An in-depth look at the YELLOW SUBMARINE DVD

by Derek Miner

Ah, what a joy to finally see "Yellow Submarine" on DVD! I have been a huge fan of this film since I first saw it as a kid. I can almost recite the whole film verbatim. It should come as no surprise that what follows seems picky - I'm a detail freak! Hopefully, these are at least some "did ya notice?" kinds of things to look for yourselves.

First off, I think the packaging of this "Yellow Submarine" is the weakest part.  I only mention this, because it's the first impression most people will get of the product. The box design, with just a the submarine on blue is horribly boring. The video trade magazine ad campaign and Capitol Records' website are more graphically interesting. I will note, however, that the new packaging adds one piece of punctuation - "The Beatles" is now posessive, as in "The Beatles' Yellow Submarine," which takes away from the idea that it's "The Beatles" IN "Yellow Submarine."

The "Special Features" menu reveals that the DVD includes an audio commentary with line producer John Coates (with "additional contribution" by Heinz Edelmann), an isolated music track, a making-of short, "The Beatles Mod Odyssey" (which doesn't look that great), an oiginal trailer (which looks pretty good, and features actual Beatles footage), three storyboard sequences (two never used), some brief contemporary interviews with some of the voice talent and crew, an art gallery of pencil tests and cels, plus some behind the scenes photos. Unfortunately for some, there is no sign of the Beatles-in-studio clip that was created for "Hey Bulldog" (subsequently shown on TV following the video release) The main menu of the DVD also has a few "easter eggs," or hidden features. Use the up arrow keys on your remote to find 14 different sound bytes and/or animations. Check all the windows of the sub, the spots above all four Beatles, the rear hatch and the periscopes.

The audio commentary from John Coates (even though Heinz Edelmann's name is listed, I didn't hear him!) includes a lot of interesting production anecdotes. Unlike some audio commentaries, this one isn't always specific to the picture on the screen, but it occasionally comments on what you're seeing. Since the actual making of this film hasn't been documented extensively in the past, this is a very interesting track. Coates describes things like setting up extra crews to work overnights, Edelmann's work on the film, producing "Hey Bulldog" late in the game, and hearing the Sgt. Pepper album for the first time.

The film has been presented in the 1.66:1 aspect ratio. I compared this to the VHS edition of "Yellow Submarine" that MGM released back in the '80s. Before the comparison, I somehow had believed that there were some parts of the old release that looked better. What was I thinking? The colors of the original MGM version were faded and sometimes pretty far away from what you see in this new version. There were a lot more scratches and dirt on the old transfer as well.

Overall, the image on the disc is superb. Color is bright, vibrant and clean. The transfer is so nice, you can see some of the detail inherent in the artwork, a slight shift in color on a background or the paint marks on cels, for instance. DVD is a very sharp, noise-free format. Even though the original material for "Yellow Submarine" comes from an age where film grain was very apparent, it doesn't stand out that much on this version. However, at the very end of the film, where the actual Beatles make an appearance, there are some shifts in the color. Blacks turn a bit red in only some spots. It looks like some of the film elements had faded. This didn't seem to be apparent on the older video.

Back to the aspect ratio. There's a little trade-off involved here. The 1:66 letterbox definitely shows more image on the left and right of screen than we could see in the old version, but my VHS tape shows a little bit more on the top and bottom. A comparison with the full-frame VHS restored edition may be in order. I wouldn't want to imply that the DVD is incorrectly framed, however, some shots did feel a bit claustrophobic. Real nitpickers may notice that the credits on the old edition were reframed and sometimes made larger to be legible on video. A few names on the right of one screen were completely eliminated from the old video and now those people can finally get the credit they deserve!
All music, dialouge and sound effects in this edition of the film have been remastered for 5.1 channel digital sound. There is a 5.1 channel "music-only" track on the DVD as well, which features not only the Beatles' songs sans effects, but George Martin's score, too! From several sources, I've learned that the original film sound elements were preserved on three "stems," one for effects and dialogue, one for Beatles songs and one for George Martin score. This mono element of the Martin score which was "opened up" for stereo and combined with the stereo re-recordings as featured on the album to create a complete version.

