A D&D Deep Dive into the “Eye of the Beholder” with Brian Stillman, Kelley Slagle, and Seth Polansky
Any longtime Dungeons & Dragons player will tell you that one key to success is bringing together the right mix of player characters to ensure maximum coverage of the interesting circumstances an adventuring party can encounter. This D&D skill crosses over into the real world, since any large-scale creative endeavor needs to do the same thing, except replacing fighters, wizards, rogues, and clerics with directors, producers, editors, and all those other people in the credits. We can see this dynamic at work with Eye of the Beholder: The Art of Dungeons & Dragons, a new documentary film that follows the evolution of the artwork of Dungeons & Dragons from its earliest origins in the 1970’s to its growing mainstream success with the 5th edition of the game. The core team behind the film also demonstrates the power of multi-classing. Brian Stillman, founder of X-Ray Films and director of Plastic Galaxy: The Story of Star Wars Toys, served as Producer, Co-Director, and Director of Photography, while the co-founders of Cavegirl Productions (coming off the film Of Dice and Men), Kelley Slagle and Seth Polansky, served as Producer, Co-Director, and Editor; and Producer, Location and Post-Production Audio, and Legal Counsel, respectively.
We were able to speak with Kelley Slagle, Brian Stillman, and Seth Plansky via e-mail about crafting Eye of the Beholder: The Art of Dungeons & Dragons.
POPGEEKS: When did you all start playing Dungeons & Dragons? Have you experienced all the ups-and-downs of D&D over the years?
BRIAN STILLMAN: I began playing back in the early 80’s, starting with 1st edition AD&D, and also the so-called “Red Box” edition of D&D. I kept playing into 2nd edition, but sort of skipped over 3rd, 3.5, and 4th. I made the jump to 5th edition when it came out a few years ago and discovered that I really, really liked it.
SETH POLANSKY: I started with 2nd edition, played through 3.5, skipped 4th edition, and came back to the fold with 5th. Skipping 4th edition was certainly due to the “downs” over the years.
KELLEY SLAGLE : I was always what I call “gamer-adjacent.” For most of my life, most of my friends were gamers. I actually didn’t start playing until during the making of our narrative feature film about role-players, Of Dice and Men.
BRIAN STILLMAN: I was definitely paying attention as D&D grew in the 80’s and early 90’s, with the increase in novels, the launching of the LJN toy line, and the cartoon. But I also saw when the popularity started to wane in the early 2000’s or so. I never could have predicted how D&D would bounce back and totally take off like it’s done today. Seeing the explosion in the game’s popularity has been amazing. It’s really great that so many people are discovering it.
POPGEEKS: How exactly did your partnership form?
BRIAN STILLMAN: I had the idea to make a movie about D&D art after getting back into the game. I was just coming off of releasing Plastic Galaxy: The Story of Star Wars Toys, and I thought it’d be fun to work with Seth and Kelley, who I’d met and become friends with when we were all screening our films at a convention in Maryland. I knew they were gamers and I loved their movie, Of Dice and Men. I thought it’d be fun to collaborate.
It worked out really well. Kelley and I co-directed Eye of the Beholder. I shot it, Kelley edited it. Seth, our production partner, handled both location- and post-production audio. To top it off, he’s also an intellectual property and contracts lawyer, so he handled the legal stuff. In the end we were able to handle key production and post-production duties in-house. It saved us a fortune and gave us a lot of control over the finished product. Plus, to be perfectly honest, it was a hell of a lot of fun working together.
POPGEEKS: Brian, you had mentioned in an interview for Plastic Galaxy that Lucasfilm wasn’t involved with that project. Did you get to work with Wizards of the Coast on this project?
BRIAN STILLMAN: We reached out to Wizards of the Coast through their parent company, Hasbro, and were told that they weren’t interested in participating in the movie. They didn’t indicate having any problems or concerns with us making it, but they declined to be part of it. It wasn’t a big problem for us; most of the people we wanted to interview were either freelancers or no longer worked for the company.
POPGEEKS: As a personal anecdote, I loved the art in the D&D books when I was a kid (starting with AD&D), but it wasn’t until about a year ago that I realized I had never known who the artists were after I picked up an Art of Dragon Magazine hardcover book on a lark. Were you an ignorant/oblivious kid like I was, or were you always paying attention to the credits and signatures? Do you think there’s more awareness today of the artists behind the art in D&D and comparable fantasy RPGs?
SETH POLANSKY: I was completely oblivious to the artists. When Brian approached us about the film, it was an eye-opening experience to say the least. I hadn’t really considered how absolutely integral the art is to the game.
BRIAN STILLMAN: I was always aware of who the artists were, and I always had my favorites. Back then, they were not only credited on the title page of the books and modules, but they also had their signatures on the art. I would see a strange “-D-” or “DSL” or “DAT” or “DCSIII” and figure out who they were — Jeff Dee, Diesel LaForce, Dave Trampier, and David C. Sutherland III, respectively. Names like the Roslofs, Keith Parkinson, Larry Elmore, Jeff Easley, Clyde Caldwell, Brom — they became symbols of quality. My friends and I debated who we thought was best, and our answers usually changed weekly.
