Editing Eye of the Beholder: The Art of Dungeons & Dragons
COW Library : Art of the Edit : Kylee Peña : Editing Eye of the Beholder: The Art of Dungeons & Dragons
Kelley Slagle began her career in entertainment as an actor, so it’s not surprising the communal storytelling of Dungeons and Dragons caught her eye. Originally self-described as “gamer adjacent”, Kelley first become deeply involved with the concept of table-top gaming through directing and editing the feature film Of Dice and Men, a story about using gaming to tell people what you really need to say to them.
A mutual love of gaming, toys, and the culture that surrounds them led Kelley to meet co-director Brian Stillman (The Toys That Made Us, Plastic Galaxy: The Story of Star Wars Toys) and collaborate on Eye of the Beholder: The Art of Dungeons and Dragons. The film will be released on May 14th, and won Best Documentary prizes at the Gen Con Film Festival and Clifton Film Celebration.
Gen Con Film Festival (from left to right, Kelley Slagle, Brian Stillman, Seth Polansky
Kelley’s “day job” isn’t all films, games and toys: she has her own production company (Cavegirl Productions) and produces and edits industrial and training content, and talks about both sides of her skills and interests on stages like NAB Show. On Eye of the Beholder, Kelley served as co-director and editor in Adobe Premiere, collaborating with her husband Seth Polansky on sound design in Audition, utilizing Bridge and Photoshop for the large amount of D&D artwork.
And there’s a lot of artwork. This year marks the 45th anniversary of Dungeons and Dragons, a game that exists only in the minds of the people around a table. In its nearly five decades of existence, casual and dedicated campaigners alike have drawn from massive piles of books, figurines, paintings, and other media to find a way to share their character’s experiences even further. The artists behind all this have defined the genre of fantasy illustrations and media.
If Dungeons and Dragons is a celebration of what people can accomplish together with just their minds, the artwork is an extension of the sense of belonging felt traversing a dungeon campaign together. I talked to Kelley about her role in telling this story, from a directorial and editorial perspective.
Creative COW: Tell me about the process of crafting Eye of the Beholder both as a director and an editor. What was your process to construct this? And how did you use the storytelling aspects of Dungeons and Dragons to lead you to tell the story of the art of Dungeons and Dragons?
Kelley Slagle: We interviewed over 40 people on all different aspects of the game. Mostly artists, but we also interviewed some insiders at TSR, the company who published Dungeons and Dragons originally. And fans of the game, too. We got information on all the early days of TSR when things first started, to all the way through people who are freelance artists for the game today. They span the entire 45 years of the game. We started filming three years ago.
We went into it with the idea of gathering all the behind the scenes stories as well as peoples’ thoughts on the art itself and and its influence on people today. And we consulted art historians and curators and collectors as well of the art.
We really concentrated on how the artwork is integral to the playing of the game. And how much it fuels peoples’ imaginations, and how essential it is to that. It’s a game that only takes place in the mind, so giving yourself those images from the books helps fuel your imagination and fuel the game for you.
Interviewing artist Tony DiTerlizzi
As an editor, how did you deal with having so much of that material?
Oh it was, it was intense. There was 72 hours of footage for an hour and a half documentary. It was quite the organizational process and I lived in the Adobe Premiere markers panel, which was key for me. I took every interview and marked every single sound bite. And that is how I began my process of whittling down the material. Being able to organize things so distinctly was was key for me.
I had about twenty different storylines that I identified, things like the function of the art in the game, the early days at TSR. I was dividing it down into story lines, and taking the sound bites and putting them in storyline sequences.
Once I had all my storyline sequences, I would take that and then start constructing parts of the film, combining storylines together and refining them. Eventually that’s where the story began to be constructed, act by act.
An actual Beholder, from the cover of Dungeons & Dragons Monster Manual
Some people prefer to keep the editor and director all separate roles, and some always do both. And why did you choose to do both in this case? And did it cause any conflict internally with you?
I was a co-director, so I got to share. Brian Stillman was also director of the film. and he was not editing at all. He was the real check and balance for us. I could bounce things off him, so I wasn’t editing in a vacuum and I wasn’t directing only in my own head. We could share that duty together. He was able to come up with things I didn’t think of and vice versa, and I was able to translate that into being an editor, taking both of our ideas and making it happen.
Was there something interesting or new that you learned from this project, that you hadn’t really fully realized or internalized before?
It reinforced the importance of meticulous organization. I’ve walked into situations where people didn’t organize their projects quite so well, or named everything final, or whatever. I’ve always tried to be organized, but I had to take it to the next level for this, because we were working with not only 72 hours of footage, but I had to sort through 1400 items of artwork. Learning how to properly organize was the biggest lesson for me. I won’t do any other project any other way now. Simple organization even for smaller projects is so worth it.
