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Book Review: 'Halas & Batchelor Cartoons: An Animated History'

In his 93 years, Bill Littlejohn packed in enough for three lifetimes. Animator/historian Tom Sito sat down recently with the legendary test pilot/social activist/AMPAS governor/animator to talk about his extraordinary life.

Halas & Batchelor Cartoons: An Animated History delves into the filmmakers' history beyond Animal Farm.

Halas & Batchelor Cartoons: An Animated History delves into the filmmakers' history beyond Animal Farm.

This beautifully illustrated volume is both a history and tribute to Britain's largest animation studio in the second half of the 20th century. Today, people in the U.S. may only be aware of Halas & Batchelor's feature-length version of Animal Farm (1954), but they made about 2000 shorts and TV commercials over a 45-year period (1940-1995). The book doesn't shy away from the fact that their films were made for a variety of reasons: as Cold War propaganda; as entertainment for kids (including some of the TV animation you may have watched growing up); as public information about a wide range of topics, including the Marshall Plan; as sponsored films to be shown in schools and at public meetings; as educational films for classroom use; and as entertaining shorts that contain poignant messages. An example of the latter is Automania 2000 (1963), described in the book as "Halas' bleak vision of a world overtaken by cars, warning against the ways in which humankind was being undermined by the growth of late industrial capitalism... This film was to win more awards than any other in the unit's history."

Unlike the major U.S. studios that specialized in turning out theatrical shorts -- and, later, TV series -- with recognizable cute and/or funny creatures, Halas & Batchelor's work was rich and varied in look and content. The look varied from film to film, depending on who designed it. They used many of the world's top illustrators and cartoonists and their soundtracks ranged from symphonic scores to the cool sounds of Kraftwerk in the pioneering computer-animated film Autobahn (1979).

No subject was taboo for Halas including sexual humor. Dream Doll (1979), a collaboration between Bob Godfry and Zlatko Ggric, is "a surreal fantasy about a man's infatuation for a blow-up sex toy, which has tragic-comic overtones." Birds, Bees and Storks (1965), which featured the voice of Peter Sellers as "an unctuously embarrassed father explaining sex to an invisible son," received a British Film Academy nomination and a special accreditation at Oberhausen.

Animal Farm

Creating an animated feature based on George Orwell's Animal Farm, a dark cynical satire, was probably the studio's boldest business decision. The film was neither a light comedy nor a film aimed at children. To do the film justice, the book provides two major accounts (by Roger Manvell and Vivian Halas) of the production's development; additionally, Richard Holliss does an excellent job of explaining the animation process by using storyboards, a tension chart, model sheets, background studies, and other elements from the film to illustrate how it was made.

Creating Animal Farm, a dark cynical satire, was probably the studio's boldest business decision. © The Halas & Batchelor Collection Limited. Courtesy of the Animation Research Centre Archive.

Creating Animal Farm, a dark cynical satire, was probably the studio's boldest business decision. © The Halas & Batchelor Collection Limited. Courtesy of the Animation Research Centre Archive.

The book's discussion of Animal Farm also touches on the political issues surrounding the film's creation, including the CIA's clandestine channeling of funds to the production, of which Halas was unaware. More information about this disturbing aspect of the production is provided in two appendices, which contain extracts from Orwell Subverted: The CIA and the Filming of Animal Farm, a book by Dan Leab, and this author's article, Animated Propaganda During the Cold War.

The Lives of Halas (1912-1995) and Batchelor (1914-1991): From Poverty to Ambassadors of Goodwill

Vivien Halas' account of her parents' lives in the book is fascinating, as it is based on John's autobiographical writings and other family records. One of her father's earliest memories is of being lost in a forest in Hungary. He was found by Gypsies and lived briefly with them, coming to appreciate the freedom of their lifestyle. There's also a memorable story of Halas being trapped on a train in Austria as a battle between Austro-Hungarians and anti-Hapsburg Communists raged around him.