I’m not sure kids today are as aware of who the artists are. Some names stand out, definitely, but D&D no longer uses a “bullpen” of in-house artists, so it’s a little harder to associate someone with the game the way you could in the past.
On the other hand, Magic: The Gathering players really know their artists. Every card has the artists’ names printed on it, and that’s helped people learn who’s who. I think that’s done a lot to give these newer artists the recognition they deserve.
POPGEEKS: The big Art & Arcana D&D art book and your movie came out in relatively close proximity to each other. Did you cross paths or trade notes with the authors of the book while you were working on your respective projects?
BRIAN STILLMAN: We’d just started shooting Eye of the Beholder when we met Michael Witwer, one of the Art & Arcana authors. It was right before he started working on the Art & Arcana project, and we became friendly. Then, moving forward, as we all worked on our respective projects, we stayed in touch, talking at conventions or online. We’d chat a little about the projects, but we never traded notes or anything like that.
We love that book, their whole team did such an amazing job with it. I always tell people that to get a really accurate picture of this stuff, check out both our movie and Art & Arcana. We overlap in some areas, but each goes in different directions. I think between us we cover all the bases.
POPGEEKS: Were there any artists that you wanted to include in the movie and just couldn’t get the scheduling to work out with? Or was there any specific artist where you found your sense of journalistic neutrality challenged by your inner fan?
BRIAN STILLMAN: I’ve been a professional journalist for about 20 years, working in both print and broadcast, and covering everything from the arts to hard news. Staying neutral when covering stuff is important. But the nice thing about a project like this is that you can go in biased. We knew from the outset that we were creating a movie celebrating this art and these artists. So there wasn’t a concern about our fandom getting in the way.
There were a lot of artists we couldn’t get, mostly because they didn’t get back to us when we reached out. In a couple of cases, we didn’t learn how to find particular artists until it was too late to include them. And eventually we had to draw a line about reaching out to more artists because we didn’t want to overstuff the movie. You come to a point in a project like this where more names doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll do a better job of telling the story. In fact, you run the risk of doing the film a disservice by having people fly by without saying much at all. It’s a constant balancing act.
POPGEEKS: What was the most surprising thing you learned about D&D while you were making the film?
KELLEY SLAGLE : We went into the movie knowing the gist of the story after doing some general research. But there were always weird little facts that would pop up and surprise us. One of our favorite stories is about Jack Fred. Jack Fred wasn’t a real artist, he was a character created by Larry Elmore and used whenever Elmore, and then some of the other artists, were forced to release a painting they felt didn’t live up to their standards. So today, if you see a painting that isn’t quite great, check to see if maybe it was painted by Jack Fred.
POPGEEKS: Do you think Eye of the Beholder would have found the funding it needed if not for Kickstarter? How would you say that Kickstarter and crowdfunding in general has changed what you can do as a documentary filmmaker?
KELLEY SLAGLE : We paid for the pre-production and production costs ourselves, and then later we were reimbursed by the Kickstarter campaign. There’s a chance we would have been able to entirely self-fund Eye of the Beholder, but the post-production process would have been more difficult and it would have taken longer to complete. Crowdfunding allows you to quickly and directly reach the fans who want to see your movie made, accelerating your ability to finish your film.
POPGEEKS: There’s a lot of stuff that people thought was weird when I was a kid, like D&D and sci-fi/fantasy fiction and superhero comic books. Now, all those things are completely mainstream pop culture. What do you think accounts for that shift in mindset among the population? And how do you think that growth in popularity has changed the nature of the art of D&D specifically, for better or for worse?
SETH POLANSKY: The people who are making these games (and the people who are making video games and board games) grew up playing Dungeons & Dragons. D&D has influenced so many of these other pop culture phenomena. I think it’s forced Wizards of the Coast to step up their game and include more fresh and interesting pieces of art in the products. And I believe that’s a good thing for the industry.
BRIAN STILLMAN: The shift in D&D’s art in response to popular influences isn’t anything new. In the 70’s, when mainstream book stores started carrying the game, the 1st edition cover art by Dave Trampier and David C. Sutherland was replaced by Jeff Easley paintings. TSR wanted to compete with the paintings on the covers of popular fantasy novels. The art continued to evolve over the decades as tastes shifted and trends came and went. It’s a natural progression and I think it keeps the art vital.
POPGEEKS: Are you already working on your next project, or is there anything else that you’d like to plug or keep an eye out for after Eye of the Beholder comes out?
KELLEY SLAGLE : We have another gaming-related documentary we’re working on, but it’s in the early stages. We hope it’ll have as much appeal as Eye of the Beholder is having.
Thanks to Brian Stillman, Kelley Slagle, and Seth Polansky for talking with us. Eye of the Beholder: The Art of Dungeons & Dragons will be available digitally (on iTunes, Google, Xbox, Vimeo, Amazon, Vudu, Comcast, Cox, Spectrum, and more) and on home video formats on May 14, 2019. For more details about the film, check out the trailer (embedded above), the film’s official website, or on social media at Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.