Eye of the Beholder: Documentary Review

It’s time to review another of the RPG documentaries I’ve previously backed on Kickstarter, with Eye of the Beholder, covering the art of Dungeons & Dragons. For those who prefer video reviews of this, there will be a video review coming later this month.

Eye of the Beholder puts its primary focus on profiles of the artists and some of the art they made for Dungeons & Dragons, mainly for the game through the TSR years, covering the first and second editions of AD&D. Particular attention is paid to the Big Names of the 2nd edition years, artists like Larry Elmore, Dave Sutherland, Jeff Easley, Keith Parkinson, Gerald Brom, and Tony DiTerlizzi, among others.

We do get some asides to OD&D and 1st edition specific artists, like Darlene and Erol Otus, but more of the focus is on the AD&D era, and to be fair, that’s because there’s a lot of art that TSR put out during that era.

The Keith Parkinson painting "What do you mean, 'We're Lost'" - showing three draconians arguing in the snow, which is discussed in the documentary - Eye of the Beholder
Keith Parkenson’s “What Do You Mean, ‘We’re Lost’?”

Now, while we get discussions of specific pieces of art, like Keith Parkinson’s Dragonlance painting “What Do You Mean, ‘We’re Lost’?” a lot of the documentary is focused on profiles of the artists, their artistic processes, and the internal culture at TSR in the art department during this period. Now, when we do get focus on particular pieces, we do get some nice interviews from people outside of the artists who in turn discuss that piece’s particular impact to them, both in terms of their emotional takeaways from the work – like an extensive discussion of Dave Trampier’s famous cover art for the AD&D 1st Edition Players Handbook.

For the record, I never had the Trampier cover – my first edition PHB, which I got in Middle School, was the Easley cover. I don’t own that particular one anymore, but when I decided to rebuild my collection, I went out of my way to hunt down the Easley version.

The back half of Eye of the Beholder gets into some of how the art for D&D, particularly with 5th edition, has tried to get more inclusive, both by scaling back some of the gratuitous cheesecake, as well as making sure people outside of just white dudes are represented in the game’s art as well – combined with some interviews with some of the artists for 5th edition D&D, giving their thoughts on the art of past editions – thoughts that are generally favorable.

As a documentary, it doesn’t stand alone as well as I’d like. The moments where we focus on particular paintings and get to see the artists give their thoughts on making them, and seeing gamers, and the artists’ peers react to those pieces are great. I also like the looks at the culture inside TSR, how the art was viewed at various points in time inside the company, and ultimately how the original pieces were spectacularly undervalued by management as the company approached its end.

This is definitely something that I’d recommend alongside the Dungeons & Dragons artbook, Art & Arcana, which I’ve previously reviewed. Both works combined do a much better job of presenting the full picture.

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