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‘Yellow Submarine’ Restoration Posed Challenge for Team of Specialists

When it was first released in 1968 at the height of the pop psychedelic era, the Beatles’ animated feature “Yellow Submarine” was immediately hailed by audiences and critics alike as another Fab Four masterpiece. And while the band members were only tangentially involved in the production (they appeared in a live-action cameo at the end, but actors provided all their voiceovers), the hugely influential result was a pioneering, surreal and visually stunning film. The movie was saturated with the group’s trademark humor and personality and propelled by classic Beatles songs, including the title Lennon-McCartney song as well as “Eleanor Rigby,” “WhenI’m Sixty-Four” and “Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds.”

Variety chief film critic Owen Gleiberman questions whether there has “ever been an animated feature as deliriously infectious, as blissed out on its eye-candy surrealism, or as sheerly madly gorgeous as ‘Yellow Submarine.’”

And to celebrate the film’s 50th anniversary, a restored 4K version with remixed 5.1 stereo surround sound is being theatrically released this month by Abramorama and Apple Corps (which partnered on the Ron Howard documentary “The Beatles: Eight Days a Week — The Touring Years”). Also in on the release: Universal Music Group.

Film preservation specialist Paul Rutan Jr. and his team at Triage Motion Picture Services and Eque Inc. conducted the 4K restoration process. Engineer Peter Cobbin remixed the film’s songs and score at UMG’s Abbey Road Studios.

“The big challenge was retaining the original palette and look, as it was all hand-drawn, with little paint smears that were part of the animation process,” says Rutan, who previously restored Beatles films “A Hard Day’s Night,” “Magical Mystery Tour” and “Help!” “But we also had to eliminate all the dirt and scratches that had taken a toll.”

The process, he says, began with “cans and cans of original material that were kind of a mess. We had a U.S. version of the original negative, but it wasn’t the same as the U.K. release, which had the ‘Hey Bulldog’ [musical] sequences. And some other scenes were shortened, so there was no original negative of the missing pieces in the U.S. version.”

Also, the material was of variable quality — some of it in good shape but some pretty bad, per Rutan. Elements included a 1968 interpositive and some low-contrast footage made from the original negative that contained the “Bulldog” sequence.

Rutan and his team worked until they were satisfied they had gathered the best-quality elements available, and spent two years restoring the film while also preserving it photochemically and doing the digital 4K transfer.

To do the cleanup, Rutan turned to Eque, which supervised the work of 40 artists in India. Due to the delicate nature of the hand-drawn original artwork, no automated software was used in the digital cleanup of the film’s restored photochemical elements; it was accomplished by hand, frame by frame.

Rutan sums up the project as high on the scale of restoration difficulty. “I’ve done a lot of them over the years, and this was very tricky,” he says. “But it turned out great.”

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