Lost media discovery, the art of media archeology where intrepid researchers dig for as much as they can on films, television shows, and animation long abandoned and considered dead, has been given a lot of attention over the past few months over recent discoveries. A pilot for an American Sailor Moon that was known to exist was finally captured and posted to YouTube in full, a lost episode of Sesame Street starring The Wizard of Oz’s Margaret Hamilton unfortunately considered too frightening for children, and even a full animatic of Genndy Tartakovsky’s Popeye. While there are more ghoulish examples of lost media which we can only hope never see the light of day, it can be a way of breaking down a wall that seems impenetrable between executives and audiences. When a work is discarded, it’s completely shielded from the eyes of the public, a work that is never produced or finalized is one that should never be seen, no matter how close it was to completion, or how much hard work was put into it. But then someone finds a picture of Nicolas Cage in a Superman suit, or concept sketches for an adaptation of the musical Cats that looks ten times better than the one we got, and you can’t help but imagine the alternate universe where these ideas came to fruition.
One of the films the archivists of the internet still strive to find out more about to this day is an adaptation of The Beatles‚ animated film Yellow Submarine, directed by Robert Zemeckis with his studio ImageMovers and distributed by Disney. The ruins of this abandoned feature left behind are intriguing to say the least, there is word that there is a full script hidden away somewhere still yet to be found, but all that the average lost media enthusiast is able to find online are scraps of testing animation and a substantial array of concept art. Here is the story as the public knows it.
The Original Yellow Submarine Debuted in 1968
Yellow Submarine is a 1968 animated film as part of a three-film deal by the United Artists Corporation with The Beatles, little needs to be said about who they are. Before this point, there had already been two feature films about John, Paul, George, and Ringo, the first of which being A Hard Day’s Night, a clever, humorous and beloved movie following a day in the lives of the Beatles (and Paul’s grandfather). The Beatles were less than enthusiastic about the second film, Help!, which was far more outlandish, and even less so about their Saturday Morning Cartoon, so they didn’t want to offer their own voices to the animated film made by the same people beyond a short cameo at the end. Despite this, it is not as if Yellow Submarine has no merit, the animation is stylish and colorful and of course there’s the iconic music of the Beatles to carry through the film. It is regarded somewhat fondly in hindsight as an oddity of Beatlemania and one of the few 1960s animated feature films outside of Walt Disney, and it was apparently regarded fondly enough by Zemeckis that he wanted to remake it using his studio, ImageMovers, in its trademark full motion capture animation.
Robert Zemeckis‘ Take Promised a Darker Yellow Submarine
This project was announced at Disney’s D23 expo in 2009, and it was planned to be a event feature to be released in the summer of 2012, just in time for the London Olympics. The band’s voices were cast, with Dean Lennox Kelly as John Lennon, Peter Serafinowicz as Paul McCartney (a role he was already quite familiar with), Cary Elwes as George Harrison, and Adam Campbell as Ringo Starr, with tribute band The Fab Four being used for the performance capture. The concept art and animation that are accessible give us something of an idea of what this film could’ve been, what it would’ve looked like. It apparently would’ve been a loose adaptation, giving Pepperland a darker, more apocalyptic feel, with nightmarish creatures including more monstrous Blue Meanies. The Beatles would look more like caricatures than real people, similar to Steven Spielberg’s The Adventures of Tintin with more exaggerated features and proportions. One could say this was a gritty remake of Yellow Submarine, which is odd enough to write down, let alone imagine actually being made.
As ImageMovers Shuttered, So Too Did the Hopes for Yellow Submarine
ImageMovers Digital shuttered in May 2010 after a string of box office failures, and the film, after an attempt to shop it around to other studios, was abandoned in March 2011. Instead of this ambitious project, a remastered version of the original Yellow Submarine was given a limited re-release in the fall of 2012. Zemeckis‘ film was lost, and we are left with the questions of what this could’ve been, and why was it abandoned. While the former may remain a mystery, the latter definitely has some answers.
ImageMovers Was Most Well-known for Its Image Captured Animated Films
Zemeckis‘ ImageMovers was a studio with ambitious ideas and methods that produced mixed results. They started as a studio which supplied for its time revolutionary computer generated effects for films such as Death Becomes Her and The Frighteners, under the name South Side Amusement Company. With their name change to ImageMovers, they did have some live action films under their belt with Dreamworks including Castaway, but what they are most well known for are their fully motion captured animated films produced under Dreamworks and then Disney. There were five films the studio made using this method: The Polar Express, Monster House, Beowulf, A Christmas Carol and Mars Needs Moms. The last two of these are the ones most important to the story, the ones distributed by Disney, the ones that were under the name ImageMovers Digital, the ones that killed this wing of the studio, and Yellow Submarine.
A Christmas Carol and Mars Needs Moms both bombed at the box office, the latter especially being a disaster, only making $39.2 million to its $150 million budget. Barring Monster House, the other motion capture films had a similar budget, which was why they were so heavily advertised, with Mars Needs Moms the only one failing to make that money back and being the final nail in the coffin for ImageMovers Digital. The novelty of the digital wizardry had worn out, and all that was left was its flaws. This is not an article completely lambasting CGI, that would be a waste of words. Film history has shown us the amazing things that technology is capable of, but you’re going to lose an audience if that is all you have. In ImageMovers‘ case, it seems their films‘ stories got weaker and weaker with each release, with Monster House being the only film not based on another story. Then there is the great pitfall of The Uncanny Valley. When you only have a few CGI elements, you can focus on adding as much life into them as possible. When your whole movie is aiming for hyper-realism without being live action, though, you focus on the things that make the characters look less human when they’re not quite animated and not quite real. This combined with a weak and uninspired story is what made Mars Needs Moms the biggest flop of the year it came out, and is what people tend to remember about ImageMovers Digital.
Copyrights Got in Yellow Submarine’s Way
The shine on ImageMovers Digital was already flickering from the tepid release of A Christmas Carol, which while not a complete failure wasn’t the success Disney hoped it would be. But what does this have to do with Yellow Submarine specifically? Let’s look at the source material. The Beatles, one of the biggest, most successful acts in music history and for a very long time had an ironclad copyright similar to Disney’s. There have been uses of Beatles songs in film and TV, but while it was under the ownership of Sony/ATV, Paul McCartney gaining the rights to his music in 2018, it was infamously expensive to use the music of the Fab Four. There’s a reason why the feature and TV biopics about the Beatles are either set before their peak or during their break-up. Their intellectual property is one of the most expensive and exclusive, and making Yellow Submarine would be pointless without it.
Given this, it was almost fated that Yellow Submarine would not happen, as if it was a recipe for disaster. A source material the band wanted little to do with when it was made, a studio with expensive projects and disappointing returns, and music that would be compulsory to add that would significantly increase the budget. Perhaps curiosity and the timely release date would’ve brought some audiences in, but Disney saw that the gamble would not be worth the lofty cost, leaving this ambitious remake to become lost to history if not for a crew of internet historians collecting all they could find on it. Searching for lost media can be a disappointing endeavor, where you end up with more questions than answers, and Yellow Submarine may always be locked away in the Disney Vault, but at least there is enough to see to determine whether you’ve seen enough.