German-Czech designer and graphic illustrator Heinz Edelmann (1934 – 2009) might be labelled an anti-hero of the design discipline. He was modest and relentlessly committed to his craft, albeit with an almost amusing distaste for all he came to represent – the 1960s ethos. ‘I’m a conservative, working-class person,’ he told Mojo magazine in 1999. ‘I just knew about the psychedelic experience by hearsay.’

So no drugs, no pop music, no free love... Edelmann was an anti-experimenter, an old-fashioned intellectual who fused a ferocious wit with a high-brow tongue. Still, in his work for art director Willy Fleckhaus’ Twen magazine and as the genius behind the Beatles’ Yellow Submarine, he did capture and even propel the mood of 60s rebellion. And not by accident.

Heinz Edelmann portrait as Mickey Mouse, Acrilyc on photographic print, 1985 Illu ration by Heinz Edelmann and photo by Gerd van Rijn

‘The amazing thing about Twen is that you are talking about post-war Germany,’ says Valentine Edelmann, Heinz’s only daughter. ‘There was a culture of shame; they were rebuilding and mostly conservative. You would think that a magazine nailing the spirit of the times would be coming out of London or New York, but it wasn’t, it was German.’

Even today, Twen’s spreads look fresh with well-written content on cultural and political topics from abortion to new-wave cinema. The attitude was open, unrestrained and revolutionary. ‘But my father wasn’t like that,’ admits Valentine. ‘He didn’t connect with the 60s and all it represented. I am surprised he called himself conservative because he wasn’t, but I can imagine him saying that he was a “humble blue-collar worker, toiling in the trenches of graphic design, fuelled only by booze”.’

Heinz Edelmann, 1968

‘People often thought that he took LSD to make Yellow Submarine,’ she continues. ‘But he once told me with enormous contempt that one of the reasons he didn't was because it was a “white-collar drug”. The blue-collar thing really meant something to him.’

This summer Yellow Submarine turns fifty. The iconic 89-minute animated feature was such a chaotic and confusing project, it’s a wonder it was ever finished, and even more exceptional that it went on to become so influential. In England it was released with 12 songs – each song representing a subplot of the whole that connected together as one.

When Edelmann turned up in London in early ’68 to start working, there was a minimal budget and less than a year to finish the project. On arrival he expected to be greeted by experts, but there were none – no scripts, and no animators. He himself had no animation experience except a small start to a cartoon commenting on Nazi culture. The visual was of people carrying spare salute arms around in violin cases. It never got made.

But Edelmann began on Yellow Submarine. And in earnest. He took charge of all aspects from character development to tracing and storylines, using the graphic work of Graham Sutherland and his favourite artists Francis Bacon and Saul Steinberg as inspiration. Surrealism is also something he spoke about in an interview with the BBC in 1968, saying that by the 60s the movement was no longer avant-garde, but that their ideas continued to influence commercial art. ‘And he never shied away from identifying as a commercial artist,’ says Valentine, ‘and saw it as a logical step to implement the movement’s ideas in his work.’

He worked from morning till night. ‘It almost killed him,’ says Valentine. ‘He never really got used to the pub culture in London. His colleagues were there for lunch and back for beers in the afternoon. He used to say that the pub across the street – the Dog and Duck – got more money than him to make the movie.’

Heinz Edelmann working late on Yellow Submarine, TVC studios, London, 1968 Photo: Chad Hall

And the problems seemed never-ending. Mid-filming, the police turned up and arrest- ed the voice actor playing George Harrison. It turned out he was a Vietnam War deserter. They threw him in jail and George’s character had to be finished by one of the other voice actors. And when the tiny budget did run dry and the American producers refused to act, the animators stole the film and put it in a bank deposit box – refusing to give it back until more money was found.

It eventually was.

