Whether you started playing Dungeons & Dragons out of the original woodgrain-colored box and the three little brown booklets inside or you’re new to the hobby and go completely digital with D&D Beyond, before you make a single die roll, you’re drawn in by art. From Greg Bell’s Doctor Strange “inspired” mounted warrior on the original 1974 box cover to Tyler Jacobson’s depiction of an adventurer battling King Snurre on the fifth edition Dungeons & Dragons Player’s Handbook, fantasy art’s history and influence on D&D is woven into the fabric of the game.
The stories behind the art, helping to create the worlds we play in, are the focus of the new documentary Eye of the Beholder: The Art of Dungeons & Dragons from the team of X-Ray Films and Cavegirl Productions. The film profiles artists who contributed to the rich world of fantasy D&D art and features insiders, designers, writers and fans sharing the impact of art on their games and lives.
Documentary filmmaker Brian Stillman from X-Ray Films, whose previous work includes Plastic Galaxy: The Story of of Star Wars Toys, took some time to speak with me while walking the streets of his hometown New York City.
Nerdarchy first encountered Stillman on the Fan2Sea Cruise where he sat down with Nerdarchists Ted and Ryan to talk about Eye of the Beholder, and was one of the earliest guests of the Nerdarchy live chat.
X-Ray Films’ partner on the film is Kelley Slagle and Seth C. Polansky’s Cavegirl Productions. Their previous work includes Of Dice and Men, a dramedy feature film based on the critically-acclaimed play written by Cameron McNary. [NERDITOR’S NOTE: I highly recommend checking out Of Dice and Men, it’s a truly excellent film.]
Here are the highlights of my conversation with Stillman about Eye of the Beholder: The Art of Dungeons & Dragons, how it came about and evolved, release date goals and in general what a couple of nerdy D&D fans think about fantasy art.
How long has Eye of the Beholder been in production?
“We’ve been working on Eye of the Beholder for three years. Gen Con 2017 was what I’m marking as the third year on the project. I started a little bit earlier than that, in preproduction, before I felt like I had a strong enough idea to bring to Seth Polansky and Kelley Slagle – my two partners on the film. I wanted to flesh out the idea and make sure I knew whether this thing had any legs. I reached out to the first artist, as I remember, at Gen Con 2015. That was Christopher Burdett.”
Did the idea for the film evolve from what you originally envisioned?
“It’s evolved a little bit, in the sense that as we’ve talked to more people and we’ve had more information about the subject, we’ve been better able to decide on areas where we want to push the story. There haven’t been any huge revelations that completely shifted the focus or anything like that. I had a pretty good sense even from the very beginning what I wanted it to be, which is something that explores the history of this art and also the love of this art – why people care so much about it. Where it came from, how it developed, the people involved – who are these artists? And why, after 40 years, do we still care?”
Do you have a ballpark release date in mind?
“Right now we’re leaning towards and hoping for Gen Con 2018 for our release. We’ll submit it to the film festival, and if they accept it that’s when we’d like to release it. I’m comfortable that if the movie’s good, they’ll take it. We’d love to release it there for the obvious connection – it’s the history of gaming and all these artists. But if it’s not done, we’re not going to rush it. I’d rather it be good and accurate and complete. Having that deadline is pretty important to us. We’re serious about hitting it.”
What was your inspiration for starting this project?
“I’m a gamer. I’ve played Dungeons & Dragons since first edition. I grew up on first edition and second edition. As a kid I always loved the art just as much as I loved the game. Buying the Player’s Handbook or buying modules or buying any of those books, yeah, I wanted the information as it pertained to playing the game. But I also wanted them because they were cool books full of monsters, and warriors, and wizards and all sorts of cool places and other worlds. And growing up there weren’t a lot of places to see that. We didn’t have books of fantasy art. We didn’t have museums devoted to fantasy art. All the things we have today – we didn’t have the internet. When my friends and I wanted to see this stuff we’d go to Barnes & Noble to the gaming section and sit on the floor and pull down books. ‘Look at this, it’s awesome! What the hell is that? This thing is really cool!’ I wanted to make a movie to explore that side of things. I figured if I dig that stuff, someone else does as well.”
