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I was appalled to learn recently that although today women make up 65% of the student body in most animation schools, they hold a significantly smaller percentage of the creative rolls within the animation industry. Only 23% to be exact!

Most women in animation schools today will make only one independent film after graduation, join a production company for a short time, or go into teaching.  Wait, before you say oh no not me remember that for every Signe Baumane and Anita Killi who make their own films there are a multitude of talented women who give up.

It also seems strange to me that although we all know the Fleisher Brothers and Walt Disney, with a few exceptions the women who blazed the animation trail are almost unknown.

I would like to introduce you to a few of the women who made it possible for you ladies in the audience to be sitting here today.

The best known woman, of course, is Lotte Reiniger, the German director who pioneered silhouette animation.  She is known for her feature film The Adventures of Prince Achmed, and she made more than 40 other films during her career.

In 1933 Lillian Friedman Astor was hired by the Fleisher Brothers Studios and became the first female studio animator to receive a screen credit for Pudgy and the Lost Kitten, a 1938 Betty Boop film.  She was only credited for 6 of the 11 films that she worked on at the Fleisher Brothers Studios.

Bianca Majolie – was the first woman hired at Disney Studio’s story department.  She is credited with providing an entirely different prospective from the rest of the gag oriented male story team.  She came up with a touching original story about a baby elephant that is teased because of his looks – but whose long trunk saves the day when a fire threatens the girl he loves.  Her creation of Elmer Elephant has become a Silly Symphonies classic.

Sylvia Moberly Holland – was the 2nd woman hired by Disney’s story department and the first to be in charge of an all-male team.  She led the story team for the Waltz of the Flowers fairy segment of Fantasia.  Her male staff resented taking orders from a woman.  Due to the misogyny of that period several of her male team members transferred from working on the fairy sequence to another department.  Even with the constant rotation of artists, Sylvia led her team to make one of Fantasia’s most beautiful sequences. 

Retta Scott – was the first woman animator to get a screen credit on a Disney studio film.  While at art school in Los Angeles Retta spent much of her time at the zoo and became an expert on drawing animals.  In 1938 she joined the story department working on Bambi where she was assigned to animate scenes featuring the hunting dogs chasing Faline, Bambi’s childhood friend and future mate.  Scott’s snarling dogs are legendary.  She is quoted as saying “I developed the hunting dogs into vicious, snarling beasts . . . running and scrambling, trying to climb the cliff and sliding back.”  When the men in the front office saw her powerful drawings they thought that they must have been drawn by a big strong man and were amazed to discover that they had been drawn by a petite young woman.

Mary Ellen Bute – was one of the first female experimental film makers.  Her specialty was visual music.  While working on her own she made 14 short abstract musical films between 1934 and 1953.  Unfortunately most of her films are not available in good prints now.  This was not always true though.  During a 25 period from 1934 to about 1959 the abstract films that she made played in regular movie theatres as the short before a first run feature.  That means that millions of people saw her work, many more than most other experimental animators.

Mary Blair’s vibrant colors and stylized designs set the standard for Disney films from 1943 to 1953 on such films as Cinderella, Alice In Wonderland, and Peter Pan.  An imaginative colorist and designer, she helped introduce a modernist style to the Disney studio.  In the 1950’s she was commissioned to design large scale, 3 dimensional projects for Disney theme park attractions using animatronic characters, wall murals, and tile décor.  Most memorable of these is the It’s A Small World attraction that is found in all but one of Disney’s parks.

Eunice Macaulay – Worked at the National Film Board of Canada for almost 20 years in the art department as well as being a producer.  In 1979 she became the first woman to win an Academy Award  for a short animation in her own right as producer of Special Delivery.

Brenda Banks – Is thought to be the first female African American animator when she worked on Ralph Bakshi’s Wizards in the 1970’s.  Brenda went on to animate on The Simpson: Virtual Springfield and as a character layout artist on The Simpson’s show.  She also worked on The Smurfs, King of the Hill, and was a key animator on Lord of the Rings.  Unfortunately Brenda Banks seems to have completely disappeared and no one  has any knowledge of where she is now or why she stopped animating.

These are just a few of the women who participated in the history and development of the art of animation and anyone of them would be worthy of a program themselves.  However the woman I want to spotlight today is Joy Batchelor, one of the most successful women in British animation to date and half of the team of the British animation studio Halas & Batchelor.

In an era where women in all fields were undervalued, under paid, and relegated to the lower grade jobs, it is not surprising that publically the lion’s share of the credit for the success of Halas & Batchelor has gone to John Halas, but Joy’s contribution to Halas and Batchelor and British animation were immense.  She worked on over 100 films in her long career as animator, scriptwriter, designer, story boarder, and or director.  Although her contributions often went uncredited on the screen, Joy’s style and aesthetic sense are stamped on every film she worked on at Halas & Batchelor Studio.  

Joy was born on May 12th, 1914 in a small terrace house in Watford, then a market town about 20 miles North of London.  Her father was a lithographic draftsman who lacked ambition and even refused to accept a management position which left the family finances in a very precarious state.     

