Hijinks on the High Seas: Behind the Scenes on the Yellow Submarine

As seen in Goldmine Magazine

Part of the 40th Anniversary Series on “Behind the Scenes of the Yellow Submarine”

by Dr. Robert R. Hieronimus

author of Inside the Yellow Submarine: The Making of the Beatles Animated Classic

With 2008 marking the 40th anniversary of the theatrical premiere of the Yellow Submarine, we are taking the opportunity to remind you that there were true identities with hearts and souls behind this film that we all love so well. While most of us love this film because we love anything the Beatles touched, it’s enlightening to remember that the actual Beatles had nothing at all to do with the story or the artwork on this production. They just created the music that drove the plot and the personalities that were animated as cartoon heroes. But who drew these cartoons? What motivated them? What did they do for fun?

One of our most exciting discoveries made after the publication of our 2002 book, Inside the Yellow Submarine: The Making of the Beatles Animated Classic, was that of Cam and Diana Ford in Australia. Cam and Diana were two of the approximately 10% of the Submarine crew (that numbered over 200 at its highest point) who were ex-pat Aussies. Aside from sharing details on the inspirations behind many of the most beloved scenes in the film (see companion articles in this series at www.21stCenturyRadio.com/yellowsub where you can read Cam’s memories of animating the 7th Cavalry Charge in the Sea of Monsters, and Diana’s of the Lucy in the Sky sequence), Cam and Diana are terrific storytellers, and boy, did they tell us some humdingers of behind-the-scenes antics! With at least three-dozen interviews of co-creators of the Yellow Submarine under my belt, I marveled at how few of these hijinks on the high seas had been recorded before. I think it’s because my primary interviews had focused on the main designers and motivators behind this film, supplemented by a few tracers and painters, accountants, producers and writers. Of the hard-working, professional animators responsible for the actual, physical output -- those who earned the title of “Key Animator” – many of those we interviewed previously worked as freelancers from their own private studios. Cam and later Diana Ford, however, were right there in the thick of things at the TVC London studios from beginning to end.

Animators tend to be a fun-loving bunch of crazy-artist types anyway, but when we consider the other elements adding to the pressure cooker environment of the Yellow Submarine production studios, it’s understandable that some creative ways were devised to let off steam. The crew began gathering in London in the very hot summer of 1967. It would be several months yet before Al Brodax’s production department would give them scripts or storyboards or voice actors, without which there was almost nothing for them to do. With the normal timeline standard thrown out the window, the animators eventually began to devise fantastic musical interludes animating the approved Beatles songs. They just prayed that these musical sequences could be inserted somehow into the storyline -- whenever that storyline eventually emerged.

Cam Ford remembered a long series of what he called hijinks that the animators on Yellow Submarine got into as they waited for their next assignments. The London studios of TVC were bustling places as these young artists found the means of amusing themselves during these strange and wonderful 11 months. As you read Cam’s stories, you might also wonder if there are any seeds of inspirations that found themselves into the Sea of Monsters or Phrenology here?

The Hover-fan Affair

The summer of 1967 was extremely hot, and TVC thoughtfully bought us a batch of small, desktop electric fans for the staff in the Dean Street studio. As we had a lot of spare time on our hands before production began on Yellow Submarine, one of the animators soon found a new use for the fans. He discovered that by taping a cyclinder of cardboard around it and turning it to face the floor, you could put it on high and it would rise up like a hovercraft. And it would then wander slowly around the floor. We all thought that was a great idea and jumped on our fans and did the same thing. Soon bemused visitors to the studio would be greeted by the sight of all these strange little whirring devices wandering aimlessly around the studio floor, tethered like sad dogs to their electrical cords.

The Distasteful Floating "Poop" Sign

After we all began the transfer to the new studio premises in Knightway House in Soho Square, animators Anne Joliffe and Tony Cuthbert managed to snag a front room with a commanding view across Soho Square. At that time, the rest of Knightway House was occupied by a conservative lot of accountants, lawyers and businessmen, who made no secret of their disapproval of the scruffy lot of artists moving in to their domain. As we were still waiting for work to begin, Anne and Tony decided to stir them up a bit. They took a big sheet of cardboard, painted the word "POOP!" on it in large, colorful letters, and lowered it out the window on a rope (none of your hermetically sealed office buildings then). They were delighted to see hands frantically grabbing at the sign as it went down past the windows below, until someone on the first floor finally managed to grab it and pull it inside. A minute or two later the elevator lift roared up to our floor, and an apoplectic gentleman burst out, frantically waving the offending "POOP" sign above his head and yelling "THIS IS NOT FUNNY!!!" He stood there fuming with rage while everyone fell to the ground in hysterics, obviously believing that it was.

The Great Hot Air Balloon Race

Anne and Tony's room was an obvious launching place for paper darts and airplanes of every size and design, which were soon looping, soaring, and gliding all over Soho Square. The eventual aim was to develop a flying device that could make it right across the square, but this bold, technological ambition proved difficult to achieve. At last Anne, Tony, and John Challis, their assistant, devised a new plan. They obtained a large, thin plastic bag from the dry cleaner, the kind used to protect freshly cleaned suits and coats. To the bag, they taped two thin balsa wood strips in an "X" shape across the bottom to hold it open. A small tinfoil pie pan was taped to the center, containing a wad of cotton wool soaked in methylated spirits. This was lit, the plastic bag allowed to fill with hot air, and then the whole device was cast adrift out the window. The results were encouraging enough that many more were soon launched. Unfortunately, the balloons proved unstable, and the plastic bag often caught fire, plunging them to the ground, much to the consternation of passers-by. They tried adding tails of string and paper strips, and, rather like a kite-tail, this certainly improved stability and extended the range of the balloons, but only somewhat. In the end, they were never able to keep the cotton wool burning long enough to carry them all the way across before complaints from the gardeners in Soho Square brought this era of aeronautical experimentation to a permanent halt.

