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The NeverEnding Story: A Masterclass in Blending Cinematic Techniques

Written by Fathom Events on Jun 28, 2024 12:32 PM

Practical Effects. Special Effects. CGI, and more recently A.I. have become staples of our moviegoing experience. Filmmakers have explored cinematic techniques and ways of pushing the medium forward, for better or for worse, since the earliest days of film.  

Arguably one of the most iconic fantasy films from the ‘80s, The NeverEnding Story, became an instant classic due to its revolutionary effects. Produced by Bavaria Studios, the project became the most expensive film in German history, according to the films cinematographer, Jost Vacano, due to the “incredible assemblage of special effects – 300 bluescreen shots, numerous matte paintings, computer motion control, and many other effects that had never been used together in our industry in so great a number” [1].  

To achieve the essence of the novel’s storyline, the production worked tirelessly to push the boundaries of cinema, creating a masterclass in blending cinematic techniques. With the film coming to theaters nationwide this July for its 40th anniversary, we wanted to define what each of these effects are and how The NeverEnding Story helped push the film industry towards modern techniques.  

Effects. Effects. Effects.  

Practical Effects in film are real-world effects created by hand without the use of computer graphics. They are usually combined with special effects to create a more realistic look compared to CGI. One of the most famous examples of blending practical effects to create a magical frame in The NeverEnding Story are the Ivory Tower shots. 

The production created a model of the tower, using an enormous number of lights and bluescreens to create the atmosphere. In one instance, the model “simply melted before [the teams] eyes during one take” [1]. This challenged the effects department to invent more creative ways of building these optical effects.  

Another example of blending practical and special effects can be seen during the Swamps of Sadness sequence. The crew used 120 space lights, smoke, steam, dry ice, and a painted background to replicate the eerie feeling of this biome. In addition, a hydraulic platform was built and used to lower Artax (the horse) into the mud during this sequence. The combination of effects created such a believable illusion for audiences that many thought the horse lost its life during filming.  

Special Effects, or SFX are visual and mechanical tricks used in film to create an illusion. They are often practical and are usually broken down into mechanical and optical. The classic example of a mechanical special effect in The NeverEnding Story can be seen during the flights of Atreyu on Falkor. The head of the Falkor was mechanically built and animated by 18 operators, each controlling four separate movements. To replicate flight the production combined the mechanical special effects with optical ones (bluescreens and camera tricks) while the camera glided along the set on a crane. In total, Falkor was built with 6,000 plastic scales and is a 43-foot-long motorized creature.  

CGI, also known as computer animation, stands for computer-generated images. It’s inserted into live-action films to create detailed models, settings, or even characters. The process became popular in the ‘70s and ‘80s and The NeverEnding Story used it to add more textures to the painted backgrounds. Although it’s not used as much as practical and special effects, CGI became mainstream for filmmakers as the decades went on.  

A.I. showed up decades after The NeverEnding Story’s time, and it’s arguably one of the most controversial new tools added to Hollywood productions. Artificial intelligence’s role in visual effects aids in post-production by creating the visual graphics of CGI, special, and practical effects without the expensive cost of equipment, studios, and immense manpower [2]. Some argue this process takes away from the magic of filmmaking, but it is slowly becoming more commonplace in the film industry. As it becomes more prevalent in modern movies, filmmakers will find ways of pushing the creative bounds with artificial intelligence.  

The NeverEnding Effects 

Pushing the boundaries of effects, The NeverEnding Story remains a testament to how blending cinematic techniques can create a timeless masterpiece and help inspire the technology of the film industry.  

The movie is a beloved cult classic, spawning a handful of sequels and an animated series. Tami Stronach, the iconic Childlike Empress herself, is returning to the big screen in the brand-new fantasy film  Man and Witch: The Dance of a Thousand Steps (2024), which takes us back to the old days of puppets and practical effects paying homage to The NeverEnding Story and other ‘80s classics.  

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