Tribute to Jack Stokes, Master Animator

by Dr. Bob Hieronimus, author of Inside the Yellow Submarine

At one of the 30th Anniversary Reunion parties in 1998 for the Yellow Submarine, some of which were hosted and sponsored by Dr. Bob and Zohara Hieronimus. Left to right: John Coates (Line Producer), Mike Stuart (seated, Key Animator), Zohara Hieronimus, Bob Balser (one of two Animation Directors), Jack Stokes (the other Animation Director)

The past few months have been full of loss for the crew of the Yellow Submarine. In quick succession last year we lost Line Producer John Coates, followed by the voice actor for the Lennon character John Clive. And now on March 20, 2013, Animation Director Jack Stokes passed on to the heaven worlds. Born on April 2, 1920, Stokes was just shy of his 93rd birthday.

Like all the co-creators of the Beatles Yellow Submarine, Jack Stokes was a well-rounded individual with many accomplishments and talents outside of Beatles cartoons. But like anyone remotely linked to the Beatles, the majority of his official obituaries in mainstream press will focus on the 11 months of their lives devoted to the creation of this classic film.

As the author of the definitive guidebook to this film, my tribute to Jack Stokes will also include the Yellow Submarine, of course, (and in fact will contain some never-before-published writings of Jack Stokes related to Yellow Sub), but we will also strive to show you some of the other sides to his personality that he revealed to us over the 20 years we knew each other.

We first met Jack Stokes over the phone when he joined us for several interviews on 21st Century Radio and the research going into Inside the Yellow Submarine. Our first interview was in 1993, and our final interview with him was 18 years later on May 22, 2011 about his book of fantasy fiction called CWY: Through the Darkness.

As stated in the publisher’s description, CWY starts with a modern-day scuba diver finding an ancient sword in a cave and subsequently becoming drawn into the mysterious world of the Celtic Iron Age. An epic journey ensues, complete with strange monsters, powerful and ancient gods, with the strange and powerful sword linking it all.

I like that our last conversation was about a sword-wielding hero, because that’s the image I always had of Jack himself. As a former scuba diver and cave explorer, Jack probably would have identified more with the modern-day young man in the tale, but for me, I will always see him in the image painted by another Yellow Submarine co-creator Charlie Jenkins when he tried to describe Jack Stokes to us as looking “like a Viking, probably riding giant lawnmowers across his garden waving a sword.”

Jack Stokes in 1998

A still from Yellow Submarine of Old Fred

That image fit very well with the “crusty old salt” persona that Jack Stokes gave out. Many on the crew believed he was the inspiration for the Yellow Submarine character Old/Young Fred, whom he does resemble with the full beard. But I believe there was a surprising depth to his soul that was hidden behind his gruff exterior, and it can be seen in some of the things he shared with me during our final interview about his venture into the world of writing fiction. He amusingly described himself to me in a 1998 letter: “Most people reckon that I walk around with a storm cloud over my head. I’ve never completely understood whether they mean an actual storm cloud – or an unnatural one caused by my -- to put it gently – electricity.”

In our final interview, we talked about how the Welsh name he’d chosen for his hero, CWY (pronounced “Kwee”) was also a significant word in the Cherokee language meaning “Cherokee” itself. Nor was he surprised to hear the theory that ancient Welsh sailors had visited the American continent in the distant past and intermingled with the Cherokee, which would explain a number of anomalous carvings and language correlations.

There was also room in Jack’s world for contemplation on the mysteries of life and a reverence for the divine feminine or earth energies. The culmination of CWY comes as the hero is contacted by the “natural Mother of all things; Mistress of all the elements, Queen of all that dwell in the heavens.” He describes her as the triple goddess maiden-mother-crone, and I believe that towards the end of his life Jack may have been reawakening to these spiritual dimensions that pulse throughout all life on planet earth.

Similarly, his artistic talent was far deeper and richer than his best-known works of animation-for-hire. Look at these photos of the oil paintings of his beloved seascapes that he was working on in the late 1990s when we first met him. He labeled the second one “Thames Estuary Sportsail Barges – where I came from!” Aren’t they beautiful?

Click images to see a larger version of each painting.

