Jack Stokes: Animation director behind Yellow Submarine


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The Independent Online

The animation director Jack Stokes modestly said of his groundbreaking film, Yellow Submarine (1968), that it was "a minor miracle or a hell of a lot of good luck". At the time many thought it was a product of the psychedelic Sixties and that hallucinogenic drugs had prompted its storyline, vivid colours and kaleidoscopic images. "It's not true," said Stokes. "I only drank red wine myself and if I had taken LSD, the film would have been in trouble."

Jack Stokes was born in Leigh-on-Sea, Essex in 1920 and went to Southend College of Art. He served in the RAF during the war and saw action as an air gunner in the far east.

In 1946 he joined an animation studio formed by The Rank Organisation under David Hand, the director of Walt Disney's Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. Its aim was to rival the US studios, but it had little success – and during the 1950s, most of Stokes' work was in advertising.

By 1960, Stokes was running his own studio and was producing animated commercials for cinema and TV. He accepted commissions from the TVC studio, run by John Coates and George Dunning. In 1964, Dunning was appointed the director of a cartoon series about the Beatles and Stokes worked on the project. The Beatles themselves were sceptical – and although it was a commercial success in America, the cartoons were not shown in the UK.

In 1967, Stokes worked directly with the Beatles on the title sequence for their TV film Magical Mystery Tour, and also on their Apple film Wonderwall (1968).

The cartoon series led to a full-length adventure for cinema release, Yellow Submarine, produced by Al Brodax and directed by Dunning. Stokes and Bob Balser were the animation directors. Effectively, the film was to revolve around Beatles songs which had no connection to each other and had to be crafted into a coherent and consistent story. In a sentence, the Beatles had to rescue the residents of Pepperland from the threat of the Blue Meanies, who wanted to abolish music.

The plot was totally daft, but the work was elevated to a higher plane by some brilliant ideas from the art director, Heinz Edelmann, a German illustrator who had not worked on a film before. Dunning, Stokes and Balser instantly recognised his potential.

The Beatles were unsure about the film and so actors' voices were used, most of them recorded by Stokes, before the animation was created around the dialogue. When the Beatles saw the rushes, they realised its quality and wanted to be part of it; hence the coda at the end. Stokes recalled taking them to an exclusive French restaurant at the time – and John Lennon asking for ketchup. By the time of its release, Stokes' wife said that she had become a "Beatles widow" – prompting Stokes to take her to Italy on holiday.

In 1969 Stokes worked on the French animated feature Tiki Tiki and he was involved in The Little Mermaid and The Water Babies (both 1978). The Water Babies had limited success, but the songwriter Bill Martin always had faith in the project – and it is currently being turned into a West End musical.

In the 1990s, Stokes was involved in the animation of Beatrix Potter stories; in retirement, he spent a lot of his free time painting.

Spencer Leigh

John Stokes, animation director: born Leigh-on-Sea, Essex 2 April 1920; married (2 daughters); died 20 March 2013.