like I was meeting and hanging out with a young street skater. However, instead of witnessing skate tricks he destroyed me by his usage of cards. Much like the world of skateboarding that I was raised in, magic and cardistry are intensely personal and individually orientated in terms of the endless practice that is required to master them. Tricks are performed with decks and each person embodies a style that is distinctly their own. That style is reflective of the influences they devoured when they were coming up and their intrinsic sensibility that they develop as they mature. As I spent time with Franco I immediately wanted to point my camera at him to capture the way he dressed, the way he talked, the breathtaking way he moved cards and the feeling I had in encountering such raw talent. This is our first film.”

FC> The parallels you draw between street skating and magic are immediate and captivating. What’s your background with skating?

Jacob Rosenberg> I grew up in Northern California and found skateboarding in the late 1980s. I fell in love with it, but quite honestly, I just wasn’t that good. But I also watched Star Wars as a kid, loved movies, made super8 films and took lots of pictures - cameras were everywhere in my house growing up. One summer I just started documenting the skateboarding around me and making homemade skate videos on my VCR. This slowly turned into a paid career of filming and making videos from the ages of about 16 - 20 years old. I was in the right place at the right time and ended up in the scene filming some incredibly talented skaters who lived in the Bay area. I had an incredibly influential mentor who hired me to film and edit some big videos for his company Plan B and the rest is history. It was luck, perseverance and youthful naivete. I made a bunch of skate videos, but the ones I am most proud of are the videos I made with my mentor Mike Ternasky: The Questionable Video, Virtual Reality and Second Hand Smoke. Those videos are really clear reflections of that era (‘91-’94) when ramp skating was really struggling and street skating was getting incredibly technical and dangerous (handrails, stairs, etc.). Barely anyone was skating, so the community was tight and everyone felt like they were a part of the greatest secret subculture on Earth.

FC> Tell us about how you met the subject of your film, young magician Franco Pascali?

JR> On Christmas night 2016, I was with my family in Chinatown and we went to get Boba. In the back of the Boba shop two magicians were 'jamming' (magic vernacular for “practicing”) and I approached them because I followed one of them on Instagram. We immediately clicked and one magician, Fadi Dabs, started introducing me to the community of young magicians he hung out with. Fadi is in his 30s and is somewhat of a mentor and friend to these insanely talented kids. He has great taste in magic and we started discussing the idea of filming a project together and he told me that I had to meet this kid Franco, “he’s special.” Now, I had followed Franco on IG but had never met him nor had ever seen him perform in person. Fadi set up the meeting and we met at RVCC in downtown LA. Franco walked in with the most insane “I am not a dick, but I don’t give a fuck” attitude and I was totally taken aback. He was 19 going on 35. He was so present, so thoughtful in our conversation and he blew me away with his tricks. In that instant I knew I wanted to make a film with him and it was maybe one more conversation after sharing some of my work that he agreed.

FC> The film is dripping with style, not unlike Franco. Was this a deliberate choice?

JR> Absolutely. With commercial directing, you are meshing the creative vision from the agency with brand identity from the client, so you can’t always apply a precise aesthetic that you might be personally chasing. Passion projects are a place where you can inject what you want. With Franco, his closet is full of stylish clothes and the craft itself is sexy and cool when you look at it through the right lens. My stylist Emily Nagrecha met with Franco and pulled a bunch of outfits that felt right to film him in and then my DP Logan Triplett and I looked at locations where we could film him. From the outset, I knew I wanted it to be dark and have mood and I knew we would end up at a social club downtown to film the specific tricks at the end. These things always come together in the right way, when you have the right intent. When I looked at Franco, I saw the way I wanted to present him. There were five things in my head, there was one very direct and very cinematic portrayal and everywhere we went and everything we framed had to fit in that box, with happy accidents along the way.

FC> In the film, Franco says, “I need to be practicing. I never get bored of it. Ever.” Jacob, do you feel the same about directing? Chris, how about you - do you feel the same about editing?