An artist since he was 12, Jack Stokes was raised in Essex, and entered animation in 1946 after serving six years in the RAF wartime aircrew. He was trained by Disney artists at a Rank Animation studio called Moor Hall. He started his own company, Stokes Cartoons, Ltd., in 1960, and joined TV Cartoons as an Animation Director and Storyboard Artist soon thereafter. Lots of commercials, shorts and one 90-minute feature called Wonderwall occupied him until -- along came The Beatles. From 1964-67 he was the series Director and storyboard artist for every single episode of the Beatles TV cartoon series, and later did special inserts for the Magical Mystery Tour. From 1967-69 he worked with a devoted crew that grew to over 200 in a feverish frenzy at the height of the swinging sixties on The Yellow Submarine, the psychedelic feature film that would impact animation and design for decades to come. Jack was responsible for the toughest part of the assignment – how to animate and storyboard the so-called “plot” portions of the movie, something made especially difficult by the on-going changes, additions, and complete rewrites of the patched-together script. New Beatles songs would arrive randomly throughout production and had to be fit into the story somehow. He remembers it as one very long day after another just cranking out work as fast as they could.

Before we share the never-before-published six-page letter he wrote me in 1999 detailing all his Yellow Submarine memories in his own words, I think we should first complete his official bio here:

Some of the productions he directed after the Yellow Submarine include: 1969-72 Tiki Tiki 90 min. feature (France); Co-Director Animation Director and Storyboard Cinemascope (Canada); Commercials; Little Mermaid television special Director, Designer Special Sequences. 1973-77 Commercials. 1977-78 Water Babies 90 min. feature Director Animation Sequences, Supervising Animation Director, Storyboard (Great Britain, Poland). 1980-81 Heavy Metal 90 min. feature Den Sequence Director, Storyboard (USA). 1983-84 Asterix a Gift for Caesar Storyboard Director, Layout Director. 1984-89 Storyboarding and direction in USA, Paris, Germany, Denmark, etc. 1992-98 Supervising Director, Storyboard, Layout and Animation for TVC on Tailor of Gloucester; Two Bad Mice and Johnny Townmouse; Carrick Fergus Castle; Famous Fred (Layout); Prince Valiant; The Bear (Layout) and Commercials; 1998-2000 Storyboarding Percy the Park Keeper; Sheep 10 min. shorts; Directed Santa's Special Delivery (USA). By the 1999 publication of our Yellow Submarine booklets, Jack wrote that he was "semi-retired, painting seascapes and landscapes and still animating and storyboarding for everybody who asks! And I’ve now been in the business 54 years. (I must be bloody mad.)”

Jack Stokes’ awards include: Hollywood Advertising Club International Broadcasting Awards Diploma; Cannes Festival International Du Film Publicitaire Premier Prix; Television Mail Advertising Awards, Animation Design Award, 1st Prize and Diploma Second Film; Venice Film Festival International Advertising, lst Prize Series; Hollywood Advertising Club International Broadcasting Awards Diploma; 1X Resena Mundial De Los Festivales Cinematiographicos Diploma of Honour for Direction; American Television Commercials Film Festival International Category, Diploma; Oberhausen International Westdeutche Kurzfilmtage Shorts Diploma; International Film and Television Festival of New York Shorts Bronze Award; Chicago International Children’s Film Fest Adult Jury 1st Prize, Childrens Jury 2nd Prize; 1995 Portugal Festival International de Cinema de Animation Premior Prize.

Jack Stokes’ memories of working on the Yellow Submarine

Click image to see a larger version of this letter to Dr. Bob from Jack Stokes.

And now here, for the first time ever, we are publishing the uncut, unedited version of Jack Stokes’ memories of working on the Yellow Submarine. This was after he had read our preliminary published reports from interviews with over 30 other co-creators on the film, and he felt the urge to set a few things straight.

Here is a typed version of this 6-page letter from August 23, 1999:

Dear Dr. Bob H.,

Thanks for your pre-book publication, on “the Yellow Sub”, very interesting. It’s amazing how many people have so many odd memories and comments.

I must admit I don’t remember Heinz having much to say – at least to me about the actual storyline of the film, the main plot that is, after all we had that in the original script. The invasion, the sending for help, the hero rescuers, and the power used for victory. It’s not a new or unusual story and has been used many times, Star Wars being a classic. The Yellow Sub has the same basic structure. The Jedi Knights to the rescue, i.e., the Beatles, and the “force” the music. Heinz’ designs of course had an enormous impact on the story, especially on incidents and characters which give the film its main interest.

