Hidden Meanings in the Yellow Submarine

As seen in Octopus's Garden Magazine, December 2008

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

Is it unfair to interpret symbolic meaning in The Beatles Yellow Submarine film when most of the co-creators swear there was no time for such deep thinking? Perhaps. And yet, interpret we always seem to do with the Beatles, as if we can’t help it. Most of the co-creators of this film insist they were too busy with their deadlines and the frenzied, script-less beginnings of their production to create the multi-layered allegories many of us fans read into it. With 2008 marking the 40th anniversary of the theatrical premiere of Yellow Submarine (November 13, 1968 in the U.S.), we are taking the opportunity to introduce you to two of the Submarine co-creators we discovered after my book came out. To my delight they turned out to have given a great deal more thoughtful reflection to the symbolic meaning of the Yellow Submarine than most of the other artists.

My 2002 publishers decided a chapter I wrote considering the mythology of Yellow Submarine was too cerebral for you readers, so we posted it instead as an exclusive to our website visitors at www.21stCenturyRadio.com/yellowsub. In it you’ll see that a strong argument can be made for the relevance of deep symbology in this film, whether or not it was consciously selected. Throughout history, great artists have described the experience of the creative force flowing through them, being scarcely conscious of what they were creating until it was done. Except for co-screenwriter Erich Segal acknowledging that he was following the traditional classical mythological quest outline with his Yellow Submarine story, all the other co-creators remember that they just wrote and drew what came into their heads. They were in much too much of a hurry to make a hyper-philosophical analysis of their production. Many of them were surprised in the end that their hasty little film held together as well as it did. They were simply overwhelmed that fans insisted on subjecting it to endless scrutiny and hours of ontological ruminations.

The bright minds of Scottish animator Tom Halley and his assistant on the film, Norm Drew, now a successful animator in Canada, had also wandered in these philosophical directions. Since the film, they, too, had wondered if perhaps there was a greater force at play directing their decisions toward a cohesive whole, even though their conscious day-to-day routine was experienced as chaos. Halley described it as a particular kind of organized chaos:

“With something like Yellow Submarine that has a tremendously small time limit to it, the pressures to deliver are such that the choices you make exist with chaos in everything. Everything begins with chaos, and when a project is more complex, the more difficult it is to make the choices. But at some point, you have to grab on to one of those complexities, and use it, and make it work. If you did it a second time, it would probably be totally different…. I have always considered that the universe created its design out of chaos. Handed down through the ages is the message that harmony and balance are reached by following the oldest of wise teachings: Caring and love for all things that manifest in the material world. The words and music at the end of Yellow Submarine, ‘All you need is love; love is all you need,’ echoes writings of truth as old as time itself.”

As Norm Drew noted, Tom Halley has a “wise, philosophical mind, and he was a great mentor to me and to the many hundreds of animation students he later taught.” But Halley was not the only one on the crew who realized that a lot of good came out of the various conflicts and challenges they faced. In further elaborating his concept of how the “organized chaos” theory came into play on Yellow Submarine, he continued, “You have to have visual development, and where the sound goes, and where the voice goes, and all that has to work together as one unit when it’s final. It has to work, and the design comes out of all of this. If the decisions are not according to ‘universal truth,’ you’re going to have a disaster. This is where the ability of the creative artist comes into play. They have to make the right choices, a process that is partially intuitive, but certainly I think the collective consciousness does help. The design that comes from it depends on the choices you make. It’s almost an intuitive ability to make the right choices out of that complexity, so it’s very, very difficult to explain to laymen what it’s like to work in those sorts of productions and make the right decisions.”

Norm Drew described it as a “free-flowing stream of consciousness thing, rather than a pre-planned organized production.” He also believes that in hindsight, “it was almost as though I was meant to work on Yellow Submarine, as I'd spent three solid months sloshing through the winter slush in London looking for any kind of graphic art/illustration work at magazines, newspapers, etc. and couldn't get hired. At the very first animation studio I dropped into, Richard Williams studio, a fellow there said, ‘They're doing a Beatles thing at TVC over on Dean Street.’ That was the door that was waiting for me. My entire Yellow Submarine experience was one of those ‘meant to happen’ experiences, without doubt.”

