The Cucumber Slice on the Wheel of Death

Knife throwing is for real. This came up on a different thread. Although it is possible to make a fake stage act that involves what looks like knife throwing, that is actually fairly rare. It is easier to learn to throw the knife than to make a contraption that would actually fool today’s skeptical audiences.

The following is a YouTube video that happens to be of a performance that Stephanie Zvan, Julia and I saw last September (I remember two or three things in this video that identify it as that specific show, that specific day).

OK, OK, so maybe that looks easy. Try this:

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19 thoughts on “The Cucumber Slice on the Wheel of Death

  1. Who insures the knife throwers? I don’t know why you say it’s easier to learn to throw a knife than to build a contraption to fool people – that’s like saying Copperfield must really have made the statue of liberty disappear because it’s so hard to pull off a camera trick. (And like I said, props for this have been built at least 130 years ago.) Unless you know what you’re looking for and can examine everything, you can’t really say whether it’s real or not. If the knife ends up in someone and they bleed all over the place and need to be taken to hospital then you know it was probably real (unless of course that was staged too). Mistakes are made no matter how good you are at something; as an archer of over 30 years I occasionally release an arrow and follow it up with a string of cursing while it’s still in flight. Can people throw knives? Can people throw darts? Sure, but you’re lucky if you throw knives or darts around a human for many years and don’t occasionally hit them. Personally I even have my doubts about the legends of Annie Oakley and Buffalo Bill.

  2. Mad –

    I doubt it is all that easy to find insurance for knife throwers, unless it comes from the same companies that insure stunt people.

    As for ease of throwing – it is a lot like riding a bike. My thing was throwing hand axes when I was a kid. I was never good enough at it to throw towards a human target, but I kicked the shit out of other nine year olds in competition and ended up coming in second for all ages, to a seventeen year old. I was in my mid twenties when I last threw, it having been at least twelve years since the last time and while my aim had suffered a little bit I was totally able to hit within the twelve inch ring.

    Throwing knives is even easier and when one is practicing for hours a day it is a pretty good bet that whoever stands the target is safe. Rigging up a machine that fakes this is not so easy – not if it is supposed to be realistic. I am a pretty reasonable engineer and I am at a loss for making one that really looks real. You have to have some way of diverting the fake knives – or having them disappear when one pops out of the board. You can’t get away with throwing nothing because the velocity is too low – you can see a knife moving through the air.

    On the other hand, throw the damned things for several hours a day for a while and eventually you are good enough. Then you don’t have to worry about people wanting to get in close to make sure it wasn’t fake either.

  3. Why is it easier to learn than build? Well, for these guys, they were already jugglers, so they have the hand-eye coordination and feel for throwing rotations involved. They don’t have the cabinet building skills to make a fake that sits on an unguarded stage for seven weeks, getting more and more splintered (in multiple places) as time goes by. I wish there were a shot of the back of the boards Mick catches the flaming knife in front of. Splinters longer than the big knives.

    And yes, people get hurt. That’s why these guys use each other for targets. They don’t let anyone else juggle the Garden Weasel either.

    One of the nice things about knife throwing is that a bad throw also usually involves a bad release, affecting the rotation. So good throws get to the target (sharpened) point first; bad ones often do not.

    Also, MadScientist, if you bother to look up any information about knife throwing, and compare it to information on a well-known stage magic illusion, it’s pretty obvious that the one is almost always real and the other is not. By the way, sword swallowing is also not generally an illusion. Applying “common sense” standards to performance art is generally a futile proposition.

  4. today’s skeptical audiences

    You make funny. I see these “skeptical audiences” of today line up to see John Edward and Deepak Chopra.

  5. They didn’t seem to be in any hurry to pick up or extinguish the fallen knife which was igniting the stage.

  6. Virgil, the two people who move around and crouch down in front of the stage are fire patrol. There are two more on the other corner of the stage. They’ll intervene if any fire comes toward the audience, but otherwise they’re just there to watch and make sure nothing gets out of hand before the trick is done.

    They are specifically there for this trick (as opposed to the earlier torch juggling) because Mick and Reynaldo aren’t going to split their attention for anything. Even the patter is on autopilot at this point, as becomes very obvious if you see more than one show.

  7. Stephanie mentioned:

    Why is it easier to learn than build? Well, for these guys, they were already jugglers, so they have the hand-eye coordination and feel for throwing rotations involved.

    That was my first thought, even before watching the video.

    I started juggling about 25 years ago. Knowing where and in what orientation an object will be seems to become second nature when you practice long enough and often enough. My former roommates at the time were also jugglers, and we spent many hours throwing balls, and clubs at each other, leading up to torches and knives. It became instinctive to know when you released an object incorrectly, or when your partner did so.

  8. Virgil, I’m a skeptic and I love a great magic trick. Penn and Teller are skeptics and they perform great magic tricks. I’m not sure I get your point. I know I’m being fooled and I love to try to figure out how.

