Yellow Submarine: The Bigger Picture

The 1999 DVD release of Yellow Submarine presented a beautifully renovated picture and a glorious surround-soundtrack but what the heck happened to the top and bottom of the film?!

I didn't notice it for a few years.  I just glanced at the picture on the back of the DVD booklet which appeared to illustrate that this version of the film was a much bigger picture than seen before, and got on with enjoying it as one of the best DVDs ever made, which I still think it is : )  Besides, the footage on the promotional Electronic Press Kits issued in the build-up to the film’s release featured the full original 4.3 picture.  It didn’t even cross my mind that the finished product would contain 20% less detail than both the previous short-lived, home format release in 1987, the 1999 VHS and the preview EPKs.
The claim.....

"THE BEATLES’ YELLOW SUBMARINE is offered in the widescreen format, enabling you to experience the picture exactly as it was shown in theatres. Depending on how the film was shot, the widescreen format presents up to 50% more image to the left and right of the screen than the standard “pan & scan” process, thus preserving the director’s vision of each scene. Black bars at the top and bottom of the screen are normal for this format."

The truth.....
On the right is the result of comparing the same frame on the DVD (in the blue box)to the original 4.3 version (in the red box). Which do you think "preserves the director's vision of each scene" most accurately? Is the illustration on the DVD packaging misleading? Well, it misled me for years!
Comparison of 4.3 and widescreen versions

Why would they go to the trouble of restoring the whole thing from the ground up and then release it with 20% of their, (not to mention the original artists’ and animators’), work not ending up on the screen?  OK, it says all over the DVD packaging that it’s a re-release of the original theatrical version, and it is.  More or less.  What it doesn’t say is that the original theatre release was also a 20% smaller picture than was originally intended for public consumption. The reason?  It was originally shot for TV in the TV aspect ratio which, like it or not, is proportionally a bigger picture than cinema widescreen.  So, when the decision came to launch the film on movie screens instead, the filmmakers had three options:  They could ‘stretch’ the picture from the sides, and squash it from the top and bottom, to fit the screen.  The problem here is that everything would look ‘short and fat’.  They could screen the movie in it’s 4.3 format, leaving black bars at either side.  Here the audience wouldn’t get the movie experience.  It would feel like watching a regular TV if the picture didn’t fill the entire screen.  They could ‘zoom in’ on the original picture until it filled the required aspect ratio and discard the redundant detail at the top and bottom of the picture.  It’s a tough one to call but the industry standard in this rare situation was option three, so the film went on public release with the top and bottom 10% of the picture missing. It doesn't say anywhere that the 1999 VHS release is the 4:3 fullscreen version either, but it is!  

The four different versions

The only time the movie has ever been viewable with it’s full original screen-size was on it’s rare TV outings, the restored 1999 VHS and on the version released to the public on VHS and Laserdisc for a short period in 1987.  This release also featured a brand new, and superbly constructed, stereo soundtrack utilising the stereo versions of the film’s celebrated songs with the pictures for the first time.  But, Apple hadn’t sanctioned the use of these versions (or UA releasing the movie for home use) and quickly slapped an injunction on United Artists/MGM Home Video which led to the withdrawal of the product and a legal stand-off which remained until the dispute was settled years later so the DVD project could go ahead.

Hey Bulldog & 'Beatles To Battle'

The original 4.3 version contained a short "Beatles To Battle" scene of The Fabs running around while Meanies fire flowers from their weapons and a crazy jazz band drunkenly jam in the background, and another shorter sequence of the Blue Meanies retreating - "You're advancing the wrong way!".

These scenes were included in both the UK and US home releases of 1987. The footage was sacrificed at the expense of 'Hey Bulldog' and a sequence of Jeremy walking along a path when the film was edited prior to re-release.

Hey Bulldog was included in the 1968 UK cinema release but didn't make it's US debut until the '99 screenings. Tantalisingly, the preview EPK footage features a full-screen version but not the whole song .

The 1999 EPK preview (and VHS) is in the red box. The released DVD version is in the blue box. Grrrrrr.

The Soundtracks

The most profound difference between the two is the soundtracks.  The 1987 ‘Videophonic Stereo’ mix is a great thing and a huge improvement on the original mono soundtrack (which is offered as an extra feature on the 1999 release).  The 1999 surround-sound remix however, is a work of art.  With encouragement to remix and remaster The Beatles’ original recordings from the multi-track sources coming from the surviving Fabs themselves, the opportunity was there to conjure up something truly fantastic.  And they delivered in a big way.  The crystal clarity, unique sound separations, wonderful music and swirling sound effects couldn’t sound any better could they?  Actually, I’m sorry to say they could.  Apparently for reasons of allocation of disc space these full resolution, brand new and meticulously assembled recordings were compressed into an AC3 container for use on the DVD release.  Don’t get me wrong, they do sound great but the compression they have been subject to has reduced their overall sound quality considerably.  For instance, the sound you hear coming from a CD is reproduced from the original musical signals at a rate of 44.1 kHz.  This means that they are sampled 44,100 times a second and the sound you hear is a very accurate reproduction of the original sounds.  The recordings for the ’99 release will undoubtedly have been transferred and worked on in full-resolution (48kHz is actually the DVD standard) but the end result of the AC3 compression means that the sound you hear is, in this case, less than half as accurate as it should be.  No big problem for the casual viewer but for the Hi-Fi freak it's a bigger drop in quality than the one from CD to Minidisc.

