Joe Strike sat down and talked with Heinz Edelmann, the driving creative force behind the Beatles animated feature Yellow Submarine, who spoke about his recent School of Visual Arts Masters Series Award as well as his career and art.
If he did nothing else beyond serving as the driving creative force behind the Beatles animated fantasia Yellow Submarine, Heinz Edelmann would still deserve a place of honor in the Cartoon Hall of Fame.
Edelmanns close to 50-year career as an artist and graphic designer is all but unknown in the United States. At times based in London, Germany or Holland, the Czech-born Edelmann has amassed a body of work that (in addition to that one particular cartoon) includes posters, book covers and magazine illustrations. (For a taste of his illustrative style, take a close look at Submarines opening title cards.)
Heinz Edelmann recently journeyed to New York city to accept the School of Visual Arts annually bestowed Masters Series Award. Slowed but far from stymied by a series challenges to his health and mobility, Edelmann sat down to discuss his career, artistic vision and that one particular cartoon.
Heinz Edelmann: The way Ive been received here in New York is truly extraordinary. I did not deserve this, but of course flattery always goes down well.
Joe Strike: No, I will flatter you and say yes you do. Did you have any experience with animation prior to Yellow Submarine?
HE: When I was in Germany in the 1960s I shot about one minute of my own production. At that time everyone was into politics, so for a long time I worked on a project called The Nazi Salute Considered as a Phallic Symbol. It had a lot of one-armed people carrying that arm in a violin case.
JS: I never saw it.
HE: It never got made, I just shot one minute and realized I didnt have the experience.
JS: How did you become involved in Yellow Submarine?
The invitation came out of the blue. Charlie Jenkins, the movies special effects man was married to a German girl whod seen my work in German magazines. Jenkins boss, George Dunning [Submarines director] was the one who extended the invitation.
I went to London and asked, What do you want me to do, am I to do the characters? No, they said, Weve got somebody to do the characters. Will I do the backgrounds? No, Dunning said, Weve got somebody already. I thought, well, this will make a great job. Dunning said You just do the little odd things you do.
I hung around for about two months getting more and more frustrated. There was no script. They started on a storyboard and abandoned it and considered dozens of people to do new script. Finally the day of the presentation to the producer rolled around and these being all archetypical Englishmen, they religiously followed the tradition of the long weekend.
They all went away and said Just do something over the weekend, do Davy Jones Locker [a sequence that later evolved into the Sea of Monsters]. For some reason I thought this was a very hateful idea. There is a similar character in German called the Klabautermann [a spirit protecting ships from harm] that Id always hated. I just didnt like the idea. Id go home to my wife and tell her, Its high time I quit and go home. Ill just leave them a souvenir. Then I sat down and did the Meanies.
Id already done a character similar to the Glove so I just gave the Glove the jet propulsion. I thought well, heres your hand, let me go home. Somehow, to his credit the producer [Al Brodax] liked it.
JS: You knocked off a whole bunch of characters and concepts over this weekend?
HE: The glove I already had back home, the Turks and the Apple Bonkers were new, the men with the guns in their shoes
JS: with the martinis
HE: one of my own projects which I sacrificed. Anyway, I never expected to get these accepted.
They were planning to do something special. This is why they hired Charlie Jenkins who had built an optical image camera that was the best in London. They expected to combine some live action into the animation, which is something Ive never liked. Much later I saw Song of the South by Disney and to my mind it doesnt work. I think live action and animation should be kept apart.
At that time it was debated whether a non-Disney animated feature was possible at all. So the one intelligent thing I did that I didnt tell anyone about was to make the film a set of interlinking shorts. I think the production was so chaotic that this decision really saved the day and I could control most of the picture through the design.
I only think the film falls apart when they get to Pepperland and everything has already been designed. I lost control on the Pepperland sequences, which I think are pretty conventional. Theyre okay, but the film somehow loses its special quality once they arrive.
JS: I think at that point they had to focus on the narrative.
HE: It was expected so it had to be done, but this wasnt done too well.
The production went its chaotic way as I stayed on. I resigned about every two weeks until nobody took it seriously. I think half of the films budget went into one pub old-time animators always used to drink a fair amount. At the stroke of one oclock everybody was down at the pub until three. Everybody returned to some kind of work and at six, shoop, they were all magically back down there. They hardly ate, they just drank.
There was no script. So this was a bit unnerving. I had to do it all from the top of my head. I never could go back and redo anything. It just had to stand as it came out and this after a couple of weeks proved to be quite unnerving.
JS: But you survived.
HE: I did, well I didnt quite. When I came back to Germany I didnt have to go to a hospital but I was out of action for a couple of months.
JS: Just to recuperate.
HE: This is where my heart problems they later disappeared again, but this was the first time I did have heart and circulatory problems.
JS: It was really that strenuous?
HE: It was. Well, I did sleep a couple of hours every second night. I barely survived that and on top of that I had dysentery, which is supposed to be extinct. I think I lost something like 30 pounds in 10 days and had to go on working. It was pure bad luck.
