Eye of the Beholder: The Art of Dungeons and Dragons, a documentary about the tabletop game of D&D, will be published in 2019. Kelley Slagle talks to PVC about a passion turned documentary.
The generation of filmmakers that Kelley Slagle and Seth C. Polansky integrate is one of the first that has Dungeons & Dragons tabletop fantasy games as a youth and adult pastime, so it is only natural that, while those before them used as a theme to their films other subjects, this generation looks at D&D as an interesting theme to work with. That explains Eye of the Beholder: The Art of Dungeons and Dragons, the film, which is the reason for the interviews with Kelley Slagle and Seth C. Polansky, of which the first segment, with Kelley Slagle, is published now.
The film Eye of the Beholder follows a tradition of transferring the original D&D to other media, mainly video games. In fact, since 1987 that Dungeons & Dragons licensed games have appeared on the market, some trying to translate the mechanics and logic of the tabletop game, others using the D&D acronym as a means to gather interest. A bit like the original MUDs (multiple user dungeons) on the early days of the Internet, the D&D stamp sells among a vast, sometimes even bigger than expected, audience. That explains the tens of titles published since 1987.
From tabletop to video games and beyond
From Pool of Radiance, part of the Forgotten Realms series, published in 1988, to a modern day Neverwinter Nights: Enhanced Edition, from March 2018, which continues to explore the Forgotten Realms campaign, the list is long, and includes names as Eye of the Beholder, a Role-Playing Game from Westwood Studios published by Strategic Simulations, Inc (or SSI) in 1991, which had two sequels. Westwood, though, did not develop the last title, creating instead the Lands of Lore series, which is based on the D&D but does not have the restrictions from the D&D rule set. Baldur’s Gate, Icewind Dale or Planescape are names familiar to both videogame and tabletop gamers and all take us back to a universe that was created long before personal computers existed.
In fact, Dungeons & Dragons (or D&D) was originally created by Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson, and first published in 1974 by TSR (or Tactical Studies Rules, Inc). A derivation of miniature wargames, D&D is always referred to as the starting point for RPG games and what became a whole industry centered on role-playing games. As a side note, the Forgotten Realms campaign in D&D is also “old”, having been created by game designer Ed Greenwood around 1967 as a setting for his childhood stories. The Realms, as is usually known among D&D players, was introduced to the universe in 1974 and continues to be one of the most popular references, with licenses for everything from novels, comic books and RPG video games. Games as Pool of Radiance (1988), Eye of the Beholder (1991), Baldur’s Gate (1998), Icewind Dale (2000) and Neverwinter Nights (2002) explore the Forgotten Realms universe.
Warner Bros drops D&D
Despite the popularity of the theme and the complex universe around D&D, it never made it to a huge film production. A Czech-American fantasy film based on the universe appeared in 2000, with a sequel on TV in 2005 and a third film in 2012, gone mostly unnoticed. Previously, in 1983, an American animated TV series produced by Marvel and TSR run on CBS for three seasons. Warner Bros. had a project for a D&D movie running since 2015, but the latest news indicate that the company is no longer developing a Dungeons & Dragons movie. Still, according to Wikipedia, “numerous films have references to the universe and its characters, and D&D and its fans have been the subject of spoof films, including Fear of Girl and The Gamers: Dorkness Rising.
Eye of the Beholder: The Art of Dungeons and Dragons takes a different approach, and is a documentary that celebrates the amazing artwork that helps create the worlds where D&D happens. The movie profiles D&D artists (both past and present), former TSR insiders, game designers, authors, and fans, and its authors, Brian Stillman, Kelley Slagle and Seth C. Polansky say it is “a celebration of the art we all love so much.”
The Team Beholder trio
Brian Stillman has more than 20 years experience as a professional journalist and filmmaker, working in both the print and documentary worlds. He’s a producer on the Netflix documentary series The Toys That Made Us (The Nacelle Co.), and in 2014, he released the documentary Plastic Galaxy: The Story of Star Wars Toys through his own production company, X-Ray Films. Kelley Slagle and Seth C. Polansky are the team, wife and husband, behind Cavegirl Productions. The team began producing independent films in 2004, including 13 short films and the award-winning fantasy web series The Broken Continent, which successfully raised over $50,000 on Kickstarter. In 2014, Cavegirl released the award-winning dramedy feature film Of Dice and Men – “a geek movie without the self-loathing” – now available on Amazon Prime.
