Two animators train their wild brains on the 'Yellow Submarine'
Writer David Templeton takes interesting people to interesting movies in his ongoing quest for the ultimate post-film conversation. This is not a film review; rather, it's a freewheeling discussion of life and popular culture.
THOUGH IT'S SURELY not mentioned in either fellow's résumé, it must be noted that Phil Robinson--vice president and co-founder of San Francisco's Wild Brain animation studio--can pull off an uncannily accurate impression of ex-Beatle Ringo Starr, while his associate George Evelyn--one of Wild Brain's insanely prolific animation directors--can do a mean Blue Meanie.
"Glove, nice glove," Evelyn purrs, squeezing his upper-range baritone into an eerie, skyrocketing falsetto, then suddenly shrieks, "Destroy them! Destro-o-o-o-o-y-y-y the-e-e-e-m-m-m!"
Robinson--who was about to say something--instead erupts into a warm lava-flow of appreciative laughter. "Good Meanie," he remarks.
Robinson, a self-described "hard-bitten animation director," and Evelyn--who have been enjoying a good time as Wild Brain Inc. steams through its fifth straight year of growth--have just been to see a rare big-screen exhibition of Peter Max's 1968 film Yellow Submarine.
The legendary animated phantasmagoria--a bizarre, nearly plotless trip beneath the waves to the "unearthly paradise" of Pepperland, recently invaded by music-hating Blue Meanies--has just been released in video for the first time in over a decade and a half, and a handful of theaters and film festivals across the county (including the upcoming Mill Valley Film Festival) are celebrating with theatrical showings of the one-of-a-kind film.
Robinson and Evelyn caught a screening in San Francisco, not far from the ever-expanding Wild Brain studios where the two seasoned animators--along with co-founders Jeff Fino and John Hays--have made a name for themselves as one of the most energetic and versatile animation houses in the world. They've quickly become the premier independent animation studio in the United States, making cutting-edge commercials while building a massive client list that includes Microsoft, Disney, Nike, and Levi Strauss.
At the same time, Wild Brain is providing high-profile services to the major movie studios, having recently produced the feature-length film Ferngully 2: The Magical Rescue (Robinson was the director), several episodes of HBO's Spawn series, and the computer-animated characters for the upcoming The Adventures of Rock and Bullwinkle. Wild Brain is also preparing to launch an animated TV series called Poochini's Yard.
At the moment though, Robinson and Evelyn are taking a break to discuss their somewhat disparate views of Yellow Submarine.
Evelyn--he's the director of MTV's infamous cartoon short Doktor Zum and the Forbidden Mysteries of the Unknown and the Forbidden--first saw the psychedelic Beatles film while a freshman in college and hasn't seen it since. Until now.
"I loved it all over again," he says. "The main thing I liked was that weird '60s, hippy, Peter Max kind of whatever. It was so totally different from any animated film I'd seen previously. I liked the idea of using animation in a totally fantastic way. Yellow Submarine is so totally off the scale. I mean, where the hell is Pepperland? That appealed to me, and still appeals to me--using animation to the Max." So to speak.
Robinson, on the other hand, had just seen the film for his first time--strange, but true--and he found it far less delightful than his associate did.
"I certainly recognize all of the groundbreaking aspects of what Yellow Submarine did when it first arrived," he says. "But it still falls flat for me. The facial details of the characters were so stylized that it made it very difficult for the animators to show a range of emotions. They felt very much like paper cutouts."
"I found the physical flatness of the characters to be quite appealing," counters Evelyn. "To me, that was quite a Beat-alic thing. They were never the world's most active personalities. They were always a pretty deadpan quartet.
"So that flatness worked for me."
ROBINSON has another point to make. "A few years after Yellow Submarine--which probably did feel pretty revolutionary at the time--we suddenly saw the release of Fritz the Cat," he points out, refering to Ralph Bakshi's infamous X-rated feature film. "To me, that was far more of an underground, groundbreaking film."
"Yeah, in terms of its gritty reality and its R. Crumb-ness, Fritz the Cat was pretty daring," Evelyn agrees.
"What's interesting to me," he continues, "for all this talk of Yellow Submarine's revolutionary standing, it's really still a one-of-a kind thing. The animation industry is still locked into the semi-realistic, Disney model of animation.
"As far as films go that are designed to be pure fantasy, pure imagination, pure color and design and graphics--there's only movie, and that's Yellow Submarine."
Talking to this pair of innovative animation pioneers, one can't help but wonder if the re-release of Yellow Submarine will have any inspirational effect on the films of tomorrow or the artists of today?
"I hope it does," Evelyn says. "If Yellow Submarine kicks ass in video and makes a lot of money, then there might be some kind of fantastic Yellow Submarine clone or even a Yellow Submarine 2 or something like that.
"Actually," he says with a chuckle, "I wouldn't mind taking on that project myself."
At any rate, there's one area in which Yellow Submarine is almost sure to make a conspicuous impact.
Says Robinson, "There are definitely going to be a lot of Blue Meanies on the streets this Halloween."
Yellow Submarine screens Oct. 18-21 during the Mill Valley Film Festival at 6:45 and 8:45 p.m. at the Sequoia Theatre, 25 Throckmorton Ave., Mill Valley. $7.50. 415/380-0888.
From the September 30-October 6, 1999 issue of the Sonoma County Independent.
© Metro Publishing Inc.