  9. Well, I’m not saying there are no knife throwers (after all throwing knives are useful for killing birds, rabbits, and other small animals), but some acts are easily faked (despite the objections to making it look real and the imaginary difficulty in designing the prop – seriously, magic books describe how to build the prop). Actually throwing the knives does involve a significant risk, so faking it for a show is preferable. These particular performances look real – and notice how close the knife thrower is to the target. That certainly helps.

  10. Mad –

    Then by all means show us how it is done. Making shit like that look real is not easy, nor is the difficulty in building the props. If you think it is then please, prove me wrong and do it – or even provide some evidence to how easy it is.

    Here is a hint – you don’t see many people fake that.

  11. I have seen the “fake” version of the knife act and I’ve also read the texts on how it is done and handled some of the stage equipment for a knife throwing trick of the sort where the thrower does not really throw a knife at anyone.

    I know someone who knows the The Danger Committee and how they work.

    I know the person who is in charge of their insurance.

    I have seen their act twice up close.

    They are really throwing real knives. The person I know who knows them knows this. The person in charge of their insurance knows this, and I saw it with my not untrained eyes.

    You absolutely can fake something like this, but you can’t fake just any version of it. To do this the “trick” way would require a different stage setup, and a lot of other differences. They are not faking any of this.

    Now, truthfully, some of the stuff they do is hard, some easier, and they may adjust their patter to exploit how it looks more than what it is. But actually, they only do that to a minor extent. The grabbing of the flaming knife is, in my opinion, easier to do yet more likely to hurt than it look. I will not explain why I think that in open space.

    Regarding the insurance: No, their insurance risk is nothing special. This is a Ren fest. Across the way there is a guy who spends his day 20 feet up on a unicycle towering over children and drunk people. Down the road men on horses knock each other over with jousting poles. Up near the entrance two guys sword fight with actual (not tipped, yet also not sharp, yet pointy) epees in the middle of the encircling crowd. The fire breathers …. are eating fire and setting each other on fire, etc.

    (The time I’ve spent with Renfest people off site (or in the back lot) …. which was not at this Renfest, and not with these knife throwers … taught me that the most severely injured are the jousting. Of course, there was a trapeze act at that Ren fest and one of those guys did die during the act, but not while performing it at the Renfest.)

    And, all across the landscape are SCA and others getting steadily drunker and drunker all day.

    The Renfest is a high risk insurance nightmare from one end to the other, which is why they have a guy who is in charge of just that (and one or two other issues). A few very skilled guys throwing knives are diddly squat compared to a drunk visitor in a knight suit running onto the stage during the fire eater’s act and knocking something over. Or whatever.

  12. In the rotating wheel, the only serious danger is to the eyes and throat. Those are at the outside edge of the wheel. If one could get within a one foot diameter target, it would be easy to never hit a vital spot.

    If the target wore something protective under his clothing, the risk of serious harm becomes pretty small. The risk to the arm is only from a direct hit, to slice a cucumber the edge doesn’t need to be sharp enough to cut flesh. The point only needs to be sharp enough to stick in the wood.

    In the flaming knife trick, the knife that was caught was not thrown with the same velocity as the knives that went into the board.

  13. I do not know if they wear anything protective. It is possible that there is hidden armor in a couple of places.

    The velocity is not the trick with the flaming knife. I’ll tell you in person if you buy me a beer.

  14. I suspect there’s no protective clothing worn, and although you don’t need a razor edge to hack a cucumber, even a pretty dull edge can rip into you. In fact I’d prefer the razor edge; any wound would heal better than a laceration from a dull edge.

    I can imagine a few ways of doing the catching trick – it still takes a hell of a lot of practice though. If anyone remembers that ninja episode on Mythbusters, that guy catching the arrows has incredible reflexes. Even with their bows tuned down, the arrows could be traveling at over 60 yards a second. I can’t imagine the knives traveling anywhere near that speed.

  15. I just accidentally stumbled on this post. It’s really fun to read the speculation! I work with the danger committee I’m the one catching the knives. The knives are real, we don’t fake any of our tricks. We don’t wear armor or protection of any sort. Our show is typically have anywhere between 300 and 1000 eyewitnesses. We use colemans fuel for the knives and torches. The fuel will usually burn out before it will set something else on fire, which is why we, we are not in a hurry to pick up the knife or a torch that might drop. We have a $2 million liability insurance policy through performers of the USA. The danger committee Facebook page is a great place to contact us if you want real answers to your questions we also have a lot of eyewitnesses that will tell you we don’t fake our stuff. We always said it would cost a lot more money to build some sort of contraption to fake a trick rather than learn it. Best way to find out is to come to a show. We would be more than happy to give you a behind the scenes peek. We do Q and A after most of our shows.

  16. Mick, thanks for the info! If I go down this year I’ll definitely look you up and see if we can do a behind the scenes thing.

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