Robert Balser, an animator who co-directed the cartoon sequences of the Beatles‘ 1968 musical fantasy film Yellow Submarine, passed away January 4th at a Los Angeles hospital following complications from respiratory failure. He was 88. Balser’s widow Cima Balser confirmed her husband’s death to the Animated World Network.
Yellow Submarine was Balser’s first feature film in a career that would eventually span five decades. The animator and co-director Jack Stokes led a team of 200 artists in creating the cartoon Beatles’ trippy journey to Pepperland to battle the Blue Meanies, a production that took 11 months and over $1 million. (Stokes passed away in 2013.)
The feature film was borne out of the Beatles’ hatred of their American cartoon series: A similar deal with a production company for an animated series in the U.K. resulted in the Fab Four only agreeing to do the film due to contractual obligations; they didn’t even voice their own animated counterparts. With only the film’s title track and four new Beatles songs to work with, Balser and his collaborators created a story concocted only by “whiskey and imagination,” the animator told the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review in 2012, when the remastered film was released on Blu-ray.
“When I came onto the film on the first day I said, ‘OK, what do we do?’,” Balser said. “They didn’t know what to do. I said, ‘At least we know we have to use the songs and take a trip on a Yellow Submarine.'”
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Later, Balser would also work on the Jackson 5 cartoon (Jackson 5ive) as well as the “Den” segment of the 1981 classic Heavy Metal. However, Yellow Submarine continued to be Balser’s most enduring work.
“No matter what money you had, you could never get the freedom we had,” Balser added of making Yellow Submarine. “We didn’t say we’re going to do this because of this or that — it just happened. I see how it works with little kids, with teenagers, how it’s engraved in the memory of older people. I think it resonates today, but I don’t know why.”