Even if you have a passion for the subject, going through more than 120 hours of dialogue in post-production can be annoying. But that’s what Seth C. Polansky suffered because of D&D, the game he loves.
Sound is a key element for Seth C. Polansky, who is the other half of Cavegirl Productions, whom he created with his wife, Kelley Slagle (see the previous interview here at PVC). Seth is also an attorney, a musician, sound engineer and an indie film producer, so it made sense to start this article and interview with a few lines that set the scene for the whole D&D scene and for his involvement with a project soon coming to the screens: Eye of the Beholder: The Art of Dungeons and Dragons, a documentary which “celebrates the amazing artwork that helps create the worlds in which we all play” as the authors claim.
The passion for D&D is expanding to new areas and also interesting filmmakers of a generation that grew with the tabletop game (for more on that read the previous interview, with Kelley Slagle, and continue reading this one with Seth C. Polansky. While preparing this article I browsed Kickstarter and found other film projects around the same subject that are important to mention. I also discovered, through my son Miguel, who plays tabletop games (he is 28 years old now, and has played games all his life) an interesting experiment, Critical Role, which makes sense to mention here, as all these things are different aspects of the same passion, and sound is also very much related to the experience of watching films. Sound is the “glue” that keeps all elements together.
The other D&D documentaries
Eye of the Beholder: The Art of Dungeons and Dragons is, in fact, not the only documentary about D&D that made it to Kickstarter looking for funding, a clear indication that the subject interests more people. The results, in terms of funding, also suggest there is, at least, enough people who want to see these stories told. Still, some of the documentaries have had a troubled story, as the comments section for two of them seem to indicate.
The Great Kingdom, a feature length documentary uncovering the true tale of the rise and fall of the creators of Dungeons & Dragons reached its goal last November. A total of 891 backers pledged $57,504 to help bring this project to life. The project is the second from authors that were also involved with an earlier project, from 2013, Dungeons & Dragons: A Documentary, which had 3,584 backers pledged $195,480 but is, apparently, not going to happen. Backers are still asking for full refund of the amounts given to the first film, after a contentious split.
A third documentary, Secrets of Blackmoor: The True History of Dungeons & Dragons is also set to go ahead. With 795 backers pledging $ 43,105 of a $ 25,000 goal, Secrets of Blackmoor is, according to the creators of the Kickstarter campaign, a “two-hour documentary film resulting from an unprecedented exploration into the evolution of Role Playing Games (RPG’s) that reveals the true origin of Dungeons & Dragons. It’s the story of the invention of Role Playing Games as told by the people who were there: the Twin Cities Gamers. If you think D&D is the beginning of the story, then think again: D&D is actually the end of the beginning.”
Eye of the Beholder, a look at the artwork in D&D
Secrets of Blackmoor: The True History of Dungeons & Dragons is, apparently, going to be more than the initial documentary, as the Kickstarter campaign has a reference to this being the Volume 1 -The Evolution of Fantasy Role Playing Games (RPG’s). The creators, The Fellowship of the Thing are, again, deeply involved with the universe of D&D and want to bring to light some of the secrets behind the development of the original ideas that led to what has become an industry.
Eye of the Beholder: The Art of Dungeons and Dragons, the film, which also made it on Kickstarter – and in the previous interview Kelley Slagle mentioned how difficult it is to get funding for films – takes a different direction from the other documentaries, as it centers, as the authors say, “on the stories behind the artwork that helps create the worlds in which we all play. The movie profiles D&D artists (both past and present), former TSR insiders, game designers, authors, and fans. Eye of the Beholder: The Art of Dungeons & Dragons is a celebration of the art we all love so much”.
The sound of Critical Role
The artwork is an essential element of the D&D universe, and a documentary about the drawings, paintings and the artists creating them opens a new exploration path for all those interested or curious about the popular tabletop game. Sound has also been a key element for some aspects of the game, even if not directly related to the boardgame.
Sound is a also a key element of the D&D worlds, and for a few years now, Critical Role fills that space. Voice actor Matthew Mercer leads a group of fellow voice actors on epic Dungeons & Dragons campaigns. These familiar voices bring the audience into the full experience of D&D, allowing imaginations to soar as the characters embark on adventures.
In fact, what began in 2012 as a bunch of friends playing in each other’s living rooms has evolved into a multi-platform entertainment sensation, attracting over half million viewers every week. Wizards of the Coast, the company now owning the rights to the original D&D universe, have twice discussed the contribution that these “experienced voice actors in video games” bring to the game.
A passion for sound
Sound is also an important aspect of a documentary as Eye of the Beholder: The Art of Dungeons and Dragons, and I wanted to ask Seth C. Polansky about his work as sound editor for this project. Sound is a passion for Seth, who is also a musician. The interview takes us back to Seth as a 16 year old boy playing D&D, not for a moment imagining he would be able to meet some of the artists that created the artwork for the universe, and to the present day and how Seth worked to clean the audio in Eye of the Beholder.
PVC – You’re a founder of Cavegirl Productions, which you created with Kelley Slagle in 2004. You’re also the sound editor for Eye of the Beholder: The Art of Dungeons and Dragons. For you, this is also a project of love, I believe?
Seth C. Polansky – Absolutely. In addition to my work for Cavegirl and EOTB, I run a small law firm specifically for creatives. (www.sethpolanskylaw.com) Unless someone is going to hand me a large stack of money, the firm will likely remain my primary commitment.