From start to finish, this American British arm wrestle created tension with regards to everything from illustration styles and storyline to language. ‘The director George Dunning was Canadian and well-liked,’ says Valentine. ‘But when it came to the American producers and the British creative studio, TVC, there was a huge disconnect, especially with the script which was worked on by too many Americans unfamiliar with the Beatles' culture. In the end they had to bring in Liverpudlian poet, Roger McGough, to de-Americanise it all, which he did, but was never even given a writing credit.’

The much-lauded psychedelic finale with static characters engulfed in strobes was a desperate last measure. ‘All the animators had gone home,’ says Valentine. ‘There was no more money and so my father had to come up with a way to disguise it. If you look carefully you can see it is the light, not the people that moves.’

When the film premiered the public only knew Disney – animations for children that used exaggerated heads, clear plots, and well-developed characters. Yellow Submarine was for adults; it employed changing visuals, colour and form. The plot was amorphous and packed with political references. There was risk, surrealism, and an overdose of new techniques never seen before.

Yellow Submarine concept art, taken from the book Electrical Banana © Subafilms

‘It became clear quite early with all the con- fusion that the storyline would not stand up to close scrutiny,’ Heinz said of the pro- cess. ‘So to create some interest, I did try to consciously overload the audience. I always slipped in twenty per cent more of what one would normally pick up in a movie viewing. Even a walk formula was necessary to main- tain character. George, John and Paul move at 32 feet per second. Whereas Ringo moved at only 24. George walked like a cowboy. John like a showman. Ringo like a schoolboy Charlie Chaplin. Paul like a confident young executive.’

But the Beatles themselves never wanted an- ything to do with the film. ‘By then they were tired of fame,’ says Valentine. ‘They wanted to change tracks – move to India, meet yogis, get spiritual and find themselves, but they were contractually tied in to a three-film deal. They hated the first two so dreaded the third, which is why they agreed to have it made as an animation. To minimise their involvement.’

But about half way through the making, news spread that something quite special was happening. The band started dropping in for a look and by the end they all loved it. ‘Except none were happy with the voices chosen to represent them,’ says Valentine. ‘They all complained that the other three voices were better.’ Ironically, the press was never informed that voice artists were used and after the premiere Variety (July 24, 1968) announced that, ‘The Beatles' voices are instantly recognisable as their own.’

‘My dad never said much about the Beatles himself though,’ says Valentine, ‘but my mother told me about the time they went to the Abbey Road studio and the atmosphere was very tense. Yoko Ono was there and the other Beatles didn’t seem happy about it. She lay around on the floor, dressed in a fur coat taking pictures of John from all angles. During a break, my father and John Lennon had a discussion about the Pope. John Lennon was against, of course, but my father surprised everyone by bringing up arguments in favour of organised religion. He was baptised Catholic, never saw the inside of a church, but mostly he loved a good argument...and in spite of his dislike of dogmas, his attitude towards religion was somewhat ambiguous. But that the Catholic Church organised a torch-lit march against a poster he designed for a 1964 staging of the play Der Stellvertreter (The Deputy) by Rolf Hochhuth always brought a huge grin to his face.'

Yellow Submarine, film stills, 1968 © Subafilms

Interestingly, the only comment Edelmann himself ever directly made about Yellow Submarine was calling it ‘intelligent mainstream’ – an important genre because accessibility opens up possibilities and entrenches a deeper desire for quality. Yet critics have hailed the film as the principal influence on Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner and John Lasseter, co-founder of Pixar, has called it his favourite film.

In 1999, when the movie was first re-released, George Harrison commented to Mojo how its relevance was enduring. ‘The fact is with the way the government and culture is now, it’s all still happening as it was in Yellow Submarine. Except the Blue Meanies have got a bigger stranglehold on the planet now than they even had back in 1968. And it looks like there is no musical group coming along to break the bubble of greyness because even the music industry has turned grey and is dominated by Blue Meanies.’

