On the 30th anniversary of The Beatles' Yellow Submarine, Karl Cohen speaks with the two key TVC production figures behind the film, John Coates and Norman Kauffman.
Editor's note: Due to Apple Corp's decision not to promote the 30th anniversary of The Beatles' Yellow Submarine, and subsequent legal restrictions about publishing art on the Internet, this article does not contain any images from the film.
Many people are too young to remember the impact the feature The Beatles' Yellow Submarine had on the animation industry and American society when it was released in 1968. At the time it was produced, Disney dominated the animated feature market with traditional-looking products that were released once every three or four years (Jungle Book, 1967). With the release of Yellow Submarine the world actually changed. The film contained music, a spirit and an amazing look that delighted and charmed the Western world. This simple fable helped people regain a more positive attitude about life and reminded them it was okay to smile and have fun. Some people who had dressed conservatively before they saw it were suddenly wearing bright colors, costumes and the latest in mod fashions. Hippies painted Yellow Submarines on their vans and in San Francisco a Beatles fan painted a scene from the film on the front of her house. More importantly, the direction by George Dunning and the brilliant design work by Heinz Edelmann influenced the look of advertising art. Suddenly 7 Up, General Electric and other corporations were promoting themselves with animated TV commercials and print campaigns inspired by the feature. Most studios producing animated TV commercials were barely surviving before Yellow Submarine was released. After it came out everybody who worked with the new look was busy well into the next decade making a good living creating ads full of rainbows, butterflies, flowers and other motifs. Some of the mixed-media techniques introduced in the film inspired the "blendo" style still seen on TV. The feature also showed Ralph Bakshi and other non-Disney directors that they might be able to create successful animated features as well. The Creatives Behind the Film Although Yellow Submarine is a milestone in animation, little has been written about the people who actually created this classic. At the time of the film's release a lot of credit was given to producer Al Brodax who turned out to be an executive producer with King Features, the company that paid for the production. He shared writing credit with Lee Minoff, Jack Mendelsohn and Erich Segal. The Beatles got music credit of course, and Heinz Edelmann, a German-speaking Czech graphic artist, was recognized as the film's talented designer. Director George Dunning's name was on the screen in big letters as was TVC (TV Cartoons), the animation company in London that created the film. Unfortunately, the press wasn't familiar with their names so not much was written about them. The staff of TVC was relegated to the fine print in the screen credits and press releases, even though their involvement was essential in the production of the film. Without TVC's esteemed opinions concerning creativity and imagination, Yellow Submarine might have never received financial backing. TVC, in 1967, was simply a very young and inexperienced production company. John Coates, who was the actual producer of the film was simply listed as "Production Supervisor." If the film had been made recently, Brodax would have been listed as Executive Producer and Coates as Producer, but things were different in 1968.
One reason there was little recognition for the people who created the visuals was the attention the media gave to the music. The media was also fascinated by the idea that Erich Segal, then a Yale Greek and Latin professor, worked on the script. When the film was made the contract with TVC didn't go into details about publicity and name placement in the credits. It probably didn't dawn on anybody to demand that the distributor's press agents educate the media about the people who worked on the film behind-the-scenes. John Coates said at the Creative Filmmaking Conference `97 (Tel Aviv, Israel), that he and George Dunning were so inexperienced that when it came to contract negotiations they didn't even know they could own a percentage of a film's gross or profits. They simply made the film for a fixed amount of money. Unfortunately, Yellow Submarine went over-budget and they lost money making it. Their participation in the feature ended when they previewed the answer print for King Features. It was approved and they were given their final payment for their work. King Features never made contact with them again. The Collaboration Begins Before making Yellow Submarine, TVC had produced The Beatles, a 39 episode TV series "produced" by Al Brodax and King Features. It turns out that King Features owned exclusive rights to the Beatles' cartoon characters. The TV program featured prerecorded songs by the group. Each segment was built around one song. Professional voice actors did the spoken voices of the Fab Four. Paul Frees did the voices of John and George and Lance Percival did Paul and Ringo. The show premiered in September, 1965, and grossed $3 million the first year. It ran as a weekly show on ABC until 1969. Dunning, who directed the feature, was a Canadian who moved to London in the late 1950's to head UPA's overseas studio. Just after the studio folded he held a meeting in a pub and invited John Coates, Richard Williams and Denis Rich to attend. Coates, who began his career in the film industry after WWII with the Rank Organization was invited to run the new studio being formed. TVC is still in business 40 years later and is still headed by Coates (Dunning died in 1979). When Coates and Dunning got the contract to do the feature they had a difficult time finding the right art director for the production. Eventually they saw the work of Heinz Edelman in Twen, a German magazine, and flew him to London for an interview. He did a few sample drawings and was hired. Coates said, "We loved his work." While planning the production it was realized the script didn't have a well-defined enemy. Edelmann is given credit for inventing the Blue Meanies to serve that role. In an interview, Edelmann added yet another name to those who contributed to the film's script. He said, "There was never one script. We had about 20. Roger McGough was responsible for much of it." McGough was a Liverpool poet who was brought in to add a Liverpool flavor to the soundtrack. He was paid U.K. £500 for his work, but was not given screen credit. When the film was in production Edelmann worked closely with Dunning. Edelmann watched over everything and would often go around at night and correct animators' drawings when they went off-model. Despite the critical acclaim of his design work for the film, he never worked on another animated feature.
Interaction with the Beatles
Coates is often asked about the Beatles' involvement in the production. He explains that they didn't have any real input in the visuals. Everything had already been planned out when the Beatles first saw the storyboards. However, he does add that when they first saw the boards they expressed surprise as they had been led to believe the film was going to be Disneyesque.