Did you have to come up with sort of a library system or a cataloging system to be able to find all that artwork?
I ended up working with Adobe Bridge as well. Since I had to identify the artwork, I had to locate every piece and I couldn’t go by file name. I had to see what each one looked like. I used the program panel or the project panel in Premiere as well to view items, and I could view them as larger icons and things like that. But I found that bringing the folders up in Bridge and dragging them from Bridge into the Premiere project was a more direct way of being able to view all the artwork at once and being able to quickly identify what I wanted to pull in.
Once I had the artwork in, I was actually connecting directly to Photoshop from Premiere to edit the artwork in many cases. A lot of these pieces of artwork were scans that we did out of books and needed editing around the edges, or they had stains on them that needed to be edited out.
Premiere Pro timeline for Eye of the Beholder
What was it that made you want to tell this story? Was it a direct experience from Of Dice and Men?
The movie Of Dice and Men was a dramedy about a group of role-playing gamers and what happens when one of them wants to go to Iraq in 2006. It was a serious take on the roleplaying aspect in a lot of ways. It was also a comedy, but it was about peoples’ friendship and the friendships formed around the gaming table – and what they could say to each other in the context of gaming that maybe they wouldn’t say to each other in normal circumstances.
It really talks about the bonds people form in games like this. And that’s what really touched me about that film and about roleplaying in general: it’s not about the game, it’s about the people you’re playing it with.
The artwork only serves to amplify the playing of the game and help you enjoy the game with your friends, so you can all picture the same thing when you’re at the gaming table. You can all know what an orc looks like, you can all know what a certain monster looks like. It’s all about that bonding experience.
"These images are more than just a product."
People often watch movies for the escapist aspect. They play games like Dungeons and Dragons for similar reasons, but there’s more of a communal aspect to D&D. The shared experience isn’t sitting alone experiencing the story, but creating it together. Do you think new people are being drawn to this aspect?
I think it’s definitely had a resurgence with people. In the seventies and eighties, it was just people holed up in their basement that were nerds playing the game. And now a lot of people want to play this game for the social aspects of it.
Board games are becoming more and more popular for the same reason. People want to enjoy time together. I think that might be a little bit of a kick back from the internet age, where people are still distant from others because they’re communicating online. I think there’s a little bit of a reversal going on in that people want to get together to do something face to face.
You have a corporate video day job and then this was sort of your creative night job. A lot of people I talk to are in that place where they have a day job which is good and pays the bills, but is not as creatively fulfilling as they’d like. How do you balance those two things and spend the right amount of time on each? How you find the time?
I’m a freelance producer and editor so I don’t go into an office regularly and have flexibility. I started editing [Eye of the Beholder] in February 2018, and I was just working on my final export today of the film. It’s been 10 months of working on the film, with a concentration of about four months straight of editing, from April to August, for the cut that we did. So I actually didn’t do my regular day job work for four months. I worked on this only. I pulled ten- or twelve-hour days just on this documentary for a very long time.
It is hard to balance. Working around other things outside of the four months, it’s hard to balance doing some of your passion projects while ultimately paying your bills. If I could find a way to only do documentary I would. Even though it’s the most grueling thing I think I’ve ever done in my entire life, I would not have it any other way. I love the process of creating a story from all those different parts. That’s the fun of it for me.
“Women in gaming” and “women in directing” are phrases that are at an intersection of some very public social drama, and you’re in the middle of both. Have you seen push-back because of this?
We actually talk a little bit about this in the film, about how the artwork itself has evolved over the years – from being what you’d call the “female bikini era” of fantasy artwork, to a more refined state showing women as figures in real armor capable of doing more things that the male characters could do.
I’m very aware of that when it comes to the gaming world. It’s changed completely now. I think there’s still push-back, and the video game world is different than the role-playing world. I think in the role-playing world, we find a lot less of that push-back on female gamers. In role-playing, you can be anyone you want to be. That’s the way it’s supposed to be. It’s a very welcoming system to allow you to do that as a woman, or anybody.
Tell me a bit about your current or latest D&D character.
He is a Tiefling wizard. He’s a half demon wizard named Xea. And I am also playing another character, a half orc barbarian. Playing a barbarian is fun because you basically are going in and smashing things, which has a certain appeal to it. You don’t want to talk a lot, you just want to go and kill things. The Tiefling wizard has more charisma, and he’s more of a talker and does magic. But my half orc-barbarian is more about being angry and killing things. It satisfies two sides of your personality that way.