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'Yellow Submarine' returns to the silver screen for golden anniversary

ASU professor says classic animation delivers sophisticated designs and socially conscious messages for people of all ages

Toy submarine

June 29, 2018

The Beatles’ 1968 classic animation “Yellow Submarine” is making a hero’s return to the silver screen and will receive the red-carpet treatment for its golden anniversary.

The 87-minute groundbreaking film will experience a nationwide big-screen revival on Sunday, July 8, timed to its 50th anniversary. The “Yellow Submarine” features vivid animation and beloved songs from arguably the greatest band the world has ever known.

David R. Burns, an associate professor who teaches computer-animation courses at Arizona State University’s School of ArtASU's School of Art is a unit within the Herberger Institute for Design and the Arts., spoke to ASU Now about the film’s endearing and enduring qualities.

Side portrait of brown haired male

David R. Burns

Question: What was your initial visceral reaction to “Yellow Submarine” when you first saw it?

Answer: I first saw “Yellow Submarine” when I was a child, and I remember being completely taken in by the imagery and music of the animation. However, the highly stylized psychedelic visuals, soundtrack and socio-cultural themes in the animation really resonated with me when I watched the animation later in life with my friends when I was attending a university. My visceral reaction to the animation as an undergraduate student was, ‘Yellow Submarine’ is not only for kids to enjoy; there is a whole other level to the movie that adults will appreciate.

I kept thinking to myself throughout watching the animation that I had never seen anything like this before in a feature-length animation — in terms of visual style, music and message. I never imagined that watching an animation could have such a transformative effect on my emotions and help me feel connected to a global socio-cultural movement.

Q: The backstory is that animators had 11 months and a budget of $1 million to finish this picture. What’s the average budget and length of time it takes to create an animated feature film?

A: “Yellow Submarine” is unique in that despite the fact that it was produced in a very short time frame with an extremely small budget, the animation far exceeded people’s expectations and became one of the most culturally influential feature-length animations of the 1960s. To put the “Yellow Submarine's” $1 million production budget and 11-month production schedule into context, Disney’s “The Jungle Book” (1967), a popular feature-length animation released about a year before “Yellow Submarine,” had a production budget that was approximately four times larger ($4 million) and a production schedule that was roughly four times longer. Indeed, “Yellow Submarine’s” impact on society and culture is outsized relative to its small production budget and limited screenings.

Eleven months is a very short time to create a feature-length animation, especially with a tiny, underpaid production crew. Generally speaking, feature-length animations take about five years to produce. Many of the popular animations created by Disney and Pixar can take anywhere from about four to seven years. So, yes, it astounds me that, despite its low budget and tight production deadline, “Yellow Submarine” has such high production values and has garnered an overwhelmingly positive reception from audiences worldwide.

Q: What are some particulars you enjoy about “Yellow Submarine’s” style and look?

A: The vibrant psychedelic colors and bold designs in “Yellow Submarine” are a major break from the traditional look and feel of long-form animation up to and, in many cases, following that time period. I believe that the experimental animators Oskar Fischinger and Norman McLaren, who mixed abstract visuals with music and created animations that featured vibrant-colored abstract designs “dancing” to music that are often referred to as visual music animations, set the stage for the creation of “Yellow Submarine.” 

In fact, Fischinger and McLaren’s visual music animations and “Yellow Submarine” can all be seen as precursors to the creation of music videos in the 1980s. The bold use of psychedelic colors and highly stylized designs in “Yellow Submarine” are absolutely breathtaking. When you combine the visuals with the Beatles’ music and the socio-cultural themes explored in the animation, you have an important cultural artifact that stands the test of time.

The themes in “Yellow Submarine” are also timely for us to revisit now, such as the importance of working together. In the animation, the Beatles characters learn how to operate the Yellow Submarine by working together while singing “All Together Now.” The song can also be heard at the end of the animation, with translations of the song's title appearing in different languages. The universal message of the importance of working together is both meaningful and significant, particularly now.

“Yellow Submarine” explores the importance of art’s influence on society. The movie demonstrates that animation can function as a positive, transformational art form that has the potential to not only shape our minds and social conscience but also influence our perceptions of art and culture. My reaction to the animation was like, “I get it!” Creativity is important and, through our unique talents, we can share our creativity with others to connect with humanity at a global level “all together now.”

Q: “Yellow Submarine” has become a timeless children’s classic like “Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory” and “A Christmas Story.” Why does it continue to endure and resonate with children?

A: There are many reasons it continues to be popular: Firstly, young people are entertained by the bright psychedelic colors and stylized designs that are mixed with a playful soundtrack.

Secondly, the visuals and music support the classic narrative of the hero’s journey. This tale has been told many different ways and is a tale we can easily relate to. It usually centers around heroes departing to meet a challenge of good versus evil, triumphing over the challenge and returning to be rewarded, usually with a happy ending. Indeed, the Beatles characters in “Yellow Submarine” leave, return and lead the citizens of Pepperland to rebel against the evil Blue Meanies; the Beatles force the bad guys, the Meanies, to leave Pepperland and are rewarded with a happy ending. 

Lastly, children also enjoy songs and singing songs; especially silly songs. Taken literally, some of the songs in “Yellow Submarine” sound perfectly silly. I think the music in the animation touches our inner child and can bring listeners a sense a joy. The transformative power of music — the way our emotions can be influenced by the arts — resonates with the young, the old and everyone in between.

Q: What advice would you give people who are interested in becoming animators?

A: This is an exciting time to be an animator and a great time to study animation. In fact, the School of Art offers animation courses ranging from traditional animation to 3D computer animation. This summer I am teaching computer animation courses for the School of Art, and I am impressed by my animation students’ dedication and passion to the art form. I would suggest people who are interested in learning more about animation try taking an introductory animation course to get their feet wet.

Animation is a wonderful field of artistic practice and, like all worthwhile endeavors, animation takes dedication, time and heart to master. But it is all worth it when you see your art come alive. It is an extremely popular art form that I envision continuing to grow in popularity on a global scale. I like to remind my students that while the technology used for animation has changed over the years, strong aesthetics and good concepts will always be valued.

Photo courtesy of Pixabay.

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