MAGICIANS act from a profound understanding of human nature in refusing to reveal the workings of their stage illusions. They know the magic is diminished when we know how it is done, even though amazement is replaced by admiration for the skills involved.
And to some degree that sense of disappointment is also generated by "Special Effects," the big new traveling exhibit opening at the Maryland Science Center tomorrow.
Yet the exhibit (continuing through Sept. 3) is undeniably great fun and seems likely to fulfill center director Paul Hanle's prediction that, "We think this will be the most popular exhibit we've ever had."
A creation of the California Museum of Science and Industry, the exhibit offers more than 100 models, matte paintings, animation cels and other high-tech props that made the movie magic in a number of recent films. Today and tomorrow, workshops and other activities are scheduled in connection with the exhibit. (For more information, call the center at 685-5225.)
The biggest single display in the show features the 14-foot tall alien mother and actress Sigourney Weaver's power-loader props, which do combat in the film "Aliens." But they simply seem less impressive in a static museum setting than when writhing and dancing on the loading dock of a space vehicle. (Coincidentally, "Aliens" is tonight's CBS movie, at 8 p.m. on Channel 11).
On the other hand, it is fascinating to learn that on-screen realism resulted at times from suspending the "alien" from a complicated crane and at other times from two stunt men crammed back-to-back inside the machine. (There does not seem to be room.) Another stunt man was hidden inside the power-loader, making Weaver's moves for her, as if shadow dancing.
It is also fun to see, among other things: the yard-long Winnebago spaceship model from "Spaceballs;" the long nose that Steve Martin wore in "Roxanne;" the inner and outer workings of a skull from "King Kong" (the newest 1976 version) -- visitors pushing buttons can make it grimace; the complicated stop-action skeleton of the terror dog from "Ghostbusters" and the invisible tubing makeup rig worn by Robert De Niro to make him bleed in "Raging Bull."
School children at the exhibit during a press preview earlier this week seemed simultaneously drawn to and repelled by the life-size mask worn by Eric Stoltz in "Mask," and were also excited by the section on claymation, featuring the California Raisins.
Adults may find greater interest in exhibits on how matte paintings are combined with rear or front projection cameras, or other visual elements, to make a finished frame of film that oozes with realism, such as scenes from "Blade Runner."