During the production, the four celebrities visited the studio four or five times as a group. At least one visit was a publicity photo shoot. Members of the group did visit the studio as individuals from time to time. John and Yoko came by to see rushes, and Paul would drop by to see their progress and to say hi to friends who worked there.
There had been discussions about using the Beatles to do the voice track, but since it was impossible to get all four together for recording sessions, professional voice artists were used instead. Coates says none of the Beatles were pleased with the voices chosen to represent them, but they all loved the rest of the film. Apparently the press wasn't told that voice artists had been used to do the Beatles' voices as Variety (July 24, 1968) announced to the world that, "The Beatles' voices are instantly recognizable as their own." The film's credits simply list Paul Angels, John Clive, Dick Emery, Geoff Hughes and Lance Percival as "voices" without saying which parts each person performed. A published report says Clive did the voice of John, Hughes did Paul, Peter Batten did George and Angels voiced Ringo.
Norman Kauffman, who joined TVC in 1963 as an apprentice, was also present at the conference in Tel Aviv. He is now the company's secretary, financial controller and production accountant, and has recently been appointed a director of the company. Kauffman says that they were told in August, 1967, that the film had to premiere in London in July, 1968. The production had barely begun and they had less than a year to finish. He says having to create the film in a short period of time "was a nightmare, but a lot of fun!" They got used to working long hours and had to run two shifts in the ink and paint department. Today, once work on the animation has begun, it takes TVC nine months to do a half-hour TV show. Kauffman first met the Beatles when TVC was about to begin work on the TV series. There was a party at the original TVC studio on Dean Street. Kauffman was told to give John Lennon a bottle of wine. They met, talked and drank together for the first time when Kauffman found Lennon drinking out-of-sight under a table in George Dunning's office. It turns out that Lennon had enough of the public that evening and didn't want any more fans coming up to him. The Beatles had been to the theatre and left early for the party after they were discovered by the public. Lennon's reaction to guests at the party doing the same thing was to find a place where he could hide. Kauffman has a photo of himself under the table with Lennon! Innovation at Every Turn Kauffman says Dunning decided the graphic look of the film would be built around the 12 Beatles songs to be used in the production (four new songs were written for the feature). The film was released in England with 12 songs, but in the US the song "Hey Bulldog," featuring a three-headed animal, was cut. The British print ran 89 minutes and the American version was 85 minutes long. Each song was given a special graphic look incorporating some of the latest graphic techniques being used in TV commercials, fine art and by illustrators. John Halas in his book Masters of Animation calls the film "a catalogue of the graphic styles of the late sixties." Several technical innovations were tried out in the film. Special effects supervisor Charles Jenkins used polarized light, cellophane and a rotating filter to create the unusual cycle of color at the end of the sequence where we first meet George and in the visual finale near the end of the film. The visual finale also incorporates back-lit special effects that produce glowing forms of light.
In "Eleanor Rigby," sequences of still photographs were used to form cycles of action. The images were Xeroxed copies of photos to form high contrast images. For example, we see an old brick building with ten windows and in each window we see the same woman petting the same cat over and over. In another sequence we see two women at a table lifting food to their mouths over and over. Xeroxed photos are still used in some TV commercials.
When the New York Times reviewed the film (Nov. 14, 1968) they called it a "truly nice" work and said "there are completely lovely visual ideas" in it. One exciting visual moment is the woman riding a horse in the sky in "Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds." The art was done using loose brush strokes rather than having the paint fit neatly within carefully inked lines. The paint continuously changes its shape and color and at times glowing stars or diamonds are seen. The visuals of the song constantly change, becoming more wild and overwhelming with the changes in the music.
Op and Pop Art inspired some of the sequences as did art forms that defy classification. The work goes far beyond the psychedelic poster art of Peter Max, an artist popular in the late 1960's. The "Sea of Holes" backgrounds capture the visual excitement of the Op Art of the European master Victor Vaserely. The "When I'm Sixty-Four" number features so many different kinds of design work (each group of ten numbers is in a different style), that it is impossible to classify the look of the sequence.
Fans of traditional Disney features sometimes have a difficult time with the film. They are used to strong narrative plots with well-developed characters that adhere to the designs laid down on the model sheets. They have trouble accepting the aesthetic approach of Yellow Submarine which stresses creative imagination and allows the visuals to constantly change. The film takes many risks with its playful use of colors and forms.
Still an Inspiration
Seeing Yellow Submarine again in Israel, almost 30 years after it premiered, was a wonderful rewarding experience. It is still a fresh and exciting film with brilliant and innovative visuals. The surreal animals, mechanical inventions, use of words and numbers on the screen, and other playful touches remain wonderful whimsical creations. The awful puns and non-sequitur jokes remain delightfully corny. The simple plot is still plausible enough to take you along on this adventure to save Pepperland. Only a sour old cynic would want to see the Blue Meanies win. If you love the music of the Beatles, you will probably have their tunes dancing around your mind for days after you rent the film at your local video store. It would be wonderful if King Features and United Artists would release the 89 minute directors cut in honor of the film's 30th year.
Norman Kauffman says that when they made the film they knew it would influence the art of their times. Today, he wonders if the film would still have had the same impact on the art world and public if it hadn't featured music by the Beatles.
It is now rumored that Apple Corp. and MGM might re-release the film next year and publicize the film's 30-year anniversary, however, nothing is confirmed at this time. It would be nice to see this film be re-released in at least the festival circuit and art theatres if not in a wider, general release, so that an entirely new generation can enjoy and be influenced by the magical art of Yellow Submarine.
Karl Cohen is President of ASIFA-San Francisco. His first book, Forbidden Animation: Censored Cartoons and Blacklisted Animators, has recently been published by McFarland Publishers. He also teaches animation history at San Francisco State University.