Overall, the 5.1 mix really comes across best during the Beatles numbers, even though the score and effects have been panned and positioned as well. "Only A Northern Song," as many have mentioned, stands out, with a nice bass response and a full stereo mix where we're used to mono. Lead vocals on all the tracks, per usual film mixes, are centered up front. Harmonies and double tracked vocals are split up among the other speakers to give a fuller sound, as in "Eleanor Rigby" and "Nowhere Man." Even a simple little number like "When I'm Sixty-Four" takes on a new life here.

The DVD also has a fourth audio track - the orginal mono film soundtrack! Film purists will find this a great addition (listen carefully - it really is the original mono, not a fake from the stereo track like reissues of some other films I've seen), but there is one major glitch, in fact a SET of glitches that all occur around the same point of the film.

DVD fans already know that many discs are "dual layer," meaning there are two "platters" readable from the one side of the disc. DVD players must switch between these layers, often times resulting in a brief pause. The switch in "Yellow Submarine" falls at about 25 minutes and 43 seconds into the movie (by the timer on my player). The visual is a black screen - a perfect time for a switch, but the 5.1 track has a submarine sound effect that is silenced for a second during the switch. At this exact point (I think it was a reel change in the original "film" version), the sound on the mono track becomes a 2-channel stereo mirror of the 5.1 track! This lasts until the beginning of the next "reel" at 41 minutes, where we go back to the original mono soundtrack. Ironically enough, the one time I saw an older print of "Yellow Submarine" in a theater (in 1982), this exact same reel of the film had been swapped with one from another print, and all the dialogue outside the songs was in GERMAN. There is one other very odd occurance during this segment, at 28 minutes and 24 seconds - a brief piece (10 frames) of Fred was somehow moved from the very end of a shot to the very beginning. The dialogue in this shot doesn't quite match the visual because of the swap. I have since confirmed that this "swap" is also inherent in the new remastered prints seen in theaters.

With the inclusion of the original mono track on this DVD, some interesting comparisons can be made. First of all, as many sources have noted, the original mono mix of "Yellow Submarine" starts the guitar at the same point as the vocal, with the stereo starting later. Well, although the new stereo mix puts things such as the "Life of ease" echo line back in, they still started the guitar at the later point! Switch between tracks one and two to hear this difference. Another comparison is between the new stereo mix of "Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds" and the original mono track. Many people have complained about the new mix on "Lucy," and sure enough, switch over to the mono one on track two, and you can hear a much more satisfying (even though the fidelity is a bit lacking) mix. The new stereo mix feels very airy and dry. Even though some people might cry foul, this mix NEEDS some reverb, to spread it out, make it a bit wetter. John's vocal on the mono has a very interesting quality, either it was double-tracked or phased or something, but the stereo remix is very flat. The bass hits that intro the chorus are also much too dry, and directed to the far left speaker. The first chorus sounds positively dead in the new stereo mix. It also seems the remix includes a very long delay creating a very subtle "round" effect on the choruses (listen for this on "Yellow Submarine" as well). Listen to the word "Lucy" in the chorus, it feels like it persists a bit, even after they stop singing it.

After the "Lucy in the Sky" segment of the movie, I noticed a few odd tidbits on the new stereo soundtrack. They mostly stood out because I've seen the old version of the movie so many times, the sounds are ingrained in my head! Again, because the mono track is on the DVD, you can actually switch over and compare the new mix to the original and see what I mean. First off, when the boys discover some pepper, in the mono, Ringo and George sneeze, one right after the other. Originally, I thought it sounded like one of them sneezing twice. Evidently the sound mixer thought it sounded too much like it was just one person, and he SPACED OUT the two sneezes! Immediately after that, they get blown into the Sea of Holes. In the original mono version, there is no score under the "flying" shots, but in the new stereo mix, George Martin's underscore begins under those shots. And then when the boys finally get to Pepperland and Fred appears in the sky with the Submarine, the new stereo mix has a line for Fred, "There she blows!" that never appeared in the original movie at all!

The "rehearsal" of the Beatles singing "Think For Yourself," where they "un-bonk" the mayor sounds like the original film mono. I decided to go back and check both the Unsurpassed Masters CD with the studio talk, and then the DVD audio track again. The music just before the snippet is in stereo, from the George Martin score (stereo version), but just as the "Think For Yourself" bit is about to begin, you can hear (if you know you're listening for this) the audio fold in to processed mono, plus - if you listen real carefully - you can hear a small sound from the mayor over the "Think For Yourself" harmony. But the original film mix took a copy of the same audio and layered the harmony part, so you actually hear it begin AGAIN half way through. The original session tape wasn't like this. I'm thinking now that they may have used the original session tape, but only for the tail end after the repeat - to avoid having to recreate the overlapping effect.

