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‘The Art and Making of Dungeons & Dragons: Honor Among Thieves’ (review)

Written by Eleni Roussos
Foreword by
John Francis Daley
and
Jonathan Goldstein
Published by Ten Speed Press

 
There are no unexpected “art of” adventures in The Art of Dungeons & Dragons: Honor Among Thieves, none-the-less this art book delivers a satisfying glimpse into the design of the incredibly fun and lavish film.

Not only does writer Eleni Roussos give the us fascinating insights into the design of the film, she brings to our attention background details right out of the legendary roleplaying game the movie is based upon that viewers most likely missed during their first viewing.

It’s these bits of trivia that were the high points of this 198 page tome.

Lifelong players of the Dungeons & Dragons undoubtedly caught that the subject of the portrait featured in the vault infiltration scenes was that of Volothamo “volo” Geddarm, the “ultimate source of information” of all things within the realms of the game, but I certainly did not and I loved learning the extent to which the filmmakers made reference to the game in details big and small.

Whether it’s murals, weapons, costumes or mead steins, nearly every prop and painting is derived from the roleplaying game and its variety of iterations. The filmmakers worked closely with Dungeons & Dragons experts to get every detail just right and it shows.

What I did catch was the much-appreciated homage to the 1980’s Dungeons & Dragons Animated Television series and Roussos takes time out to highlight the translation of the Saturday morning cartoon’s main characters, Hank, Eric, Diana, Presto, Sheila and Bobby from animation cell to live action. Thankfully, Bobby’s pet unicorn Uni does not make an appearance.

Do you know the difference between a Wizard and a Sorcerer?

I didn’t. And this is one of the net benefits delivered in this work, an introduction into lore of Dungeons & Dragons for the uninitiated. Whereas a Wizard is more academic, learning how to perform magic though intense study, magic is in a Sorcerer’s blood whether they want it or not. Bards, Barbarians, Druids, Paladins, each feature on every character tells us how these characters and characteristics function both within the movie and within a game.

In a lot of ways, The Art of Dungeons & Dragons: Honor Among Thieves is a kind of guide to Dungeons & Dragons for dummies.

The presentation is broken down into four basic sections covering all the key elements of the film and beyond: Characters, Beasts/Creatures, Realms and Production.

We gain useful insights from directors John Francis Daley and Jonathan Goldstein, producer Jeremy Latcham and executive producer Denis L. Stewart, department heads, specifically production designer Ray Chan, as well the main cast members Chris Pine, Michelle Rodriguez, Justice Smith, Hugh Grant and more and we get a sense that this film wasn’t just a job, but a passion project.

Roussos also highlights the efforts the filmmakers made to use practical effects where, well, practical throughout, building as many creatures and set pieces for the actors to perform with. The catlike Tabaxi, Dragonborn and birdlike Aarakocra, all humanoid, were fully functioning physical creations brought to us by the late great Stan Winston’s Legacy Effects studios, each character requiring multiple performers and operators to bring to life and remained close to the original art concepts.

One tidbit that especially resonated was the design of the corpses from the graveyard scene. This was one of the highlights of the film. Not only did all the decaying remains have performers underneath the foam latex, they were purposefully designed with a classic 80’s movie feel from films like House (1985) or George Romero’s Living Dead series. Familiar territory indeed.

A disappointing aspect of this work, however, is that overall package feels too much like a polished promotional tool. What’s missing is a true “from the ground up” process, chronicling the early stages of development of any particular set piece. This is what I enjoy most from behind the magic material, seeing a variety of ideas evolve from inception to final form. For the most part, what we get here is fully rendered art that’s close to the final product with a few variations created via computer graphics thrown in for good measure.

Not enough credit is given to the actual artists, either. Of course, the department heads deserve their fair share, but they do have large teams of creatives that help bring their vision to life. It also would have been more thoughtful to credit the artists responsible for each creation next to, or adjacent to their work rather than all the artists being lumped together in a special thanks at the end of the book.

What we get with this release is a clean, straightforward collection of largely computer-generated art and fun behind the scenes information. If that’s your thing, you’ll enjoy this just as immensely as I did. However, if you’re looking for the exhaustive collection of preproduction art that goes into the development of a fantasy film, then The Art of Dungeons & Dragons: Honor Among Thieves isn’t for you.

 

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