Vivien relates that one of Halas' first film experiences was assisting George Pal with cut-out commercials in Budapest. This was long before Pal created the Puppetoons technique. John also assisted Moholy Nagy and other members of the Hungarian Bauhaus with films and other art projects. Her colorful account of her parents' lives includes the story of how her parents met when John went to England in 1938 to work on a film, the poverty they encountered when they visited Hungary in 1938, and how George Pal, fleeing the Nazis, was in London long enough to introduce Joy and John to a J. Walter Thompson advertising executive. That meeting resulted in their studio being created in 1940 to animate commercials for theaters. Soon they would be doing wartime propaganda films for the government.

Vivien Halas recalls how her parents firmly believed that through animation they could help create a better world. © The Halas & Batchelor Collection Limited. Courtesy of the Animation Research Centre Archive.

Vivien Halas recalls how her parents firmly believed that through animation they could help create a better world. © The Halas & Batchelor Collection Limited. Courtesy of the Animation Research Centre Archive.

Their daughter goes on to recall her early memories of her parents and of seeing UPA, not Disney, cartoons as a child. She shares her memories of some of the people who helped create Animal Farm and writes about John being a founder of ASIFA, the international association that was established in part to help unite people on either side of the Iron Curtain through their common love of animation. John and Joy firmly believed that through animation they could help create a better world. Later in the book, Pat Raine Webb, John's assistant for many years (she continues to head ASIFA in the U.K.), talks further about them as goodwill ambassadors for animation over a period spanning several decades.

Animation historian Paul Wells has contributed a chapter that firmly puts Halas and Batchelor in a social, political and historical perspective in relation to other events, thoughts and movements of their time. He praises many things, including Joy's ability to grasp difficult concepts and translate them into visual explanations that the public could easily grasp. The book is a fitting tribute to their "lifetime investment in animation as the most progressive, democratic and liberating form of artistic expression."

The DVD

While the book covers the life and work of its subjects from many perspectives, the best way to really understand the rich legacy of Halas & Batchelor is to experience the films. What makes this book a "must buy" for anyone curious about the studio's work is the DVD that comes with it. The seven shorts on it are a wonderful sampling of Halas & Batchelor's wide range of work. For comedy, there is the delightful dry humor of The Symphony Orchestra (1964), based on the drawings of Gerald Hoffnung, and Automania 2000 (1963), the Oscar-nominated short that bicycle enthusiasts will love. Then there is the wild, raucous humor of Bob Godfry's Know Your Europeans: UK (1995) that features outrageous alternate lyrics to Gilbert and Sullivan songs. The History of Cinema (1957) is a romp through film history, while The Figurehead (1953) is a poetic stop-motion work about a mermaid who falls in love with a ship's figurehead of a man.

Two experimental works are also included. The Magic Canvas (1948) is a ballet performed by two abstract dancers whose shapes may have been influenced by the sculptor Jean Arp. It is a magnificent work of abstract surrealism -- set to an original musical composition -- that suggests the pursuit of human freedom. The other abstract film is reputed to be the first computer-animated film that tells a story. Dilemma (1981) traces the rise of humankind and accomplishments that created a better civilization. It then reminds us that we live during a time when technology can also destroy mankind.

In the entire DVD, the transfers, print sharpness, sound and color are excellent.

I hope more books about animation are published that will be this thorough in covering their subject. The book is also profusely illustrated with original artwork, family photos, publicity pages from magazines and other visual delights.

Halas & Batchelor Cartoons: An Animated History by Vivien Halas and Paul Wells, with a foreword by Nick Park. London, England: Southbank Publishing, 2007. 224 pages, illustrated and includes a DVD featuring seven shorts. ISBN-10: 1904915175; ISBN-13: 978-1904915171 ($35.00).

Karl Cohen is president of ASIFA-SF and teaches animation history at SF State University. He is the author of Forbidden Animation: Censored Cartoons and Blacklisted Animators and hundreds of articles about animation, many published by AWN.

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