The common passion for D&D led the trio, under the name Team Beholder, to spend the last three years traveling the country conducting interviews, and uncovering original art and artifacts from every era of Dungeons & Dragons. Making a movie is never easy, and “to pull it off, we’ve had to dig deep into our own money pouches, and now that we’re in post-production and our adventure is nearing the end, we need your help to finish the documentary and get it out for everyone to enjoy.”
Digital version coming soon
This comment was posted on Kickstarter, where the project appeared after funding, a goal of $25000. A total of 1,068 backers pledged $61,664 to help bring this project to life. By the end of November an update on Kickstarter revealed that “we’ve had our nose to the grindstone for the past few months – the film is mostly done, we’re just now waiting to get it back from the color corrector. Once we’re satisfied all the T’s are crossed and I’s dotted, we’ll be prepping it for digital delivery. We’re currently reviewing the options available to us to get the digital version out to backers and our hope is that will go out in early December.”
It was time to ask Kelley Slagle and Seth C. Polansky a few questions about the project. The interviews will be published in two articles, as they complement each other and offer readers here at ProVideo Coalition a better understanding of the whole project, which is not only a documentary, but a sign of the love the trio has for a universe that made part of their youth and continues to be a key element when it comes to their pastime activities.
So, without further ado, here is the interview with Kelley Slagle.
A passion project
PVC – Eye of the Beholder: The Art of Dungeons and Dragons will be available soon in digital format. How does it feel to reach this stage of the project?
Kelley Slagle – We’re completely thrilled that we’re just a couple weeks away from releasing the film digitally to our Kickstarter backers after spending most of the year getting it ready. The film will be made available to the public sometime in the Spring (details are still in the works on that). We can’t wait to share it and our love of the art with everyone.
PVC – The Kickstarter campaign had 1,068 backers who pledged $61,664 to help bring this project to life. Obviously, it was not enough to support the three years spent traveling the country conducting interviews, and uncovering a variety of material from every era of Dungeons & Dragons. Do you expect sales to help finance the film or was this something the team wanted to do, because of their passion for D&D?
Kelley Slagle – We are grateful for the Kickstarter campaign backers, as those funds enabled us to finish the editing, color correction, sound and music and all of the other various expenses that goes with getting a film out the door. We do hope that our future sales will further offset the costs, but this was definitely a passion project for us. While I was a latecomer to playing Dungeons & Dragons and experiencing how the art ties into the game, my co-producers Brian Stillman and Seth C. Polansky are longtime gamers and fans who grew up surrounded by this game and its artwork.
Premiere at the 2018 Gen Con Film Festival
PVC – How was the documentary received at the 2018 GenCon Film Festival?
Kelley Slagle – We wanted to premiere the first cut of our documentary at the 2018 Gen Con Film Festival because it is held at the biggest tabletop gaming convention in the country with over 60,000 attendees, and we wanted to get it in front of hardcore fans of the game and the artwork. It was a special treat for us because many of the artists were able to attend the screenings there. We’re very happy to say that the audiences loved the first cut of the film and we took home Best Documentary. They also gave us great feedback on the cut that we were able to incorporate into our final version.
PVC – You’ve also created a documentary, with a series of interviews with different people, “Gamers in Movies & Media”. Was it used to promote the Eye of the Beholder or is it a reflection of your interest for gaming, gamers, geeks, and the whole universe that goes from board games to computer games?
Kelley Slagle – We actually created the Gamers in Movies & Media collection of interviews video to show at a panel that we hosted of the same name at Gen Con in 2015. The intent of the panel was to dispel some of the stereotypes that are out there about gamers.
On being a gamer-adjacent
PVC – Brian Stillman is a gamer, and he says “I’ve always been fascinated by the art of D&D”. You wrote, before, that for a long time you were “gamer adjacent”. What do you mean by that?
Kelley Slagle – I had always been what I call gamer adjacent – I spent a lot of time with friends who were gamers. My husband Seth C. Polansky is a lifelong role-player but I never was really one myself. But during the making of our 2014 film Of Dice and Men I became more interested in role playing games and started playing Dungeons & Dragons. My husband and I also host a monthly board and card game night at our home, so I am now officially a gamer, and no longer just gamer-adjacent 🙂
PVC – You became a D&D player during the making of the feature film Of Dice And Men, which is from 2014. This means you’re a recent player (in terms of D&D). Was that first contact that led to the Eye of the Beholder project? How did you and Brian Stillman end working on this project?
