Using Finger Tutting to Make Magic Happen on The Magicians

Syfy / Syfy

The characters in Lev Grossman’s novel The Magicians don't use wands—instead, they make magic with their hands. “Learning magic is this arduous task. When I read [the book], I thought about learning how to play the piano,” Sera Gamble said at a New York Comic Con Panel last year. “You have to make your hands do very unnatural things … You can actually spot a [true] magician on the street ... because their hands can do things that regular hands can’t.”

But a vague description of intricate hand movements wouldn’t work for Syfy’s adaptation of Grossman’s trilogy of novels, which debuts tonight at 9 p.m. EST. And magic created wholly using visual effects didn’t appeal, either. So Gamble and fellow co-creator John McNamara settled on a more practical—and much more difficult—way to make magic: Finger tutting.

The style of dance known as “tutting” involves creating geometric shapes and sharp angles with one’s body—primarily the hands and arms—to mimic Ancient Egyptian hieroglyphics (it’s named after King Tut). When dancers do that with just their fingers, it’s called finger tutting; Gamble discovered the technique when McNamara’s assistant emailed her a video of it.

Olivia Taylor Dudley, who plays Alice Quinn, tells mental_floss that when she read the books and the script, she didn’t think about how the actors would use their hands to make magic. “I was like ‘OK, whatever. We’re just going to do some spells,’” she says. But when McNamara and Gamble emailed her videos of finger tutting, Dudley’s reaction was immediate: “I was like, ‘There’s no way in hell I’m going to be able to do this.’”

Arjun Gupta, who plays Penny, demonstrates a finger tutting move that "would slice someone's head off." Gif via SyFy.

The production hired Paul Becker and Kevin Li, who specialize in finger tutting, to create the motions for the spells. The goal was to give the show’s magic a language—like Game of Thrones’ languages, but physical. “There’s a theory behind it,” Dudley says. “Each movement means a certain thing, and then we revisit those hand movements when we cast the same spell. There’s a consistency, and it helps us keep track of what we’re doing.” Gamble told Buzzfeed that “We now have the basic vocabulary of the kind of movement of hands and fingers that would make something catch fire or blow wind.”

Becker and Li were also tasked with putting the cast through finger tutting boot camp, teaching them how to create the intricate movements they’d need to cast spells. That was easier said than done.

“My fingers just aren’t that flexible,” Dudley says. “I’m more of a single hand motion kind of a spell caster.” Li would come up with complicated finger movements for the spells, then send the cast videos breaking down the movements. Dudley says she usually balked at the videos, then came up with a compromise: “I kind of found the way I think Alice finger tuts, which is a little bit more gentle and specific. I would go back to Kevin with, ‘I’ll do the first part.’”

Performing the finger tutting on set brought added pressure. Many of the scenes in The Magicians rely on practical effects, which meant repeating the tutting over and over again until it was perfect—and resetting the practical effects each time. “If you mess up the tut, you have to keep going until you get it right,” Dudley says. Thankfully, Li was on the show’s Vancouver set most days to help. “He was just so wonderful,” Dudley says. “He was available all the time, anytime we needed help or couldn’t do it. He had never spent so much time on a set, so for him it was a lot of fun to be there. And for us, it was fun to have somebody who was so enthusiastic about finger tutting, something none of us knew anything about.” 

Even if some of the actors were really great at finger tutting—Dudley says Jason Ralph, who plays Quentin Coldwater, is the best at it—the production didn’t rely solely on the actors’ skills. “The tutting is augmented with visual effects, so it makes it look like we’re way better at it than we are,” Dudley says.

For Dudley, who grew up fascinated by magic—her grandmother even held séances every year on the actress’s birthday—being cast in The Magicians was a dream come true. “I’m such a dork for this stuff,” she says. “Our director of photography, Elie Smolkin, and the special effects people figured out ways that make it look and feel like we were actually doing the magic. I feel like a total badass most of the time.

“Getting to be a part of a show that embraces magic the way The Magicians does, and getting to see that magic on camera, I’m always blown away,” she continues. “It’s really satisfying to get to work in this genre and get to do magic for a living. I keep pinching myself every day.”

But it might take casting a spell on Dudley to get her to fully master finger tutting. Despite all of her practice, “I’m still horrible at it,” she says. “I’m the worst.”

The Magicians premieres tonight at 9/8c on SyFy.