JS: Let me go back. You said they had the big announcement, the presentation that you had to put together over the weekend. I assume the reaction was positive that at that point they turned to you and said, Okay, lets keep going with this?
HE: They said, Yes, well well try this. There was still no script, which we sort of glossed over with animation. We sat around and sort of agreed on the outline. Then the dialog was filled in partly by Erich Segal and partly by a Roger McGough, a British pop musician who went uncredited.
JS: I didnt realize there was so much intrigue and chaos involved in this thing.
HE: I was talking to Bob Hieronimus who wrote a book about the film. [Inside the Yellow Submarine: The Making of the Beatles Animated Classic, with Laura Cortner.] He got it mostly right. Whereas Mr. Brodaxs version [Up Periscope Yellow: The Making of the Beatles Yellow Submarine] is his own private view. As far as I can check, there are some things I wouldnt know about which might be true. I think this all should be put to rest. Its been 37 years and this damn thing is still like the pelican, the albatross around the neck of the Ancient Mariner.
JS: I hope you forgive me for bringing it up one more time.
HE: This is going to be the last interview I ever do on the Yellow Submarine. I think its now time enough. Its been a miracle it has survived.
JS: You dont think its because the film is so wonderful?
HE: I think it has survived because it does capture the essence of the late 60s better than more serious projects.
JS: I have to agree with you, but you didnt set out to make a time capsule.
HE: Not at all. It just happened. Everybody was involved. Not that I ever had any interest in flower power. I dont use strong language so I just used to say flurpur when something went wrong.
JS: The songs for the movie were already done, and of course, the older, classic songs
HE: There were five songs which I think were leftovers which somehow wouldnt fit into any record, like Northern Song, which they just left for the film.
The Beatles didnt care about the project. They had a three picture deal with whoever, and they wanted to get out of it so they got Yellow Submarine counted as one of them.
JS: With United Artists, the first two movies were live action.
HE: They wanted to get rid of that obligation, and this is why they consented to appear at the end.
JS: To make it one of their contractually obligated films? That always struck me as sort of an add-on, that little thing.
HE: During the production they were mostly tied up with Magical Mystery Tour. I saw part of it in the cutting room. I did realize this wasnt gong to be as successful. They were bright boys but you simply dont make a movie like that, you dont go into another profession.
JS: They were sort of, Lets do this, lets have fun, and well film it while were having fun.
HE: It didnt quite work out.
JS: Are there any specific influences on the movie, things that you remember putting in there because they were in your head?
HE: There was no time really to think about it. Lately Ive been credited with looking there and there and there, and there wasnt even time for that. I just had to do with what I remembered, or lets try this, but in the end it had to be right.
I said There is no time for inspiration or logic. I dont really work by inspiration, I work by logical elimination. If that is taken away from me, I become very uncomfortable. I do want to know where I stand, whats possible, and the things that are desirable, not the things that arent desirable for the situation. I like to think, Well, this is I can do, this is I can learn to do, and this is something Ill never learn to do.
So by necessity I might then make my choice which way to go. On this one I just had to sit down and whatever was in there was just coming out. This is contrary to my nature and this didnt make me extremely happy, but there was no other choice.
Again, nobody took me seriously any more when I put my foot down and said, I quit.
JS: They just said, sure, sure.
HE: You only can quit about 10 times. I said I would have wished I could develop that kind of feature film for the sort of ideas and things set to music, which is not quite well history has taken another course, and after 35 years it would be very silly to keep on grouching about that.
JS: They just re-released Submarine a few years ago with restored footage that had been taken out.
HE: Which I got taken out.
JS: You took out the Bulldog song? Why?
HE: First of all, it held up the action. Secondly, it was all conventional animation jokes, which we had gone to a lot of pains to avoid. Thirdly, it was done by a unit that hadnt been on the feature before, but had done these Beatles [Saturday morning TV] shorts, so they lost the characters, and on the Bulldog they almost looked like the Beatles from the short films. And it did hold up the action. At that point you want to get it over with.
JS: What happened after you finished work on Yellow Submarine?
HE: Afterwards Charlie Jenkins, myself and our business partner tried to set up our own studio doing features. I wrote a couple of scripts, one of which we almost sold. This was sheer bad luck. There was a point when a representative of a major American company was going to sign a development contract on one of my scripts. This was scheduled for a Wednesday in Paris. On the preceding Monday there was a sort of shareholders revolution in Hollywood and they fired the companys entire management.
JS: Missed it by that much. What would that picture have been about?
HE: That wouldve been volume one of Gullivers Travels. Unlike the Max Fleischer version which had been terribly developed, our version would have been a quite funny view of Lilliputian society, with a sort of tragic hero based on Adlai Stevenson.
JS: That would kind of on the obscure side, but I guess people watching the film wouldnt have had to know who Stevenson was [the Democratic presidential candidate who lost to Eisenhower in 1952 and 1956].