The heaviest problem Bob [Balser, co-animation director] and I had in storyboarding, was the music, the main ingredient. Fifteeen songs, with no connection to each other or the story. How do you let them in with any continuity and consistency; that we did it at all was a minor miracle, or a Hell of a lot of luck.

Storyboarding in such a hurry was no easy task, involving illustrating the action of each scene, timing the scene’s action, fitting the dialogue, deciding on long shot-closeup, etc., what tracks, pans, or effects are needed, all before the layout artists and animators can get at it, with them all waiting on your tail. So the added problem of where and how to connect the music didn’t make for an easy life, in spite of being really the main reason for doing it in the first place. Interesting, but not easy, long hours, a lot of tension with little relaxation.

Jack Stokes and part of his team at TVC around 1965. Left to right: Peter Sander (character design, Beatles series), Stokes, Ray Goodman (in the rear with glasses, music composer) Arthur Button (animator), Mike Stuart (animator).

Photo courtesy of Jack Stokes who sent them to us to include in our book. Jack Stokes and part of his team at TVC around 1965. Left to right: Peter Sander (character design, Beatles series), Stokes, Ray Goodman (in the rear with glasses, music composer) Arthur Button (animator), Mike Stuart (animator).

I must admit towards the end I was a little tired of it all. I had completed two years on the Beatles series, doing the same things direction and storyboarding on every one of the shows, trying to stay ahead of five animation units. Then more or less straight onto “The Yellow Submarine” feature. So as soon as possible I dropped everything and took my wife and youngest daughter to Italy. (My wife reckons she was a Beatles widow.)

I don’t really think Allan Ball was correct – over us taking on a feature (technically that is) a number of us had been in the business quite a time, I had started in 1946 (straight out of the RAF wartime Aircrew) at a studio called Moor Hall. We were Disney trained by directors and artists brought over by the Rank Organisation. David Hand, the Director of “Snow White” was our boss. There were a half a dozen or so animators, etc. from that set up on the film, the oldest being Arthur Humberstone, who was responsible for a lot of the Boob animation. No, I think we were ripe to try our hand at a feature, the problems were too small a budget and too short a time, allowing no margin for error, and very few second chances. At the same time we were being ambitious trying to do something special, which I am certain was not what King Features and Al Brodax [American producer] expected. I believe that they were expecting a simple feature type extension of the series. I know when they came over to view our test footage of Heinz’s stuff, we were all a bit on edge – expecting them to have kittens. But praise for Al Brodax – he took it extremely well. (Abe Goodman [production coordinator] was rather thrown.)

As for the Blue Meanie himself, for the basic main story he was based on Hitler, the biggest villain in our lifetime, and I know I nearly ruined poor Paul Angelis’s voice at the sound recording session, trying to get all that hysterical madness as Hitler at one of his rallies. But I will admit I did play about, as an in joke with Al Brodax as the main Blue Meanie, and Abe Goodman as Max, always following his boss about. As the scenes with Max (Abe) running about after the Meanie (Al) with a chair, trying to get it under his backside before he sat down, and getting shot down by him at odd times. So there you have it. The Big Blue Meanie Al Brodax, Abe Goodman Max, and I didn’t particularly mean it in any vindictive way, just a bit of wickedness I guess. I had been mixed up with both of them for quite a time, all the way through the series, where I guess even then I was giving Al ulcers. Which I might add with all our grumbles gave us “The Yellow Sub” for without the series’ great success in America “The Yellow Sub” would not, I’m sure have been made.

As for the Bluish/Jewish joke, I had it first from Al who told me it was a saying in Brooklyn “Are you Jewish?” Bluish was just his play on the words, so I used it in the scene of the Beatles Apple Bonking a Meanie.

I am also certain that Erich Segal wrote the Boob’s amazing clever dialogue, but I’m sure he didn’t appear on the scene until we were well into the film, quite a few months in.

The “Hey Bulldog” sequence, which now everyone is having a say about, was the last number to arrive from the Beatles and was a last minute fit in. If we hadn’t been so far advanced with the film I probably would have put it somewhere else, but it was one of the only sequences where we had all the Beatles and their doubles, Sgt. Pepper’s Band, and I thought more of that was needed. As for the style criticism, there were style changes throughout the film, and you couldn’t be much further from Heinz’ designs than “Lucy”. At least he designed the Bulldog. Also Bob Balser didn’t work on the Bulldog story – but George Dunning [the film’s overall Director] did. He came up with the idea of the piano, and he wanted the song in the film. Of course there are plenty of things wrong with the film, I only wish we had had the time to correct them. We never did and it was over thirty years ago now. It seems a bit late in the day to worry about it.