The "Prisoner on the Seventh Floor"

Our room was on the same floor as Anne and Tony’s, but on the other side of Knightway House, overlooking a lightwell between buildings. We soon discovered that there was a strong updraft up the lightwell outside our window, and used it to power our own paper dart experiments -- trying for altitude rather than Anne and Tony’s quest for range. This was working passably well, until one of our assistants got the brilliant idea of taping a bundle of foam plastic coffee cups together, attached to the end of a roll of toilet paper. He trailed the cluster of cups out the window open-ends down, and was gratified when the updraft lifted them up. He paid out the toilet paper, and the cups began rising higher and higher, until the whole contraption streamed spectacularly some sixty feet above the roof of building. We were told later that it was spotted by someone in an adjacent office, who concluded that this office-supply kite was constructed by someone in obvious distress, signaling for help. Naturally, they called the police in a panic. The constabulary arrived at Knightway House in a flourish of sirens, convinced that somebody was being held prisoner on the empty seventh floor above us, and began to search the place thoroughly. By that time, however, blissfully unaware, we had cut the toilet paper adrift, letting the coffee cups sail away across London, and closed our window. The police eventually left empty-handed, and, much to our relief, the mystery remains officially unsolved!

The Mysterious "Pennies From Heaven" Windfall

About two floors below our window was a row of chimney pots rising alongside a flat rooftop (not unlike those in the "Eleanor Rigby" sequence in Yellow Submarine). When times became boring during production, we would line up at the window and try to toss pennies down the chimney pots -- a rather difficult feat to accomplish, actually. Most times the pennies would bounce off and land on the flat roof which, over time, became thoroughly littered with coins. Several months into production, we were idly looking out the window one day, when a door opened and an old man came out onto the roof. He gazed about, saw all the money lying around, and did a huge, cartoon-like double take. He looked up and down, all around, trying to figure out where this unexpected windfall had come from, then set about frantically gathering it all up and thrusting it into his bulging pockets. We watched from above, laughing uncontrollably. He later returned to the roof quite frequently after that, though he never found the source of his "pennies from heaven."

The Really Weird Whirly Craze

The approach of winter 1967 and the closing of windows did not bring an end to the Yellow Sub animators’ enthusiasm for air currents. The studio was heated by a row of finned hot-water heaters along one wall in each room, and it didn’t take long for them to figure out that the hot air rising from these heaters could be turned into another fruitful field of entertainment. The experiments began with a circle of card, which was cut into a spiral from the outside to the centre of the circle. When this was hung from the center by a length of string pinned to the ceiling, it would form a spiral cone shape which would then be rotated endlessly by the heat rising from the heaters. Soon each room had rows of "Whirlies" of various shapes, sizes, and materials hung in rows above the heaters, all busily rotating at different speeds and in different directions. Other "Whirlies" sat on the heaters, balanced on pencil points stuck into foam plastic coffee cups. Gradually, the designs became more complex, with multi-colored contra-rotating elements. They gave each room the impression of frenzied activity, and also inspired Line Producer John Coates’ inevitable (though unfair, we thought) remark that if the animators worked as hard on Yellow Submarine as they did on these diversions, the film would have been finished in record time.

Cam Ford concludes his memoirs of hijinks on the Yellow Submarine with the sworn statement that we have heard so many of the other co-creators say in our dozens of interviews: “I have worked on many feature animated films since, but I can honestly say that none was as much fun as Yellow Submarine.” We lucky ones in the audience are the beneficiaries of these fun and games. The fun they had making this film obviously shows on the screen, making the audience feel the joy, too.

Inside the Yellow Submarine is available at amazon.com. Autographed copies and related items can be purchased from http://www.21stCenturyRadio.com/yellowsub, where you will also find the other 40th anniversary articles in this series.

This article was prepared with the assistance of Jodi Brandon and Laura Cortner.

Autumn of 1967, Cam Ford at his desk in the Knightway House studio, with animation assistant Ray Newman. The NIATIRB poster behind him is satirizing the government’s PR campaign slogan of “I’m Backing Britain”, designed to encourage the purchase of British goods. You can see one of the early “Whirlies” hanging from the ceiling above his upturned lamp; the heat from which kept it spinning slowly all day. This was before the finned wall heaters were turned on in winter, sparking the frenzied whirlie craze.

The famous chimney pots featured in the “Pennies From Heaven” story and look so much like those at the beginning of the “Eleanor Rigby” sequence in Yellow Submarine. The flat roof-top where the pennies were collected is out of picture to the left, while Soho Square lies below to the right.

Yello Sub animator Cam Ford says, “As far as I know, this is the only photo of the legendary ink and paint department on the 5th floor of Knightway House, and gives you some idea of its size. Contrary to all the colorful stories, the vast majority of the kids were pretty straight, and worked really hard to get the Yellow Sub ready for camera -- which is not to say that they didn’t party hard when occasion required! On the wall to the left can be seen the painters’ color character models, keyed to coded shades of vinyl paint.

One of Cam Ford’s John Lennons.