Animator recalls time with The Beatles

Kauffman was a member of the team that produced the 1968 Beatles masterpiece Yellow Submarine.

kauffman 298 88 (photo credit: Courtesy)
kauffman 298 88
(photo credit: Courtesy)
The name Norman Kauffman may not mean much to the average moviegoer, but three decades ago Kauffman was a member of the team that produced one of the most memorable animation films ever, 1968 Beatles masterpiece Yellow Submarine. The British-born Kauffman, who now divides his time between Ashdod and London, will appear today at the Tel Aviv Cinematheque's Animation Festival to tell audiences about two later films he produced - 1989's Granpa, which featured two-time Oscar winner Peter Ustinov as narrator, and 1996's Bear, the last animated film made in the UK without computer-generated imagery. Yellow Submarine will no doubt come up somewhere in the session. Kauffman got his start in animation as a starry-eyed 16 year old, helping to produce a TV series about The Beatles in 1963. "It was strange because I was the only person in the production company who really knew who The Beatles were," Kauffman recalls. "The Beatles were just becoming famous then. I used to get called into meetings and I'd be asked, 'Which one is John [Lennon]?' and 'Which is Paul [McCartney]?' None of the older people in the company recognized them." Kauffman has a solid supply of Beatles-related anecdotes, including a story about how Lennon saved the aspiring teenage filmmaker from the ire of a bandmate. "The Beatles came to the studio and I immediately started filming them with my 16-mm. Cine Camera," Kauffman says. "George [Harrison] got very upset with me, and I got some footage of him mouthing some juicy oaths at me." Then Lennon came to the rescue. "John took me by the hand and explained they'd had a busy day, [then] ended up under a table that had a table cloth on. He asked me if I could get him a bottle of wine and two glasses. When I got him the wine, he invited me to join him under the table and said, 'Pour yourself one.' He asked me my name and proceeded to call me 'Normal' instead of Norman. After that, I was always 'Normal' to John Lennon." Like Yellow Submarine, Granpa and Bear have a decidedly non-Disney style. Their free-form, paint-brush approach was something of a revolution when work began on Yellow Submarine, and initially surprised the Fab Four. "When they came to see the [story] boards, they were expecting to see the regular Disney-style animation," says Kauffman. "But they liked it in the end." The precocious Kauffman sent an initial sample of his work to animation director George Dunning as a teenager, and Dunning, later the director of Yellow Submarine, was sufficiently impressed that he hired the youngster when Kauffman was old enough to leave school. Dunning, in effect, put Kauffman on the career path he had pursued since childhood. "I sent Disney a letter asking for a job when I was 10," Kauffman says, "but I was turned down." At the time, Kauffman recalls, Disney still wasn't hiring Jews, and the environment created by Dunning couldn't have been more different. "The American backers [of The Beatles project] were Jewish, and so was [Beatles manager] Brian Epstein," Kauffman says. "We spoke Yiddish, so people started thinking I was the boss." Today he is.