Heinz Edelmann: Illustrator who helped to create the psychedelic landscape of the Beatles film 'Yellow Submarine'

Wednesday 05 August 2009 00:00 BST

The Beatles' success depended not only on their own exceptional talent but on the very gifted team that they gathered around them. With its startling innovations, the feature-length, animated film Yellow Submarine (1968) took cartoon work to a new level, and its stylistic achievements were largely due to its art director, Heinz Edelmann.

Heinz Edelmann was born in Czechoslovakia in 1934, and from 1953 to 1958 he studied and then worked at Düsseldorf Academy of Fine Arts with a keen interest in print making. In 1958 he became a freelance graphic designer and by the time he was 30, he was among the most promising designers in Europe. He did innovative work for the avant-garde German magazine Twen, including drawings on the horrors of war.

To appeal to the pre-teen market in America, ABC-TV commissioned, in 1965, a series of short cartoon films about the Beatles for Saturday morning viewing. They were undemanding and simplistic, but very popular, although the Beatles disliked being portrayed "like the bloody Flintstones". By 1967, the creative team needed a new challenge, particularly as the Beatles themselves had moved on with their Sgt Pepper look.

The Beatles had made two feature films for United Artists, A Hard Day's Night (1964) and Help! (1965), and had no desire to make a third, although it was contractual. Help! had been disappointing, akin to a cartoon performed by live actors. Now it was suggested that the contract could be fulfilled by a feature-length cartoon; at a production meeting, John Lennon told Ringo Starr, "Get your crayons out. We've got a job for you." Al Brodax, the producer of Yellow Submarine, said in 1999, "I told them that I could do the work and they could go off and see the Maharishi or whatever they wanted to do. Everybody would be happy if they just signed here."

Both Brodax and the director of the film, George Dunning, knew that something more substantial than a longer version of the existing series was needed. They developed a story from the Beatles' recent hit single, "Yellow Submarine", and having seen Twen, they asked Edelmann for designs.

Edelmann submitted two-dimensional pictures of each Beatle in contemporary dress and he was appointed art director. Unquestionably, Edelmann was an inspired choice. He was a quiet, considerate man, who was quick to praise and eager to work hard to achieve the best results. He would not go to the pub with the rest of the production team, but would say, "I have work to do." He claimed to have survived on four hours sleep a night every second night for over a year.

Inspired by the comic strip Flook, he created the Boob, who is used to such effect in the "Nowhere Man" sequence. Many of Edelmann's illustrations shaped the plot, which was written, amongst others, by Erich Segal and Roger McGough. The animation director, Bob Balser, told me in 1999, "When we were running out of money, Heinz said, 'I have an idea, we can fill the screen with numbers and it will be very cheap.' He was full of ideas. Heinz invented the Blue Meanies and that gave us a logical battle against Pepperland. It is the same story as Star Wars really; you've got the Beatles instead of the Jedi Knights, and the force is music." The scriptwriters found inspiration in the Beatles' existing songs and the message of the film, "Love is all you need", came from "All You Need is Love".

Initially, the Beatles had been sceptical about Yellow Submarine, not wanting to add their own voices to the soundtrack and being half-hearted about writing new songs. When they realised how good and innovative it was going to be, however, they decided that they did not want it to be highly acclaimed without their input. They made a brief personal appearance at the end of the film.

Being the first full-length feature cartoon made in the UK since Animal Farm (1954), Yellow Submarine opened to high expectations from public and critics alike. Although it appealed to children, it was also a commentary on the 60s and even though Edelmann had no personal experience of hallucinogenic drugs, it depicted a psychedelic landscape. Very different from the output of the Disney studio, Yellow Submarine showed what could be done with animation and it led to feature-length cartoons from other studios, including Ralph Bakshi's Fritz the Cat (1972). Both Terry Gilliam (Monty Python's Flying Circus) and Alan Aldridge (The Butterfly Ball) drew inspiration from Edelmann's work.

Edelmann hoped that the success of Yellow Submarine would lead to further work on feature films, but the projects did not materialise and he satisfied himself with other projects. He was to make commercials, off and on, throughout his life.

In 1970, Edelmann moved to Amsterdam and designed posters for plays, films and book jackets. He used the same style as Yellow Submarine for a book, Andromedar SR1 (1970), which was about a voyage to Mars. He also designed the cover for a German edition of Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings.

Moving to Stuttgart, Edelmann worked as a professor at the Stuttgart Academy of Fine Arts for many years, and, indeed, he would put "teacher" on his passport. He would tell his students that graphic designers were not paid adequately, but it was better than digging ditches. He had a sense of fun and regarded himself as more of a stand-up comedian than a lecturer.

Edelmann designed book jackets for the publishing house Klett-Cotta and in 1992 he designed the mascot for the Expo 92 World's Fair in Seville, Spain. He published a graphic novel, The Incredible!, in 2004 and his short film Der phantastische Film, used to introduce horror films on German TV, is in the same mould as Yellow Submarine and can be seen on YouTube.

Despite exhibitions in Europe, the US and Japan, Edelmann was said to be bored that Yellow Submarine had become the cornerstone of his reputation. If that is so, he disguised it very well when he came to Liverpool in 1999 for the launch of a 33 cent US stamp depicting the film, which had been restored. He light-heartedly compared himself to the Ancient Mariner with an albatross around his neck. "Who likes to think that he did his best work when he was only 33?" he chuckled.

Spencer Leigh

Heinz Edelmann, animator: born Usti Nad Labem, Czechoslovakia 20 June 1934; married (one daughter); died Stuttgart 21 July 2009.

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