None of this technobabble will be of much interest to the majority of the viewing public who, quite rightly, are delighted to own such a great piece of work.  The 1999 version is a major upgrade in many ways to any previous incarnation but there is room and a means for improvement one day.  When the source reels were chosen and transferred to the digital domain a further High Definition (HD) transfer was done for future use.  Hopefully this was the transfer that was renovated and then cropped and converted to MPEG2 for the DVD, but there’s no doubt that at least the version released in 1999 was transferred in the full original aspect ratio.  It’s right there on the EPKs and VHS.  One would hope that on a further DVD release a renovated 4.3 version will be presented with the full-resolution sound as recorded, and all the scenes included as an option. And a 3D version would be appreciated too please, if anyone that cool is ever reading this.

The songs are of course what the rest of the production is built around. The 1999 Songtrack dispensed with the orchestral background music on side two of the original soundtrack. Instead they opted to include every song musically referenced in the film (excepting 'A Day In The Life'), 15 in all, and remix them all from the 1-inch four-track master tapes into new stereo versions. 'Baby You're A Rich Man', though no longer in the movie, was also included. This was the first time The Beatles music had ever been remixed and the results were eagerly anticipated. The resulting CD was spectacular with a slightly different take on the original mixes and outstanding sound quality. Most notably the vocals were all centralized. It's also a tribute to the engineers who made the original recordings as their expertise still shines through even under such close scrutiny. The remixes were done by Peter Cobbin who also prepared the 5.1 mix for the movie rerelease. George Martin's orchestral pieces are certainly worth having in your collection too. They are beautifully written, recorded, arranged and performed and played in full on the OST. In addition to the seven tracks included on the original soundtrack there is a further passage from the film on the Anthology 3 CD. The short piece, 'A Beginning' was originally composed as an intro for 'Goodnight' on the White Album. The background music from the 'Beatles to battle' sequence has never been released. Still unexplained or accounted for is the bizarre mono mix of 'Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds'. On the 1st or 2nd March 1967 Dick Emery recorded a different version of the first verse in the voice of the Jeremy character. A mix of the song using this dialogue was prepared but never used.

Electronic Press Kits

As mentioned above, prior to the release of the DVD and the new Songtrack CD in 1999, six Electronic Press Kits were issued as promotional products and two featurettes were released for TV broadcast featuring all-new interview footage of the fab three talking about Yellow Submarine. All featured clips from the renovated movie in a 4.3 aspect ratio. The EPKs have a selectable narration track with a voiceover by comedian Nick Hancock. Paul, Ringo & George were all interviewed separately for the Yellow Sub promotion and snippets of the interviews are spread throughout the different EPKs;

Hey Bulldog EPK - Much was made of this song's inclusion in the film and on the Songtrack. In between the Anthology DVDs and the Yellow Submarine re-release footage was uncovered of The Beatles in Studio 3 of Abbey Road recording Hey Bulldog. Parts of the footage were used in the promotional film for Lady Madonna but when the original reels were viewed again it was discovered that almost the whole of Hey Bulldog had been captured on celluloid. From these reels a new 'video' was made for Hey Bulldog and released with the new stereo mix of the song from the Songtrack CD. Also on this EPK is some brief interview footage relating to the song.

Yellow Submarine Songtrack EPK - The Threetles chat about the new mixes of 'Yellow Submarine', 'Hey Bulldog', 'Eleanor Rigby', 'Love You To' and 'All You Need Is Love'. Also five preview clips from the upcoming DVD: All You Need Is Love, Meanies Attack, Hey Bulldog, Sea of Monsters & Sea of Holes. Also includes 44 second Mod Odyssey clip and a preview of the packaging for the upcoming releases.

Yellow Submarine Returns EPK - The Threetles chat about the renovation of the sounds and pictures, Blue Meanies, their animated portrayals and the songs. Also includes 44 second Mod Odyssey clip and a preview of the packaging for the upcoming releases.

The Making Of Yellow Submarine EPK - A 6 and a half minute featurette with further interview footage of Paul, Ringo and George, Heinz Edelmann, Roger McGough, Paul Angelis, Peter Cobbin and Bruce Markoe. Brief behind-the-scenes footage.

The Yellow Submarine Collection EPK - 2.30 clip regarding the merchandising tie-ins.

For Kids Of All Ages EPK - 3 minute film featuring the reaction to the film of some Liverpool school kids and further interview footage with The Fab Three.


I recently saw a ‘part-cleaned’ bootleg of the 1987 4.3 version which had the 1999 surround-sound (modified to accommodate the differences between the two versions) and it was a superb viewing experience.  Whilst not as sharp, bright or speckle-free as the re-release, it’s colours were immediately familiar in their original hues and it’s just….well…….bigger!  There is a wealth of beautiful detail at the horizontal edges that I hadn’t seen for years, and along with the 5.1 sound this made very involving viewing.  Hopefully a bootleg 1999 VHS-to-DVD transfer (with the 5.1 soundtrack) is in the pipeline.

To me, cropping this film is an art-crime akin to the similarly-proportioned cropping of Rembrandt’s ‘The Night Watch’ in 1715.  Thirteen inches were hacked off the left of the era-defining masterpiece with a pair of haberdashery scissors, nine inches along the top and six along the right and bottom, thus marginalizing not only the intended impact of the scale and the context of the contents of the piece but the amount of detail the artist wanted to convey. Sadly we don't have a better quality back-up of The Night Watch to replace it but we could right this current artistic wrong! The Yellow Submarine is arguably the most significant example of psychedelic art and for it not to be fully available in the best possible media almost 40 years after it was made would have poor old William McMillen turning in his grave, if only someone would notice. 2006
Corrections or further info gratefully received


George Graham's Songtrack review