Kelley Slagle – My husband, who is also half of Cavegirl Productions as both our audio engineer and legal consultant, and I met another filmmaker, Brian Stillman of X-ray Films, during a screening of Of Dice and Men. Brian had made the documentary Plastic Galaxy: The Story of Star Wars Toys, which was screening at the same venue, and we struck up a friendship. It was he who originally had the idea for Eye of the Beholder as a lifelong fan of the art, and he approached us about partnering on the project. I had been looking for a documentary subject, and welcomed teaming up with Brian on such an interesting topic.
Running a Kickstarter campaign
PVC – Your previous work, as The Broken Continent, already indicates an interest in myth, magic, but you were not, at the time playing D&D (as you mention, you were “gamer adjacent”). Has the experience of Eye of the Beholder given you, as a gamer, a whole new perspective and love for the game and the universe, and a better understanding of the almost “religious” work these artists produce?
Kelley Slagle – Through the making of the film and by playing D&D I’ve confirmed that the art is integral to the play of the game, and is key to immersing yourself as a player in the world and its characters. The game almost entirely takes place in your imagination, and the art provides an anchor point for it that everyone at the gaming table can share.
Eye of the Beholder has also given me an immense appreciation for imaginative realism as an art form, and has put it on the same level as other forms of fine art. I’m thrilled to be able to highlight this work and bring the behind the scenes to life.
PVC – You created the Kickstarter campaign for Eye of the Beholder: The Art of Dungeons and Dragons, and you’ve had previous experience with Kickstarter, with The Broken Continent project, and you even have a 2016 course at Lynda entitled “Crowdfunding Campaigns for Independent Film”. How hard is it, nowadays, to get funding at Kickstarter or other crowdfunding platform, for projects like this? Is it still a viable path for independent filmmakers and small teams to make their projects happen?
Kelley Slagle – Of all the types of crowdfunding campaigns, campaigns for film and video are the least successful. It is hard work to run a successful campaign as an independent filmmaker, but it is achievable and worthwhile. There are several factors that made the Eye of the Beholder and Broken Continent campaigns do so well, but a key one is that we were able to clearly identify and appeal to our audiences – fans of gaming and the fantasy genre. Another key factor was meticulous planning. In order for a campaign to be successful you must approach it like a project manager and prepare to invest a large amount of time in the running of it. Lastly, it’s a bit of a catch 22, but being further along in your production process before launching your campaign is helpful to show your prospective backers what they can expect from your film.
It is always about telling a good story
PVC – You’ve a career spanning some 14 years, directing, writing, and producing a variety of work with your company, Cavegirl Productions, founded with Seth C. Polansky. Going through your work published on Vimeo, one discovers you’ve done some very serious and touching stuff, along with other things that are both fun and culturally interesting. How does one filmmaker tackle so different subjects? Are there different approaches or is it always about telling a good story?
Kelley Slagle – No matter what the subject is, from the most ridiculous to the most serious, it is always about telling a good story in a compelling way. Each genre and subject has its own filmmaking challenges, but I enjoy the process no matter what the film is about or how it is conveyed. I’ve come to discover I especially love documentary, since it usually involves creating your story in the edit instead of in a script beforehand.
PVC – I will say a word and you tell me what you think about it… EVERCARE (I am still laughing).
Kelley Slagle – You really can’t go wrong with zombies. Also, Brain Flakes!
PVC – Is EVERCARE (Redoux) a sign of where you like to be in terms of filmmaking/storytelling?
Kelley Slagle – EVERCARE (Redoux) is actually the second version of a film I made as a student project, as I say on the description “EVERCARE has been updated and refreshed with higher production values and a bit more fake blood.”
The great thing about EVERCARE was that both versions were shot in one day and the dialogue was entirely improvised by Rebecca Herron, the zombie care nurse in the film. We determined the questions and general answers ahead of time but the delivery was all out of her imagination. I love the mockumentary format, as it combines two loves, documentary and comedy. The film also fits right in with my experiences as a 48 Hour Film Project filmmaker, as I was used to doing short films on a compressed timeline with limited resources.
The audience for D&D art is broad
PVC – You work with the same actors a lot of times, and you are also an actress and participate in some of the sequences. I guess it makes it easy to create those unique visual and narrative experiences, as EVERCARE, EXTRACTION, SPYCE, when you know the people well. Or is there any other reason to work with the same people multiple times?