Was there anyone you were personally extra excited to interview? I’m a big Erol Otus fan, myself
“It’s sounds like a lame answer, but everybody. Yeah, Erol Otus is a great example. His stuff was always so weird and surreal… When I landed the Erol Otus interview… I freaked out. I’m pretty sure I told him this, that when I hung up the phone after talking to him I had to sit down and take a few deep breaths. I was like ‘I just had a conversation for the last hour with Erol Otus, and I’m going to fly out to his house to interview the guy.’ He still has original art, like his Dragon Magazine art. He has a couple of things from the game itself. And I thought ‘I can’t believe I’m seeing this stuff.’You’re talking with [the artists] and hearing all these stories and they’re expanding on what little you know about the history. They’re filling in all the blanks and you’re learning all this stuff. For each of us – myself, Seth and Kelley – it was different. Kelley is a huge, huge Brom fan. I mean, who’s not? But Brom for Kelley was someone she was super excited to meet. When we went out to meet him, he lived up to all our expectations. He’s got a cool creek running through the back of his house, and embedded into the banks are things you’d expect to find, like stones, and plants and ferns. But also, dozens of skulls half-buried in the ground and poking out from nooks and crannies. You don’t see them at first. You’re like ‘oh, what a pretty creek…wait…what the hell is that?’ Brom is awesome. He’s not weird and pretentious about it. Because he’s a brilliant artist he finds all these clever ways to use this stuff.Elmore and Easley were big ones for me as well. They all were. Anyone you mention I’ll think ‘that was a big one for me as well.’ But when we got to Larry’s house in Kentucky, he’s just a cool, laid back guy. He’s all smiles. Super cheerful and friendly. He’s got a Southern drawl, and he’s got his hot rod out back. There’s a rifle over the mantle in his studio and you’re just like ‘yeah, that’s Larry Elmore, awesome!’All this cool stuff that comes to life when you meet these people is just incredible… It’s like a dream come true”
Was there anything that surprised you along the way, like unusual themes or perspectives that emerged?
“It was more learning more details than you simply ever could have imagined. Like Diesel [David S. LaForce] telling us about the TSR buildings they worked in and how in one of them the top floor was basically condemned. Or how he would sneak in because he’d work weird hours sometimes and get there before they opened. So he’d climb up the fire escape and sneak in through the back window.They were really big into rubber band fights, and they’d play pranks on each other all the time. They’d play darts all the time and have radio wars because they couldn’t agree on what to listen to. Things you would never guess, until someone tells you those stories.I forget who told us this, but they were having a rubber band war. Someone fired a rubber band and – Jeff Easley wasn’t there – but someone fired a rubber band and it ricocheted off of one of his paintings and smeared the paint. Like, across a character’s face. It really messed it up. So they went over and fixed it. So somewhere out there is a Jeff Easley painting that three other artists worked on. When he got back to work, he never noticed.One thing they’ve all said is, yeah, there were problems, and there were certainly issues, but generally speaking it [TSR] was a fun place to work. Surrounded by cool people doing at the time the best fantasy art in the world.”Gaming art is called upon to do something that no other art is asked to do. And that’s create a shared, virtual environment among a bunch of people. It’s not like a comic book where we’re going to show you a picture of this world, or a book cover to show you a scene, because you don’t have to inhabit those worlds. With gaming art, you have to act in these worlds. You have to be in this world, and everyone in this world has to kind of be on the same page. Gaming art is what does that.One of the artists told me, the only other art that does that is religious art… It has to create this world where everyone can kind of participate in it.”
What does D&D art mean to you?
Are you excited about Eye of the Beholder: The Art of Dungeons & Dragons? Is there a piece of art from D&D history or any roleplaying game that had a huge impact on you? What’s your favorite piece of fantasy art, or favorite artist? Let us know in the comments below, and keep up to date with the film by liking the Facebook page and visiting the website.