Halas & Batchelor Cartoon Films occupies a unique place in British cinema. The studio was formed in 1940 and produced films for the next fifty years. It was the country's largest and most influential producer of animated films from the early forties until the mid seventies. Throughout its history, it always strove to pioneer new styles and techniques from paper cut-out figures to computer animation.
The studio was also renowned for discovering and nurturing new talent; indeed, a list of the artists who started their careers at Halas & Batchelor reads like a Who’s Who of British and European animation. Although Animal Farm remains the most famous of Halas & Batchelor's films, they produced over two thousand others, from entertainment films to documentaries, and TV series to experimental art movies.
By 1950 the studio had made over 100 films, two of which were features. Their unique ability to produce longer works, for an adult audience, created not only new genre of animation, but gave them the necessary experience for making Animal Farm, their best-known work. Adapted from George Orwell's classic book, Animal Farm was released in 1954, and won critical acclaim worldwide.
From that time Halas and Batchelor grew into one of the largest animation studios in Europe, producing all sorts of animated films, from commercials and television series, to art movies and experimental films. Over the years that John and Joy collaborated, Joy wrote literally hundreds of scripts, and was the driving force behind most of the work. Her feature film, Ruddigore, made in 1964, was the first animated operetta, perfectly capturing the tongue in cheek quality of its creators, Gilbert and Sullivan.
After the death of Joy Batchelor in 1991, John Halas continued to produce films until his death in 1995. His last ever production was a projected series of 12 films about the European Union of which one stands out Know Your Europeans UK 1995 which was made by Bob Godfrey.
John Halas and Joy Batchelor met in London in 1937. John had arrived from Budapest having been asked to set up British Colour Cartoon Films Limited and was looking for animators. Joy answered his advertisement. He saw her work and hired her on the spot. John spoke no English and since he already had a studio in Budapest they decided it would be more practical and cheaper to produce Music Man 1938 there. The production soon came to an end as Europe was on the brink of the Second World War, so by 1939 the couple moved back to London.
There, they initially made a living illustrating posters, books and magazines, eventually finding work with the J. Walter Thompson advertising agency, which set them up in their film unit at Bush House, London making ads such as Train Trouble 1940 for Kellogg’s and Carnival in the Clothes Cupboard 1940 for Lux.
With the war came the need for information and propaganda films. John and Joy recognised that animation could play a major part in this field, and, with the encouragement of John Grierson, the founder of the documentary film movement, they founded Halas and Batchelor Cartoon Films. The partnership was further cemented when they married in 1940.
By 1950 the studio had made over 100 films, such as Dustbin Parade 1941, in which a brave bone leads his rag and scrap metal friends to help with the war effort and the Abu series 1943, made in Arabic featuring Abu a small boy and his donkey facing fascism. The unit also made two feature length training films, Handling Ships 1945 and Water for Fire Fighting 1948.
Reconstruction and Animal Farm
Government work continued on after the war with The Charley series 1946-48 that launched the new Social Security plans introduced by Sir Stafford Cripps the socialist Chancellor of the Exchequer. They also made films for The Marshal Plan and the recovery of Europe, The Shoemaker and the Hatter 1949 and Think of the Future 1953.
Thanks to the pressure of making so many films in a short time Halas & Batchelor developed a strong graphic style and a unique ability to produce longer works, for adult audiences. They created not only new genre of animation, but had now acquired the necessary experience for making Animal Farm 1951 -1954, their best known work. Adapted from George Orwell's classic book, Animal Farm was released in 1954, and won critical acclaim worldwide.
From that time Halas & Batchelor expanded to become one of the largest animation studios in Europe, recognized as source of high quality animated films.