Now, when I first heard that they were "restoring" this movie, and adding back in the "Hey Bulldog" scene, I was hoping they might find some other "lost" material to include. Well, the source for the final reels of the restored film included several such differences. Again, I'm comparing this new version with the more common U.S. version, which was released on home video around 12 years ago.

There are several differences during the "All You Need Is Love" sequence. At 1 hour and 13 minutes into the DVD, when "Paul" jumps off the Sgt. Pepper statue, each version has different shots. In the DVD, "John" leans into frame. In the old video, "Paul" does some cartwheels and "John" doesn't appear. One minute later on the old video, "John" is seen in close up saying "Go glove, lovely glove" then there is a cut to the Chief Blue Meanie screaming, then a cut to Pepperlanders leading a charge, followed by the Beatles leading a charge. The restored version features a medium shot of "John" saying "Go glove, lovely glove" then panning up to show "Ringo" and "George" on top of the Sgt. Pepper statue. They each have additional dialogue as they come down from the statue. Then we see the shot of the Beatles leading the charge. The following montage of the meanies retreating and color returning to Pepperland is slightly different in each version as well. For instance, the new version has a couple shots of animals and flowers. These are not in the older version, which has a couple more shots of meanies reatreating and Pepperlanders charging.

The big difference comes in at the point where "Baby You're A Rich Man" appears. The two versions of the movie match up to the point where Sgt. Pepper's band is "decanting." In the common older video version, we can see the band "freeze" on the bandstand, and then we cut to the Beatles singing a verse of "Baby You're A Rich Man," which is followed immediately by the "Beatles to Battle" segment with a "jazzy" underscore. The new, restored version reveals that the "decanting" shot goes on a little longer, and then the band steps off the bandstand to talk with the Beatles (with a George Martin underscore based on "Sgt. Pepper"). This leads into a call to battle and then the "Hey Bulldog" scene. Both the "Beatles to Battle" (in the common version) and "Hey Bulldog" (in the new version) scenes lead right up to Ringo discovering Jeremy captured by the Meanies.

Originally, before the restored footage came to light, I had imagined that perhaps the Beatles and Sgt. Peppers band "dueted" on "Baby You're A Rich Man" in a scene that was perhaps cut from the film and lost. The truth is now revealed that "Baby You're A Rich Man" wasn't originally IN the film at all. The whole segment from the "decanting" to Jeremy's discovery in the common version would is a "bridge" added when "Hey Bulldog" and the Sgt. Pepper band dialogue were cut. Incidentally, the stereo soundtrack of the new version includes the intro to "Baby You're A Rich Man," but no verse. The original mono version includes nothing from the song.  Jeremy's line "Ad hoc, ad lock and quid pro quo, I've got to study, let me go" heard on the common version is not in the new version, either. I assume it was added in the "bridge" sequence to justify "Ringo" looking in that direction. Lastly, in the new DVD version, there are five extra seconds after Jeremy rescue scene, with the Boob practicing his fighting. On the audio commentary, line producer John Coates reveals that after the film's premiere, Al Brodax hired some of the crew who had worked on the film proper and set up a small unit just to make changes to the ending.

Incidentally, as I hinted before, there are new film prints out there struck from the restored negative and remastered soundtrack. It was widely believed that there were a limited number of engagements booked to promote the video release, but there have been more screenings since. I've been in contact with MGM, and I was assured the prints will still be available for booking, even though the company is not actively promoting it. If you have a theater in your area with a DTS  (Digital Theater Sound - the prints are not available in Dolby Digital or Sony Dynamic Digital Sound) sound system, you may want to appeal to the manager to contact MGM's booking department. I did have an opportunity to see one of these new prints in a non-digital theater, and the work of the restoration team looked nothing less than spectacular!

Overall, this new DVD of "Yellow Submarine" is spectacular and well worth the price of admission. It's also great to have this classic back on the shelf, with a soundtrack mostly faithful to the original mono, but new and improved. If you can't get a theater to book the movie in your area,  you can at least get this DVD and a digital sound system in your home to hear the next best thing!