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Making Magic: behind the scenes of The Magicians’ Hall of Magic interactive exhibit

Technology and stage tricks combine to bring the TV show to life

I’m waving my hands, and the pictures on the wall are moving. Next door, I’m walking through what feels like an entire forest that’s been transplanted indoors. In a third room, I lie down in a small field to see my outline appear in the twinkling stars that shine overhead. As I keep walking, I pass a doorway filled with light, a man seemingly frozen while flying through the air, a classroom filled with dusty old books and glowing bottles, and a seemingly enchanted mirror. But I’m not playing a video game or wearing a VR headset: I’m in the Hall of Magic, part of the promotional campaign for Syfy’s The Magicians, which returns for its second season on January 25th.

Despite the name, the Hall of Magic isn’t in Hogwarts or Westeros — it’s located in the William Vale hotel in Brooklyn from January 20th–29th. The Verge went behind the scenes at the Hall of Magic to preview some of the illusions and installations, and learn how the team at Mash Studio used a more modern type of magic — a blend of technology, special effects, and good old-fashioned analog stage tricks — to bring the show’s magical university, Brakebills, and its Narnia-esque world of Fillory to life.

Eric Fleming, the co-founder and executive producer of Mash Studio, was at the forefront of putting the exhibition together with the NBC / Syfy marketing team. He says the exhibit’s goal was always to “create the best experience for fans of the show.” To that end, the creative group worked with teams of artists and designers to make the installation memorable — and to encourage people to take their experiences to social media.

Eric Fleming from Mash Studio, who lead the project to produce the Hall of Magic

The exhibit takes up 20,000 square feet, transforming the hotel into a branching, museum-like space. Each room features a different effect or illusion inspired by the show, linked by a hallway that looked — even in the state we saw it in, still heavily under construction — like it was ripped right out of the show. Each room has its own style, and the various art and design teams clearly put a lot of effort into set design as well as effects and illusions. As a whole, it’s an impressive undertaking, especially given that the entire exhibition is completely free for visitors.

The show starts in The Passage, an LED light tunnel designed to disorient guests as they enter the main hall. (It also serves as a ramp between the space’s various tiered levels.) Guests emerge through what is revealed to be a grandfather-clock door into a Brakebills-themed hallway offering access to the different rooms.

One, titled Saga, contains a wall-to-wall floating library. Another, Illumination, is a false door that is meant to flood visitors with light. In Potions, an actress engages with guests, brewing drinkable elixirs and drinking tea while hidden subwoofers cause water-filled cauldrons to form cymatic patterns in a corner. Levitation lets visitors re-create the one of the show’s more iconic moments through the use of some clever staging and lighting effects. The Classroom lets guests engage in a “magical” duel of wills by moving a marble through brain wave activity. Another room contains an entire Fillorian forest, made larger through the use of mirrors, and concealing a motion-triggered abandoned dinner table. And the Practice Room implores guests do some Magicians-style magic by gesturing with their hands to activate various effects around the room.

Matt Felsen, who led the technical design of the various illusions

Matt Felsen, who designed many of the show’s technical aspects, says the team started by brainstorming ideas for magic, then implementing them with whatever tech made the most sense. The Abandoned Dinner Party set, for example, uses 24 servo motors to control magnets with motion sensors through a series of Raspberry Pis, causing individual place settings to shake and shift as visitors approach. The Practice Room mixes a variety of digital and practical effects to bring the illusion of casting spells to life: it’s controlled by the motion-tracking technology of Microsoft's Kinect, but the digital input is used to activate analog motor-powered effects in the room. Technology also factors into the exhibition in subtler ways. Linked Sonos Play:5 speakers provide ambient music throughout the different rooms. Hidden Arduino boards control motion sensors when people walk by.

Like many brand activations, the Hall of Magic is meant as great social media fodder. The motorized table settings, levitation platform, and magical forest feel like they're begging to be shared online. To that end, visitors can check out pairs of Snapchat Spectacles at the coat check to better catalog their experience. That’s a savvy move that will no doubt lead to more social engagement around the exhibition. (And of course, more free word-of-mouth marketing for The Magicians’ upcoming second season.)

But while the branding is a persistent reminder about why the Hall of Magic exists, it's hard to be too cynical about the installation. Ultimately it’s a cleverly made, beautifully realized piece of the world from the TV show and books. And while it’s easy to see through to the advertisement underneath, at the end of the day, walking into a library of soaring books or zapping picture frames from across the room by waving my hands, still left me smiling in a way that was almost like magic.

The Hall of Magic is open from January 20th to January 29th at the William Vale Hotel in Brooklyn. Visitors can reserve tickets at the Hall of Magic website, with walk-ins accepted on a first-come, first-served basis.

Photography by Amelia Holowaty Krales

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