HE: Then we also couldnt get the rights.
JS: To Gullivers Travels?
HE: No, we also tried to do Lord of the Rings, which I felt should not be done as a straight feature because as a story, Tolkein wasnt such a great storyteller. The magic is somewhere else. I felt it should be done as opera.
JS: Like Wagner.
HE: More or less. We tried to get the Rolling Stones to write the music so it would be rock opera. Our agent in London did work on that. Then he talked to the Bee Gees.
JS: The Bee Gees wouldve been kind of a drop down from the Rolling Stones. That wouldve been remarkable, working with the Beatles and then the Rolling Stones.
HE: I felt the Stones had this strength, to do something hard, opera like. Mr. McKellen is a good actor but I didnt like his Gandalf. I must be the only one, in all honesty. Everybody else loved it it must be poor jealousy on my part.
It was badly directed as well. These 12 black horsemen, they came across as pure stumblebums, idiots. Right then and there you can perceive that Mr. Sauron was being badly served and it couldnt end happily for him.
JS: Have you done any animation work post- Yellow Submarine?
HE: Ive done a lot of a lot of commercials. You wouldnt believe it. Ive stopped as I was saying and our daughter [Valentine] has taken over from me.
JS: Youve trained a replacement.
HE: Were doing commercials for French canned vegetables for Russia. Weve done about 15 commercials.
JS: Are you a fan of any current animation?
There are a lot of tiny nice things, a lot of little gems which get thrown away on TV, which is a big shame. There is also some that is not Shrek but drek, but they are really little. Ive been to the Aardman studio in Bristol, I did one commercial there. My favorite Aardman film is the first one, A Grand Day Out. I think this is very poetic and very light, this is true art. The Wrong Trousers is very much beloved and & much clever, but to me it doesnt do, it doesnt affect me the way A Grand Day Out affected me.
Now our daughter and all my former students, theyve all been to the new Wallace and Gromit movie [Curse of the Were-Rabbit]. Its nice, Im going to buy the DVD of course, but its not A Grand Day Out. For that sort of simplicity, a lot of the early Aardman art is also quite brilliant.
JS: A Grand Day Out does have a kind of otherwordly, quiet strangeness to it. Since then their work has become more dramatic and narrative-driven. It sounds like youre not all that interested in narrative youre more interested in emotion and feeling.
HE: I could look at stills, I like to look at paintings. In my heart of hearts I still harbor the idea that animation does not need to be about movement.
I like the characters in The Tick. I havent seen that many [episodes], but Ive got the dolls. Then of course The Simpsons, if you dont get an overdose. My wife, not my daughter is a great fan of SpongeBob SquarePants. We do have all sorts of SpongeBob devotionalia around our place
JS: What did you just call it?
HE: Devotionalia religious objects. SpongeBob and the Simpsons are great work. I personally cant take too much of them but once a week or so I think theyre really very enjoyable. And the SpongeBob is more like classical animation.
JS: Is there anything else youd like to say about Yellow Submarine, or do you feel youve talked it out?
HE: Theres one thing. I did feel there was no The movie might have opened up some new possibilities. It was mainstream but I think it was intelligent mainstream. There wasnt any real follow-up on that, and Disney went its own sweet way, undisturbed. I have been to see the more recent Disney features. Whatever your opinion might be, you could see the absolute desire for quality. Everything in the old features was done well.
JS: In addition to everything else, youve been teaching art for a long time.
HE: Not during the Submarine. I was teaching on and off for about 25 years. After a few years I always quit. I somehow ended up in Stuttgart where I was just too tired to quit, so I hung on to the end. I was with a few of my students yesterday. With that group it was great fun. Im very proud of them I still can talk with them. This was very enjoyable.
When I reviewed my notes of our conversation the next day, I realized I had neglected to ask or follow up on a handful of questions. Edelmanns daughter Valentine was kind enough to forward my e-mailed questions to Heinz and relay his answers to me:
JS: I read a long time ago that the chief Blue Meanie and his temper tantrums were inspired by newsreel footage of Hitlers speeches. Is this true?
HE: Yes, by way of Chaplins Great Dictator.
JS: Did the Boob intentionally resemble Lyndon Johnson? Or is the resemblance entirely in my imagination?
HE: Sorry, unintentional, but you are quite right about the resemblance.
JS: When you spoke at the SVA you said you made a decision to use a very thin outline to Submarines characters that added $500,000 to production costs, an expense that fortunately no one seemed to notice.
HE: The $500,000 (in todays dollars) was a figure of speech for the benefit of the students. The thin outline, however, consumed a hefty bit of the production budget in terms of the effect on a big screen I thought it was a worthwhile investment.
JS: How many languages do you speak? What is your native tongue?
HE: Originally I was bilingual in German and Czech but my Czech is almost forgotten now. After that English, Dutch and a disgraceful, despicable French.
Joe Strike is a NYC-based writer/producer with a background in TV promotion and a lifelong interest in animation. He is writing a childrens novel.