When artists sit down in their studios to draw, write, or design, they often find their own world opening up before them, oblivious to any chaos around them. During his imprisonment in a Nazi concentration camp, psychologist Dr. Victor Frankel discovered that those who survived were the ones who had a strong sense of meaning in their lives, either religious or secular, a deep passion, or a reason to live. Drew refers to his journal kept during his Yellow Submarine days, (one of the very few diaries of a crew member), and pointed to the date of April 26th when he wrote that director George Dunning signed an authorization for Drew (a Canadian) to obtain a library card in London. The very first book he picked up, he remembers, was Victor Frankl's Man’s Search for Meaning, which he says, “Totally, totally, turned me around!”

The search for meaning in Yellow Submarine may not have started until after the film was screened for fans, but whether or not they were aware of it, I believe that the mindset of the co-creators harmonized with a universal truth whose time had come to be told. That’s what makes one movie “click” as a classic, while another one falls flat as a dud. Any great work of art has something that strikes a chord inside our collective being; something we understand on a visceral, ancestral level, without consciously acknowledging it. Classics follow certain patterns that resonate within our subconscious making us inextricably drawn to and inspired by them. As Halley put it, “Truth, when discovered, is often beyond the human vocabulary to explain. Yellow Submarine speaks to the heart, which seems, certainly to me, to be the door to the soul and truth. Truth is no respecter of time, place, or what we believe, but IS. It is knowing, but unable to explain the knowing. It may be that the material brain with its limited frequency in the material plain, is unable to explain that which it maybe picks up on a spiritual level when in a higher state of meditation, or given food for thought when enlightened by an event such as Yellow Submarine.”

Psychologists and philosophers have long been warning us that without meaningful myths or symbols, a world-wide cultural malaise is developing which leads to increasing anxiety and mental, emotional and spiritual disintegration. This explains why Yellow Submarine remains a classic. It fills the collective longing for meaningful symbols and myths. It is my contention that a force greater than those who co-created Yellow Submarine, greater even than the Beatles, was at work on this project. How else could an archetype for music and love vanquishing evil -- without violence! –be the result of this chaotic little production?

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.

A color background layout key drawing from Jack Stokes from the Sea of Phrenology shows the enormous amount of detail that went into each frame of the film. Images from the subconscious mingle with images from our commercial pop culture, ever whirling in a sea of chaos.

Norm Drew, three years post-Submarine, in hometown Kenora, Ontario, summer 1970, with his treasured Bolex P-1 8mm camera which he remembered fondly as “a terrific semi-pro camera with a 12 to 1 zoom and up to 64 frames a second for ultra slow motion effects.” He went on to use this camera to shoot his first “Chika” TV series pilot film cartoon later picked up by the CBC. In the meantime he hopped back and forth to London to work on The Jackson 5 for Bob Balser (Animation Director on Yellow Submarine) at Halas & Batchelor, and then back in Canada directing specials, TV spots, and then “Wait TIll Your Father Gets Home” for Hanna Barbera.
© Norm Drew Animation Archives

Norm Drew soaking up the mysticism at Stonehenge, November, 1971. He remembers getting some “great, spooky, atmospheric tracking movie shots while walking around these monoliths.”
© Norm Drew Animation Archives

Animator Tom Halley today seated at his old animation desk with animation keys from scene12/attack 2 sequence.

The climax of the Yellow Submarine comes when the bad guys are transformed (not destroyed) into good guys through the power of love and music. In this preliminary concept design from Jack Stokes, bursting forth from the head (crown chakra) of the Chief Blue Meanie is an ever expanding kalidescope featuring the Blue Bird of Happiness.