Experimental, art and personal films
After the war John and Joy made their first self-sponsored film, Magic Canvas 1948. It was a response to their war years graphically illustrating man’s struggle for freedom. Matyas Seiber, a fellow Hungarian émigré, composed original score for the film as well as the music for Animal Farm. This was followed by a joint project with the BFI for the Festival of Britain the Poet and Painter series 1951 and then one of the first stereoscopic films in 3D The Owl and the Pussycat 1952 based on the nonsense poem of Edward Lear. The following year came The Figurehead 1953 from the poem by Crosbie Garston. Matyas Seiber composed the music for all these films and many more until his tragic death in 1960.
The studio continued to make personal satirical statements whenever possible. These included award winning films such as History of the Cinema 1957 a satire based on the film industry, Automania 2000 1963, a prophetic look the fruits of over production and Dilemma 1981, a film about the use and misuse of man’s skills.
A constant stream of work coming in from industry made it possible to fund the personal projects. These films, mostly commissioned by British energy companies such as BP, Shell and British Gas were amongst the studios best and longest lasting productions. Films such As Old as the Hills (the origins of oil) 1950, Moving Spirit (the history of the motor car) 1951, We’ve Come a Long Way (the history of tanker ships) 1952, Power to Fly (the history of aviation) 1953 and many others.
TV entertainment, commercials and expansion
From the mid 50ies the TV market opened up. Halas & Batchelor were not alone in profiting from this great opportunity. They devised the logo for ABC television and made some of the first entertainment series for TV such as Foo Foo 1960, Habatales 1960 and Snip and Snap 1960. They also released a series of seven films sponsored by the BBC based on the musical caricatures of Gerard Hoffnung, Tales from Hoffnung 1964.
Halas & Batchelor started to work on commissions for TV series from other studios, most notably Rembrandt Studios' Popeye 1955 and Jack Wrather Corporation's The Lone Ranger 1967.
By the late 60s the studio had expanded so to keep it going John Halas sold some shares to Tyne Tees Television. Tyne Tees eventually took over and under the new management the studio made more series like Tomfoolery 1970 for CBC Rankin Bass, The Adams Family 1972 for Hanna-Barbera, The Jackson Five 1972 for Hanna-Barbera and The Osmonds 1973 for Hanna Barbera.
During the Tyne Tees era John Halas and Joy Batchelor turned to their other company Educational Film Centre that had been set up in 1960. An impressive group of directors included John Halas, Joy Batchelor, Maurice Goldsmith, Roger Manvell and Sir Charles Snow. Sam Eckman Jr. (head of MGM in the UK) also joined the company board to compete on the international market.
From 1961 to 1969 the studio produced a series of educational films that were released on 8mm under the title Concept Films 1961-69. The studio also made a series of animated language teaching films: English The Carters of Greenwood 1964, Russian Martian in Moscow 1964, and French Les Aventures de la Famille Carré 1964.
In mid 70ies John Halas bought back Halas & Batchelor and continued to produce a steady output of animated films, some sponsored, for the COI, UNICEF, UNESCO, some more personal, such as Children Making Cartoons 1973 and increasingly made as co-productions looking towards the rest of Europe with Italy, Corona Cinematografica, European Fairy Tales 1974, France, Idéfix, The Twelve Tasks of Asterix 1973 and Germany, Polymedia with the series of Wilhelm Busch’s satirical tales of Max and Moritz 1976.
New technology and early computer animation
Over the years the studio experimented with new technologies as they became available. These included The Owl and the Pussycat 1952 made by Brian Borthwick in stereoscopic film to Autobahn 1980, to Roger Mainwood’s debut film based on Kraftwerks music, one of the first films made using computer animated sequences for Videodisk and Dilemma 1981 designed by Hungarian artist Janos Kass which was one of the first fully digitally produced films.
Many of the technologies that the studio pioneered are now redundant but you can be sure that if John Halas were still alive today he would be seeking out the latest techniques.
Find out more
This history gives an overview of just some of the work so if you are interested in finding out more please read our book on the studio Halas & Batchelor Cartoons, an animated history 2006, Vivien Halas and Paul Wells.