Dunning Jack Stokes Yellow Submarine production

Yellow Sub Animation Director Jack Stokes and Director George Dunning during production. Photo courtesy of Jack Stokes who sent them to us to include in our book.

I suppose looking back, and after this last showing with the cleaned up version by MGM/UA, we the artists do have something to be reasonably pleased with. What is amusing is there appears to have been more time and money spent on its renovation than ever was on the original production. Well, that’s life.

As the film says long, long ago, in a distant studio called TV Cartoons (now extinct) we made a film – now let’s forget it.


Jack Stokes, one time Animation Director, and Storyboard Artist

See ya!

P.S. I must say in defence of Al Brodax, I can’t imagine any moneyman in his position today, allowing us to get away with what we were up to at that time. J.S.

A year earlier, Jack sent me the photos of his oil paintings shown above, along with this letter dated 10th August 1998.

Dear Bob,

Just a couple of lines to thank you for your letter, etc. and to inform you that your large parcel of all sorts has arrived. I have been off on a break with my youngest daughter, visiting my oldest and her husband, etc. in North Devon. The weather did change for the best while I was there – this is unusual as most people reckon that I walk around with a storm cloud over my head. I’ve never completely understood whether they mean an actual storm cloud – or an unnatural one caused by my -- to put it gently – electricity.

There is nothing much happening over here at present, so I am getting back into painting, have produced here seascapes and a couple of landscapes over the past few months, not so bad, considering I’ve not done any for approx fifty years. Fifty-two to be exact wasted on the film industry – well, not wasted. I enjoyed it after all.

Incidentally the idiot with Heinz E. when he went to Soho (we were there all the time, really) and met The Beatles and had lunch, was me. The Magical Mystery Tour, the old codger with roses behind his ears was a well known character in Soho at that time, he used to waltz about in the street, just a note in passing.

As for Heinz saying he worked around the clock – we all did – that is, the main directors, etc. – had to, to keep the animators going. Bob [Balser] and I were storyboarding just in front of the layout artists and animators and timing scenes from the sound track, etc. Not time for much else except getting pissed when possible – often in the early hours of the morning. The wives were all pretty amazing! I don't know how they did it.

A long, long time ago – and a lot of water has gone under the bridge since then. So! Forget it.

I hope to see you again sometime. Thanks again for the parcel and the Magical Mystery Tour Bus. It will go to my two existing great grandchildren Nicholas and Lauren.

My regards to yourself and your charming Lady Zohara,

Jack S.


Water under the bridge, indeed, Jack Stokes. Water under the bridge. May you find bright sunshine, waves crashing ashore, and friends and family around you as you venture through the otherworlds beyond this mortal coil. I think the noble guardians you wrote about in your fantasy novels will have prepared the way for you. Travel on, brother!

by Dr. Bob Hieronimus, author of Inside the Yellow Submarine





Here are some responses to this tribute:

From his daughter Hilary

Dear Dr. Bob,

Many thanks for your kind message and the lovely tribute to my dad on your website. My sister and I and Jack's grandchildren are very touched by all the kind comments and tributes to him.

We miss him greatly and always will but we are comforted by the happy memories of our time with him. He was someone who always enjoyed life, was full of fun but was someone with great depth and wisdom. He never gave up the wish to learn (even in his 90's) and had a wide range of interests. He always had time for others and was such a good friend to so many people.

Once again, many thanks.

With kindest regards, Hilary

From Cam and Diana Ford, Animators and Artists on Yellow Submarine

Hi Dr Bob; The leaves seem to be falling faster these days, don't they? I worked on Jack's team on YS, and always respected his talent and expertise, whilst at the same time understanding the sometimes tough decisions he had to make to get an astonishingly ambitious film made under impossible deadline and budgetary restraints. Jack's gruff, no-nonsense exterior hid a mischievous sense of humour - he was a dedicated professional in the studio and a wonderfully relaxed raconteur in the Dog and Duck. He will be missed. Cam