Animator: ‘Yellow Submarine’ captures the essence of an era

Ron Campbell
Ron Campbell helped animate 12 collective minutes of the 87-minute “Yellow Submarine.’’ –Nick Follger

It’s been half a century since “Yellow Submarine’’ originally transported moviegoers to a whimsical, animated world inspired by the Beatles.

Australian-born animator Ron Campbell was first hired by producer Al Brodax to direct the Beatles cartoon series in 1965. Over nine months in the late ’60s, Campbell and his colleague Duane Crowther animated 12 collective minutes of the 87-minute “Submarine,’’ including the “Sea of Time’’ sequence and characters like the Chief Blue Meanie, his assistant, Max, and Jeremy Hillary Boob, PhD

From July 14 to July 18 at The Center for Arts in Natick, Campbell will exhibit original artwork based on “Yellow Submarine,’’ plus many other works from his 50-year career, as part of a national tour. He’ll also host screenings of the film in its entirety, followed by Q&A sessions.

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Q. When did you first discover The Beatles?

A. When I was 23 or 24 years old, I was a very serious young man, concentrating heavily on how you make cartoons. I was not taking much notice of their music. When Al Brodax called me from New York [in the early ’60s], he said, “Ron, we’d really like you to direct the new TV show,’’ and I said, “Well, sure, Al, that’s very good! What is the show?’’ He answered, very briefly, “The Beatles,’’ and my mind went to insects. “Al, insects make terrible characters for children’s shows. What kind of show is this?’’ He laughed and berated me: “You idiot! It’s the famous rock ’n’ roll band sweeping the nation.’’ “Oh, yeah, think I’ve heard of them.’’ When I agreed to do the show, I started hearing them more often, and like everyone else in the whole world, I thought, “That’s a nice group.’’ [laughs]

Q. You worked on the “Sea of Time’’ sequence. What was the process behind that?

A. Well, first off, what was to occur was conceived by the script writers, then it was conceived by the storyboard people, who did drawings, then it was amplified by the layout people, and then us guys at the end of the line animating it brought it all to life. Duane and I did not create the sequence, we brought the sequence to life. It’s a team job in every respect. Sometimes when I do my shows, people come in and they think that I did everything, that I’m the creator of the whole kit and kaboodle. But anybody that tries to tell you that they are entirely responsible for any film, they’re just lying to you.

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Q. What did you think of “Submarine’’ when you saw the finished product?

A. I thought it was terrific! It’s an actual fact that the script was not really finalized until the film was virtually finished, but when I look back on the film, and I’ve seen it quite a few times since, I can’t help but feel it’s a rare film that captures the essence of an era. When you watch that film, you get a taste of what it was like to be alive and vital in 1968. Few films can do that — “Midnight Cowboy,’’ perhaps, but not a lot. It’s a remarkable film in that respect, and partly perhaps due to the fact that the production itself was so disorganized. Everybody was just working from instinct.

Q. Do you think that “time capsule’’ quality is why it has held up 50 years later?

A. I do, but don’t forget there’s another angle to this: I personally believe that 200 years from now, people will tune into recordings of the Beatles’ performances, thinking of it like we would think about Mozart today. The Beatles will be right there, still listened to 200 years from now, presuming the world still exists [laughs]. So that’s a very important thing as to why “Yellow Submarine’’ keeps being watched — it’s the Beatles’ music itself. Without the music, the film is virtually nothing.

Interview was edited and condensed.

ROBERT STEINER