Kelley Slagle – I’m lucky enough to know several talented actors that I love working with over and over again on many of my projects. I do this because I know what they are individually capable of, and I also know how well they will work together on set. Removing any unknowns always helps with the production quality and stress level. While it’s not always possible or appropriate to use the same actors, I do like to do it as often as I can.
PVC – Back to Eye of the Beholder: The Art of Dungeons and Dragons. Do you believe there is an audience for a film like Eye of the Beholder, besides the actual (new) players and the “geeks and nerds” from the 80s that still talk about the good old days D&D?
Kelley Slagle – I think Dungeons and Dragons art has a universal appeal and that fantasy art is pervasive in our culture. Fantasy art is everywhere now – on books, in television and movies, and in video games. Anyone who interacts with these mediums can appreciate the art of D&D and what it has done as a foundation for all that has come after it. As I said before, imaginative realism is on the same level as other types of fine art, and the audience for it is broad.
From Premiere to Bridge and Photoshop
PVC – How hard was uncovering original art and artifacts from every era of Dungeons & Dragons? How hard was it to create the documentary both in the field and at the editing stage, and is there something you wish you had done differently?
Kelley Slagle – Gathering the art and other items for the documentary was a bit of a bear. We spent a lot of time scanning artwork from D&D books, modules, and magazines from throughout the years, as well as contacted collectors of the art for scans of original paintings. Narrowing down the selections of artwork that would appear in the documentary was challenging due to the sheer volume of work, but being able to easily move back and forth between Adobe Bridge, Photoshop, and Premiere Pro was key to making and editing my selects from hundreds of pieces of art. I used Bridge as my visual guide to the mass of artwork and brought pieces directly into my Premiere project from that. Then, as needed I made edits to art scans with Photoshop and saw those changes immediately reflected in my Premiere timeline.
Our biggest concern was that we had a good representation of artists and other interview subjects over the 40 plus years D&D has been around to convey our story and pay proper homage to the art. We knew we couldn’t interview everyone, but we arranged to interview as many as possible, and ended up with over 40 interviews.
We also knew we wanted to avoid making the film feel like a slideshow, and while we planned for movement and interesting transitions in the display of the art, we actually arranged to have some of the art animated. We also planned for additional animation of stories that artists shared from working at TSR, the original publisher of Dungeons & Dragons – stories that it would be impossible to have footage of.
I spent 10 to 12 hours a day editing from April to July of this year to make our first cut for our premiere at Gen Con, and then from October to just a couple of weeks ago refining our final cut. Meticulous organization in Premiere was what got me through. I lived in Premiere’s Markers panel and took advantage of its Metadata workspace, and spent a significant amount of time logging, organizing, and marking footage. The use of metadata and the ability to find, sort, and navigate with those markers were key to constructing the story.
Those initial four months editing were the most intense of my life, and I think if I were to do things over again I would have staggered the editing tasks over a longer period of time.
The documentary created new friendships
PVC – Is there any special moment or story related to this project that you would like to share with readers at ProVideo Coalition?
Kelley Slagle – It was so wonderful to meet the artists responsible for this body of amazing work. The best thing that happened is that we’ve developed friendships with many of them, and attend artist conventions and get to see them outside of the bounds of the documentary.
PVC – You were named, in 2016, has a Docs In Progress Fellow. Has that had any effect on your career?
Kelley Slagle – My time as a Docs In Progress fellow was really helpful in inspiring the early stages of tackling the documentary, when it all seemed overwhelming and amorphous. The meetings I attended and advice I received were wonderful, and I am grateful to have had the opportunity.
PVC – Future plans?
Kelley Slagle – Seth, Brian and I are currently in the very beginning phases of doing another gaming-related documentary which I can’t reveal the subject of just yet, but we are hoping it would have the same appeal nostalgically to gamers as Eye of the Beholder.
PVC – One last question. Why Cavegirl Productions?
Kelley Slagle – The name actually comes from a Cro-Magnon like face I’ve made since I was a kid 🙂
Final notes and the next interview
As a final note to this first interview from a set of two, the other being with Seth C. Polansky, my thanks to both authors, for their willingness to answer all my questions, and one request: please keep me in the loop in terms of your next game-related documentary project, as I am a gamer myself. Not the tabletop D&D but its digital versions, as Neverwinter Nights, having also played the classic titles, from Eye of the Beholder to Baldur’s Gate and beyond. I would gladly keep this conversation going. I also have to say thanks to Sara Pottle, from Sunshine Sachs, for all the efforts she made to make this happen. For ProVideo Coalition readers who are reading this… keep tuned for the next interview and revelations.