Three decades after its U.S. premiere on July 20, 1984, "The NeverEnding Story" feels magical in a way that's unattainable for a dark fantasy of today. It's twisted and rife with imperfections, but that's part of what makes it so charming. Constructing an entire universe was no small task, and it's part of why "The NeverEnding Story" is special in a way that certainly could never be recreated with special effects.
Thirty years ago, technology in film was limited to early iterations of the green screen. This was true of any of the '80s fantasies -- "Dark Crystal," "Return To Oz," "Labyrinth" -- and while each found a unique magic in their casts of hand-crafted puppets, none had the staying power of "The NeverEnding Story."
"It was really only blue screen then," director Wolfgang Petersen told Huff Post Entertainment. "It wasn't even called green screen yet, and that was all we had." These days, of course, computer generated images have advanced so far that we question whether humans have become necessary for a box office smash.
"Perfection can close everything off. It pressures you and rolls right over you."
Visual effects were incorporated for the flying sequences in "The NeverEnding Story," but nearly every other aspect was "man-made," the result of weeks and weeks of training. Each of the puppets required a team of puppeteers, who mastered intricate coordination prior to production. Petersen recalled a team of about 25 behind Falcor, with multiple people assigned to facial expressions alone. "One person was responsible for operating Falcor's nose, one for eyebrows, one for the upper lip and one for the lower lip," Petersen said. "You cannot imagine. It was just unbelievably ridiculous to watch it from the outside."
He remembered seeing the process in action, and the magic that came into being when the mechanicals behind the puppets were out of sight. They would record the creatures' voices in advance, and much of the work was spent synching up movements with words. Although, there was always something off: an eyebrow out of place or the dialogue not quite lining up. Even with practice, it was impossible to shake human error. The challenge, however, Petersen always felt gave it the sense of being true art.
"Perfection can close everything off. It pressures you and rolls right over you," Petersen said. "It feels like art because you feel the human beings behind it and not the technology behind it ... This sort of humanity behind this very simple technique. It's interesting that it still works 30 years later."
The lack of CGI perfection also proved helpful for a cast that predominantly ordered off the children's menu at the time of production. A massive amount of energy went into finding the right kids. Petersen saw more than 3,000 actresses before finding the Childlike Empress in Tami Stronach. Once he managed to get Stronach, Bastian (Barret Oliver) and Atreyu (Noah Hathaway) on set, the task of interacting with the creatures proved much easier than it might have been were they the product of a then-blue screen.
"There were far too many characters in the novel to include in the film."
"Actors now often complain they have nothing on stage to work with," he said. "They have to imagine everything. This was not like that. The creatures were there and they were talking to them. They felt alive. That made it easier and also adds to the warmness and the humanity. I didn’t have to say, 'Look, Atreyu, you are here are there is rock biter coming towards you.' If there was a rock biter coming his way, the rock biter was coming his way."
Another reason Petersen says "The NeverEnding Story" feels like "art" more so than modern-day blockbusters with non-human creatures is because artists were part of the creation. With the design process split amongst Italian artist Ul De Rico, production designer Rolf Zehetbauer and Caprice Roth, the professional mime behind E.T., Petersen and his team set about selecting what creatures to use from Michael Ende's novel. "There was just so much work that went into these puppets," Petersen said. "There were far too many characters in the novel to include in the film."
Cutting down the supernatural cast wasn't the only change Petersen made in taking "The NeverEnding Story" to film, and Ende was notoriously infuriated by the transition. In April of 1984, he held a press conference specifically to distance himself from "that revolting movie."
"A lot of people thought Michael Ende was a saint -- that’s how big that book was -- and I think it got a little bit to his head. He really thought, ‘Maybe I’m Jesus,’ I don’t know," Petersen said, laughing. Peterson had just come off dealing with a similar issue with the author of the book upon which "Das Boot" (1981) was based. Ultimately, neither writer understood what was required in the shift to a new medium.
"You have to make it more international for a worldwide audience. It’s a big, expensive thing to do. You have to simplify things and cut characters," Petersen said. "Also, the style of it could not be too dark. You need a big, wide audience. It was not a Disney movie, but we wanted to go in that direction of big time family entertainment. Michael Ende didn’t like the idea at all."
"It has very dark and scary moments, but life is like that."
The original book fulfills the name "The NeverEnding Story" in that its formatting allows it to be read on an infinite loop, which includes a loss of true self in the imaginative world, and non-ending that is certainly less simple and happy than using one's dragon-riding abilities to get back at the school bullies. Yet, while there were big box office intentions for "The NeverEnding Story," it did manage to juggle a certain darkness, which the audience -- terrified by Atreyu's battle with Gmork and passage through the Riddle Gate -- will surely remember.
"It has very dark and scary moments, but life is like that. It educates you and a reader like Bastian how to go through that and pass these sort of dark moments, to achieve something at the end. I think it empowers kids to -- as the Childlike Empress says in that goose-bumpy moment at the end of the film -- do what you want."
Asked whether he would ever endeavor to make another "The NeverEnding Story," Peterson debated what the film might look like today. He remembered that there was a "The NeverEnding Story II" ("I never saw it, but I heard it wasn't very good"), so if it ever came to be, this would be a "Return To The NeverEnding Story," based on the second half of Ende's book. Yet, Petersen knows he would not only have access to, but be obligated to use the three-decades' worth of updates that have emerged since the release of his cult classic.
"We would have to do it in today’s technique," Petersen said. "The challenge becomes whether we could find a way to get it as interesting and charming, and human and warm as we were able to do 30 years ago."