But after the premiere there was no glitz or glamour for Edelmann, who returned to Germany craving distance and anonymity. ‘A lot of his clients were contacting him asking for work in the same style as Yellow Submarine,’ says Valentine, ‘but he was done with it. He wanted to move on artistically, to focus more on books and posters...He even started working under the pseudonym Henri L’esclave to find back some creative freedom.’

Not that the Yellow Submarine work – especially with regards to character and colour – isn’t visible in Edelmann’s later career. For a collection of pocketbooks on left-wing politics for Reihe Hanser, he worked on the radical concept of a coherent literary series. ‘He chose bright yellow for all the covers,’ says Valentine, ‘and then each edition had an original illustration. I think the new audience he had attracted with Yellow Submarine was still in his mind, and he was innovating via book design with the best ways to communicate with this sort of new audience – with their active social temperaments and evolving political positions.’

By the mid-70s, strong character-led design was a recurring approach to almost all his books and posters. Even when the content was about an idea, he would communicate it via characters – often unfriendly, hybrid almost mythological creatures with extravagant body parts.

Yellow Submarine, film stills, 1968 © Subafilms

Which makes sense. Edelmann’s early scepticism with the Beatles’ flower power wasn’t just jaded maturity. Growing up in Sudetenland, Czechoslovakia, he saw both the Nazis and later the Red Army occupy his country. ‘He witnessed the two great evils of the 20th century first-hand,’ says Valentine. ‘He remained forever critical of both the right and the left and although he probably thought followers of either were hopelessly naïve, I think he liked to question the massive influence a particular person can have on an entire culture.’

By the 80s Edelmann was in the hugely luxurious position of being able to focus on just four clients: a publisher (Klett Verlag), a TV station (WDR), a magazine (FAZ), and an advertising agency (Pütz). ‘It just couldn’t happen anymore,’ says Valentine, herself a prominent illustrator and educator. ‘These days there is no commitment or loyalty to any one designer. There is never any room to develop together and really build something that makes a difference. The obsession is only ever with the new.’

Edelmann was also making his mark as a teacher in Germany, principally at the Stuttgart Academy of Fine Arts (1986 – 1999). ‘Mainly, his teaching consisted of metaphysical monologues examining the links between the arts, literature, the irreversible dumbing down of youth, Asian mythology and graphic design,’ writes his most famous alumnus Christoph Niemann in Graphis 340 (August 2002). ‘In case someone happened to be late for class, arriving in the afternoon, his inquiry about Mr Edelmann’s previous presence could easily be answered via a glance at the centre of the floor. A rather large pile of ash would be found there – a reminder of the numerous cigarettes Mr Edelmann was bound to consume during his lectures.’

Niemann remembers advice offered in his first class – not to pursue a career in illustration, as it was the shortest way to desperation. ‘One of the most impressive things was that he was not only extremely well informed (on everything but soccer, which he pretended not to like), but also that he was actually working in all the disciplines he talked about. Therefore his insights did not stem from some slowly grown academic wisdom and bitterness, but from his experience on a job finished just the night before.’

Niemann also mentioned the downside of having a professional as a teacher. ‘He did not always have the benevolent patience, which is the hallmark of other teachers. And so his distinguished criticism was promulgated through a substantial and visionary stance rather than through friendly eulogies attempting to enhance student motivation.’

And it was Niemann who pulled Edelmann into one of the more frank published discussions on his profession, its relevance, and power.

Niemann: Can design accomplish something?

Edelmann: By accomplishing you obviously mean something more than simply moving the cans of beans off the shelf. While there have been a few notable instances of graphic design supporting just and noble causes, its overall influence seems somewhat overrated. The world will not be saved by a single set of posters, however brilliant. Salvation takes a very long communal effort. 

Yellow Submarine can be seen via iTunes and a hand-restored version was shown at various cinemas on the 8 July throughout the USA, UK and Ireland.

Yellow Submarine concept art, taken from the book Electrical Banana © Subafilms
Yellow Submarine concept art, taken from the book Electrical Banana © Subafilms