My reason for embarking on this project is that I am an unabashed geek. I grew up playing D&D, and spent untold hours paging through those books. To be able to interview many of the artists who drew this stuff? That’s just amazing! If you told 16 year old Seth that one day he’d be commissioning artwork from Jeff Easley or Todd Lockwood for the movie he was making about D&D – he’d have laughed at you.
Star Wars meets D&D
PVC – How did you, Kelley Slagle and Brian Stillman get the idea for this project?
Seth C. Polansky – We met Brian at a convention in Rockville MD. We were screening our first feature, “Of Dice & Men” (a dramedy about growing up but remaining true to yourself – and also about D&D) and he was screening his previous documentary about Star Wars toys. We watched each other’s films, and got to talking since our booths were right next to each other. Brian’s interest in D&D was rekindled as a result of our film. And one we realized how much we had in common (and after a bunch of drinks in the hotel bar that night) Eye of the Beholder was born.
PVC – You’re an attorney, but also a musician, sound engineer and an indie film producer, and your name, when it comes to films, is associated not only with the diverse work from Cavegirl Productions but also with titles as Of Dice and Men (2014), Ninjas vs. Monsters (2012) and Trekoff: The Motion Picture (2016). You are also responsible for the sound in Eye of the Beholder: The Art of Dungeons and Dragons. Did this project require any specific solutions in terms of sound?
Seth C. Polansky – Chainsaws. Removing chainsaws. One of our interviews (I’m not going to say which) was recorded without me. Brian wasn’t able to get the lawn crew to stop mowing and chopping down trees, so he did what any shooter/DP would do. He slogged through. And then I spent a week removing the chainsaws from that interview.
The point here is that you can never really be perfectly prepared – particularly when shooting a documentary. If you have 1 hour of a subject’s time, and that’s ALL you have – you do your best to make it work. We used a Schoeps Colette series supercardioid and a Countryman lav. We got pretty decent sound, but the cleanup was the “heavy lifting”.
I can quote the whole film now
PVC – You did have to go through more than 120 hours of dialogue in post-production. How long did it take you to finish this part of the work?
Seth C. Polansky – Great question. We didn’t have picture lock until about 3 weeks before we were supposed to deliver the film. I didn’t get a lot of sleep in November, and very much like every other film I’ve worked on, I think Kelley (my wife/a producer/the editor) and I can quote the whole film back and forth to each other. So, technically, the answer is 3 weeks. And probably about 100 hours.
PVC – Due to the fact that, I believe, the dialogue in Eye of the Beholder interests you, does it make cleaning up the sound more difficult, as you may start to listen to the interviews and forget what you’re doing? Or was it even more exciting, as you were able to listen multiple times to the artists speaking about a universe that you’ve known since your childhood?
Seth C. Polansky – Ha! It was exciting at first, but quickly became annoying. And I mean that in the best possible way. I wanted to concentrate on the content, but I had a job to do so I had to listen for plosives, dry mouths, background noises, etc… when what I really wanted to do was just close my eyes and listen to the interviews!
Planes, chainsaws and ice machines
PVC – Is there anything, in terms of sound capture, that you would have done differently, now that you’ve the final result in your hands?
Seth C. Polansky – I would have made ABSOLUTELY certain that I was on every shoot. I spent the majority of my time cleaning up sound from shoots that I didn’t record. In the team’s defense, they’re not trained audio folks, and they did the best they could. I mean, they know enough never to use the on-camera mic, whether a lav is OK, or if a boom is just a necessity. But they didn’t always know that the HVAC was going to be a problem, or the ice machine, or to re-ask a question when a plane flew low over the house. Or if there were chainsaws.
PVC – In terms of tools, what did you use to clean up the dialogue in post-production? Is there any special secret to make this kind of work easier?
Seth C. Polansky – Spectral cleanup was a boon, but the big three were the “auto heal” and noise reduction functions inside Audition, and the iZotope plugins. I’m not sure exactly how other folks work, but I generally put each interview subject on a track by themselves (two or four tracks if we used two microphones, or there was more than one location), lock it all in time, and then just do one person at a time.
And every time, I’m surprised by how much time it takes me to drop the music in and mix it properly. Our composer, Noah Potter, did an amazing job – but me being me – I can’t help but tweak it to death.
New friends and more love for the game
PVC – Has your perspective of D&D changed after this experience? Has the production of the film contributed to make you a more involved player?
Seth C. Polansky – It’s just made me love the game more. I have stories to go with the art, and I have new friends to geek out with over D&D!
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?
Seth C. Polansky – Absolutely. One of my requirements during our initial production meetings was that the film has to speak to people other than D&D players. The film we made speaks to the spirit of creativity, to students, to parents of creatives – to anyone who loves imagination.
Another interesting tidbit is that we realized early on that there is only one other kind of art that is called upon to do the same “job” that D&D art does. And that’s religious iconography. These are really the only two kinds of art that require people to engage in a sort of “shared imaginative experience”.
Playing D&D with the family
PVC – Is there any special moment or story related to this project that you would like to share with readers at ProVideo Coalition?
Seth C. Polansky – One of our interviews was with a former art director for D&D (Jon Schindehette). He told us a story about giving all of his old D&D books to his brother so that his brother’s family could play D&D together. With tears in his eyes, Jon told us that several months before the interview, he got an unmarked box in the mail from his brother. The box was full of those same books and a note requiring that Jon use the books to teach his own children how to play.
That’s why we love this stuff. It brings people together in ways the non-gamers don’t really understand. THAT is why we made this movie.