JR> Technically speaking, the least amount of time you spend on set or on a project is actually directing the scene and the actors/participants. You could argue that directing is in fact the entire process, which it is, but the actual time with the camera and in the locations is so tiny compared to the amount of time you spend in pre-production and then in post. For that reason, and for the simple reason that directing encompasses so much, it is one of the most challenging and fulfilling things I have ever done. Every project, and every moment is unique, so it requires presence and preparation and giving yourself to the work, which is liberating and intoxicating. No. I never get bored of it. 

CA> I absolutely feel the same way about editing. I think every project I’ve ever done has taught me something new, and I have a really, really hard time saying “No” to projects for that very reason. No matter the scale in budget or concept I feel like I’m constantly learning and honing my craft because I am able to work with different people who have different styles, which lead to different ideas and approaches. I can truly say that I’ve never dreaded coming to work on any given day — in fact it’s quite the opposite — I look forward to every day because I can learn something new, and as a result, I can offer something new to that same project. I find that exchange between me and whoever I’m working with to supersede any boredom that someone else might succumb to.

FC> Glad you enjoy coming to work, Chris! Jacob, your cinematography is deliberate, somewhat unexpected, but simultaneously highlights the magic that Franco is doing. What was your process like, and how did you decide in what way you wanted to capture Franco, and the illusions he was performing?

JR>  First off, I had an incredible collaborator and cinematographer Logan Triplett, so it starts there. Logan grew up skating and Logan has a ton of documentary filmmaking experience. We both wanted to approach this from a documentary standpoint of being truthful to Franco and his environment and craft, but we also wanted it to look nothing like we had ever seen from magic. We employed a very specific camera lens that allowed us to have a cinematic look but very easily go from very wide to very close without cumbersome equipment changes that would spoil the moment. I had an outline of the routine with Franco that I wanted to capture and I had a pre-interview I did with Franco that informed what activities and things we saw. I know that everywhere Franco goes, he has cards and is jamming, so then it was about textures and easy access places in LA that gave us a look and a feel that felt honest to Franco and helped the piece. We got into Canter’s through a friend, we went to a smog check shop my cousin runs, we went to Foster’s Freeze late night in Los Feliz, we jumped on the subway and filmed the trip into downtown, etc. So through all of that, I knew we would get these textures of the cardistry and then it was just about performing some tricks for people to get reactions and then performing tricks for the camera. When it came to those tricks, they had to be easy to understand, easy to film and couldn’t take too long to show. Franco brought about four or five specific tricks to the table to film and I think three or four made it into the final film. As much as everyone wants to see magic, tricks for the camera are so different than tricks in person, so the above criteria is important, yet it was also important to not make it about the tricks because then it becomes a magic video and not a film about a magician.

FC> Chris, the edit really serves the subject and the subject matter as well. Sometimes your cuts are quick, sometimes they linger on the illusion, or even just a detail. How did you approach the edit? How did you and Jacob work together to assemble an edit that served the story?

CA> I tried to approach the edit primarily by allowing Franco to tell his story from his perspective in the most unforced manner possible, but I’ll get to that more in the next question. As far as the rhythm and beats to the visual storytelling that I correlated with Franco’s words, I was inspired entirely by Franco’s magic tricks. Through making this film I’ve observed the way Franco performs his tricks very closely. While doing an illusion or a trick Franco will spend a lot of time engaging his audience through talking and interaction, while simultaneously doing something in the background, or doing something faster than your brain can even process. So I wanted the edit to really reflect the way that Franco captivates your attention for a long, focused amount of time, while also highlighting how unbelievably fast his hands move at that exact same moment.  In the moment of watching Franco perform a trick live, a lot of the illusion he’s performing is related to where your attention is, but when you have a macro lens pointed at the card trick he’s doing, and you can step through the trick frame by frame and still not know how he does it though….that’s something that I can’t even comprehend….

FC> There are specific beats to the story, a clearly defined story arc - how did you find those beats, that arc together in the edit?

CA> For any documentary-style project I always like to do a pure audio edit first, that can be a standalone and interesting piece to listen to. Doing this really forces me to focus on the story that we want to tell. 

