Eye of the Beholder: The Art of Dungeons & Dragons (2019) — Roll d20 to watch

Tom’s rating: I give it four horsemen of the D&D Art-pocolypse out of four!

Tom’s review: Dungeons and Dragons content on Prime Video is pretty limited, but there are still some interesting selections. One of them is Eye of the Beholder: The Art of Dungeons & Dragons. It’s a documentary from Kelley Slagle and Brian Stillman where they were able to interview several artists who worked for TSR and Wizards of the Coast.

There’s something immediately charming about hearing people talk about what it was like to work for interesting companies back in the ’80s. The stories I’ve heard about people working at Atari immediately come to mind. It sounds like a completely crazy other dimension to me. While Atari might have been my first love as a kid, Dungeons & Dragons certainly was my second.

I used to have a fantastic collection of first edition Dungeons & Dragons books, including the Dungeon Master’s Guide, the Player’s Handbook, the Monster Manual, and the Fiend Folio. Unfortunately I traded them all away in my early 20s when I was jobless and needed money to pay rent. But as a kid I would spend hours reading all about the fantastic monsters and thumb through the iconic art that made Dungeons & Dragons what it was for us. There was nothing like it.

This documentary further proves that point. It posits that without the art that made Dungeons & Dragons special, the RPG wouldn’t have been as popular as it was. Descriptions of a large onion-shaped monster with a giant mouth and ten eyestalks coming out of the top of its bulb only go so far, but a picture of a beholder tells those thousand words with no effort at all. This art was always meant to be shown to players to help ground them to what they were fighting. (Pay attention to that, budding DMs!)

It was incredibly interesting hearing about how in the early days of Dungeons & Dragons they were very much just hiring kids right out of high school to do their art. In 1974, TSR started out in a converted house with the Dungeon Hobby shop on the ground level and TSR’s offices on the top floor. Jeff Dee reminisced about driving to this location in Lake Geneva as a teen, which was about a half hour away for him, just to see what they had that was new. He showed them his art, and they liked it enough to put it in Dragon Magazine – that was the start of his art career!

Eventually TSR moved out of this converted home into a converted hotel. The Hotel Clair became their new headquarters, and they replaced the hotel bar on the bottom floor with an expanded Dungeon Hobby Shop. The broken down rooms with slanted floors of the hotel above became the new offices for the workers. Just listening to the stories of this hotel-turned-office alone made it worth watching this documentary for me.

The stories of the artists working together in this location reminded me of what it’s like to work in and around a video game art pit. It’s a highly creative hub, full of artists, where ideas can blossom. This was also the nature of the Dungeons & Dragons art pit. Even better, when you put this many people together in one location, there’s bound to be pranks that happen, from the rubber band fights smearing unfinished paintings to the stories of desk supplies that were taped to the ceiling — this documentary had those fun memories!

As it forwards a bit through time, we’re introduced to four particular artists at TSR that, as the documentary dubs them, are the “four horsemen” of Dungeons & Dragons art: Jeff Easley, Clyde Caldwell, Larry Elmore, and Keith Parkinson. With the introduction of these four artists, the art transformed from being character and item illustrations to depictions of fantasy scenes, and D&D art rose again to a higher level.

It was fascinating hearing the differences in each of the four artists and their specialties. It also does a great job of not shying away from Clyde Caldwell’s tendency to portray women in a very sensual way for his 14-year-old audience. In modern times, it’s become a running joke that women’s fantasy armor is incredibly revealing and unrealistic. In fact later in the documentary, a panel presents how D&D art has now become more inclusive and also more realistic, especially in regards to female fighters in heavy armor.

Again, as the documentary forwards a bit through time, you start to hear more about the times when TSR started to become more corporate as they hired people who weren’t necessarily gamers, making often ridiculous requests such as “only use your most expensive colors on this painting” or “use ALL the colors on this project.”

Possibly the most egregious “under new management” moment in the documentary comes (after an hour and ten minutes of listening to these artists talking about the ground breaking nature of this art) when you find out that some shipping guys at Wizards of the Coast almost tossed the original artwork of Dave Trapier’s Player’s Handbook cover because they had no idea what it was or its value. Come to find out, several old pieces of art were simply tossed out, but thankfully many pieces made their way back into the hands of the original artists.

I would say this documentary is an absolutely must-watch piece if you’re a part of a fantasy art appreciation course. If you like Dungeons & Dragons and the art found within those books, this documentary gives you a great introduction that will respect the past, steer your eyes forward, and send you thirsting for more.

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