After the tremendous success of shows like Pop and American Idol, X-Factor UK, and X-Factor US, entertainment mogul Simon Cowell introduced yet another reality entertainment competition show to the world. On June 9, 2007, Britain’s Got Talent (BGT) premiered with contestants of all ages presenting a talent of their choosing with the hopes of winning the hearts of the audience, a chance to perform before the British royal family at the annual Royal Variety Show, a sizable cash prize, and fame.
Each season, BGT draws in close to 10 million viewers looking to be entertained by singers, dancers, magicians, and variety acts. Some of the performances are comically terrible, while others can be mind blowing. Magic acts have long been fan and judge favorites of the show for their ability to stun and encourage imaginations. When presenting a magic trick, the performer needs to create an illusion that is unique, captivating, and mysterious. This past season, Swiss magician Marco Tempest completely stunned the BGT judges and audience with an illusion that lasted less than 3 minutes.
Marco’s appearance on the BGT stage was far from his first large performance. He has been a part of several television specials and toured the world with his trademark blend of magical illusion and technology. “I combine magic and science to create illusions,” Marco says. “I work with new media and interactive technologies, things like artificial intelligence or computer vision, and integrate them into my magic.” When Marco walked onto the BGT stage in March of 2020, the technology he had with him was a swarm of small drones.
Micro drones have become the next big thing in entertainment. Drone light shows are replacing firework shows around the world. The small light-up drones are easy to use and hugely impressive, all while being safer and far less expensive than traditional fireworks. From the opening ceremonies of the 2018 Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, South Korea to the multitude of New Year’s Eve displays, drone light shows have become the new standard for safely wowing large crowds. These drones are even joining performers like Celine Dione, Lady Gaga, and Drake on stage, creating breathtaking stories to accompany the performance. Marco’s act was not the first time drones have taken to the BGT stage.
In 2016, for BGT’s 10th season London based dancers Nadia and Gavin of Flying Bebop dazzled the judges and audience with a dance choreographed with drones. Even the hosts were blown away, jokingly teasing the backstage cameraman that he was just a boring 2 legged cameraman instead of a drone camera that could zoom out onto the stage. The judges were so impressed that Flying Bebop advanced to the semi-final round where they once again choreographed a dance with a swarm of drones. For this performance, only Gavin danced with the drones in an act that invoked a human/alien battle, per request from Simon Cowell. All the actions of the drones were pre-programed, creating a seamless dance.
Marco took a slightly different approach with his drone supported illusion. He approached the judge’s table and had Simon examine a dice to ensure it was real and not weighted in any way. Next, he handed judge Amanda Holden a cup and had her place the dice into the cup, shake it up, flip it over onto the table, and peek at the number, keeping it hidden from everyone else. He then brought Amanda up onto a stage covered in a ground layer of fog. He begins to tell her that he isn’t a mind reader, but he has some friends with him who are. He mysteriously sweeps his hand out in front of him and 15 drones lift out of the fog, encircling him and Amanda. The audience and Amanda gasp as the drones begin to swirl around and Marco speaks of living in a world full of technology and surveillance. He explains that the 15 drones will observe the micro-expressions on Amanda’s face as he counts out the 6 possible digits that could be the number Amanda read on the dice.
The drones pan in front of Amanda and Marco illuminated with red lights. Marco counts out from 1-6, then promptly asks Simon to reveal the number facing up on the dice, the number Amanda has kept in her mind. Simultaneously, the drones zip behind Amanda and Marco. Simon reveals it is 3, while Marco draws the audience’s attention to the fact that only 3 drones are now lit up red. The drone’s artificial intelligence system was able to read the minute changes in Amanda’s face as Marco called out the numbers, like magic!
It makes sense to see technology as magic. As Marco pointed out in a TED talk, 100 years ago the technology behind drones would be to a magician like the illusion of levitation. Magicians have always relied on technology to make their illusions appear more realistic. Marco simply chooses not to hide the technology, but emphasize it. After all, we are living in an age of technology when things like drones are becoming a part of our everyday existence. As Marco said, “Combining magic with technology is a good way to influence the trajectory of where technology is going and show people what technology could be in our lives and what it shouldn’t be.”