Specifically for this film, I knew I wanted the first act to build up some mystery around the subject without revealing too much - mainly because it’s all about magic! An inherently mysterious subject. So I thought hearing Franco talk in very broad terminology about cards, without knowing exactly what he does with them, and pairing that with some beautifully artistic shots of those cards would be a great way to ease everyone into a curious mindset. So once the audience’s brains are primed and wanting more, I think there’s a greater take-away from revealing the details from Franco that he’s actually a pretty normal kid that has a tight group of friends with similar interests to him - like a skater, or a filmmaker, or an athlete - just like any other kid in the world really! I thought that without having the mystery occur before hearing these details, they might have come off as a lot more mundane. So once the audience learns that Franco is a relatable, normal dude, they still want to know more about what he does with those cards specifically. And we’ve already opened the door for Franco to really dive deep into his philosophy of magic, and why he wants to be a magician. He is totally accessible at this point. And this aligns with a lot of the things Franco had said in his interviews, which, to me, was the thesis and the essence of the entire story - that he wants to change people’s perception of magicians. It’s not about rabbits in hats, or wearing goofy suits. It’s about having a passion for something without subscribing to any sort of preconceptions. 

FC> Franco talks about everything he does being “practical and beautiful - a lot of it is just really harsh, heavy curation.” Do you both find that to be true in your individual crafts? Editing and directing?

JR> What Franco speaks to specifically is being incredibly picky about what tricks he performs for people because those tricks are the window through which people see him. His identity as a magician is tied to the tricks that people see him do because they have no other filter to connect with him through. For myself, from a directing standpoint, there is a period of time in your career where you say yes to everything because that is what you are “supposed” to do. Then you slowly realise what you connect with, what you really want to say and what work speaks to you. The hope and intent is that you can curate those opportunities and if you are lucky you can work right in your groove. But from a commercial directing angle it’s competitive and not every opportunity is in that sweet spot. The harsh curation absolutely comes into play with the passion projects like the Franco film, because I am in control of the passion and intent to do those things. When you are in control, curation is everything.

CA> Yeah, I definitely agree with Jacob. For me, as I had discussed above, I truly do subscribe to the “say yes to everything” mentality. From my perspective, I attempt to use what I’ve learned from all of my previous projects to bring something new to any given project, while simultaneously taking something new away from that same project. So it’s not only about me choosing what I work on based only on what speaks exclusively to me, but it’s about me applying what speaks to me to whatever work comes towards me. No matter the project, I find it really satisfying to see my personal touch, no matter how small or large, on that finished project.

FC> Did either of you do anything, either in the process of filming, or in finishing the film, to accentuate or enforce Franco’s illusions? Or are they all just as astounding (and practical) as I suspect they are?

JR> They are astounding with and without the camera. To give you an example, we were at the end of the day on our second day shooting and Franco wanted to show me a trick he wanted to film, it’s the last trick in the edit and it is called, “Morph.” I had never seen the trick and didn’t know what to expect. So he shows me four random cards and very clearly shows me that they are different. He slowly places those cards face down onto the top of the deck, then lifts the four cards back up and magically reveals them not to be four random cards, but four Aces. I got choked up on the reveal of the aces, it is just so simple, so beautiful and so penetrating. I don’t want to make too much of it, but what I felt and why I wanted to make the film is that this is a craft that has the power to literally take your breath away and defy explanation. As adults with access to every answer at our fingertips, it feels important to put magic out there to take you back to a time when you didn’t know why or couldn’t look up how. And so I believe that if you give yourself to it and just consume good magic from a good magician, you just fall into a childlike state of wonder and that wonder, that elation is really good for the soul…

FC> At one point, Franco says, “The tool almost becomes nothing. It’s all about what’s done with this tool.” Again, there are a lot of parallels to be drawn between his craft and yours… Do you find this to be true in your crafts as well?

JR> The beautiful thing about directing and filmmaking is that there is a point in which all the conversations and preparation disappear into an undeniably real moment where all these people are present to capture what is happening. When you are in harmony with your collaborators and have given yourself to the moment, there is nothing like that experience and it always translates in the end result. It’s hard for the artifice and the process to dissolve away, but when it does, it is it’s own form of magic.

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Genres: Documentary, Dialogue, Storytelling

Final Cut New York, Mon, 07 Aug 2017 10:32:07 GMT