Her love of drawing began at an early age, earning her a place at Watford School of Art. Despite offers for further study upon graduation, Joy had to find a job to help support her family.

Her first job was painting ornaments on an assembly line.  Always one to speak her mind, Joy spoke out about the poor working conditions and was promptly fired.

Looking for a job in London she was offered a place at a new animation studio which was being set up by Australian cartoonist Dennis Connelly who had recently arrived in England.

She was initially hired in 1934 as an in-betweener but once again she asserted herself and spoke out about the poor quality of the work and this time was rewarded with a swift promotion to key animator.

The studio lasted barely 3 years but it gave Joy her first taste of artistic, big city life and independence.  Even more importantly she had been bitten by the animation bug and there was no looking back.

Next she applied for a job with Hector Hoppin and Anthony Gross who were making Fox Hunt with Alexander Korda following the success of their Joie De Vivre but she was turned down which was a lucky thing because the greatest adventure of her life was about to begin.

Spotting a small ad for a new animation studio which was looking for experienced animators, she later said that her first thought was “Ah, this is your lucky day”.  The prospective employer was Janos Halasz who had recently arrived from his native Hungary to be creative head of British Color Cartoon Films Ltd. He was also beginning to be known by his anglicized name, John Halas.  The film she  was hired to work on was Music Man.  

Joy later recalled that first momentous meeting “In addition to being an experienced animator I was not bad at exchanging looks and this one was riveting.  I think that the attraction was instant and mutual but work came first as it has done ever since”.  Shortly before they completed the film they became a couple.  After the film was completed Joy was laid off and looking for work until John offered her a job on another film, this time in Budapest.

She spoke almost no Hungarian and was traveling with a man who was not only her employer but also her lover.  John’s grasp of English was minimal and Joy later wrote “we conversed through the media of pencil and paper, signs and gestures and some form of ESP.  It worked pretty well”.

In Budapest Joy began to become involved with the script and other pre-production roles for the first time.  Unfortunately the money for the project ran out and Hungary’s increasing closeness to Nazi Germany meant that they and especially John who was Jewish felt that they had to return to London.  They were so broke that they had to borrow money for their tickets but were lucky enough to get one of the last trains back to London.  They traveled 3rd class on wooden benches.

From 1937 until 1941 they ran a small graphic design studio doing freelance work.  Once again luck enabled the pair to return to animation.  The J. Walter Thompson advertising agency, known as JWT, was located around the corner from their studio where Alexander Mackendrick was writing scripts and designing cinema publicity films including a successful series of Horlick advertisements animated by George Pal in Holland.  John had begun his animation career with Pal back in Budapest and Pal introduced the pair to JWT before immigrating to Hollywood.  When the war broke out, paper was in short supply and there was not much space in newspapers for their advertisements but film stock was not rationed so cinema advertising became an efficient means to get their messages to the public.  With George Pal studio no longer available it was logical to utilize the film making experience of Joy and John.  In order to be paid they had to become a company so Halas & Batchelor Cartoon Films was established in 1940.  They were also married the same year.

A perfect example of their commercial cinema work at the time is the 1946 Train Trouble commercial for Kellogg’s cornflakes.  

As a freelancer Joy had done some work for Shell working with their publicity director Jack Beddington.  In 1941 Beddington was appointed head of the Ministry of Information’s film division and Joy said that he supplied them with a steady flow of work throughout the war years.  The first films, such as Dustbin Parade (1941) and Filling the Gap (1942) were made under the auspices of the Realist Film Unit, assisted by documentary film producer John Taylor.  The studio quickly developed a successful style of blending anthropomorphic objects and cartoon style into more realistic airbrushed textures and backgrounds.  They also learned how to make the scripts tighter and they became better at presenting information with a direct, accessible, non-patronizing tone of voice.

The fact that Halas & Batchelor initially had to work through another unit may have been due to John’s enemy alien status.  Most likely his marriage to Joy saved him from internment on the Isle of Man, where many other emigres were forced to go.

By 1943 they were finally entrusted to handle Ministry of Information films on their own and the studio was suddenly very busy.  They made some 70 films during the war, many of them short, 90 second public information inserts in cinema newsreels about salvaging, allotment management, fuel economy, and similar subjects.  They also produced a series of anti-Nazi propaganda films in Arabic, a film warning soldiers of the dangers of foot rot, venereal disease, and other dangers of the ongoing war in Asia, and a 7 part series on ship handling which was filmed in Technicolor.  Their staff had now grown to between 15 to 20 people, mainly women.

After years of scrambling for work there was now a constant flow of it.  

 The studio’s war time efforts were rewarded in the post war period by more government commissions including a 7 part series designed to communicate many of the ground-breaking socialist policies of the new Labor regime.  The character Charley scripted, directed, and initially designed by Joy was a recalcitrant everyman figure who guided the audience through the new system.  He grumpily objected to everything, rejecting change, until being shown how he would benefit and thus helping the film viewing public to understand and accept the new National Insurance Act.

The biggest difference from the war time work however was that Joy had to work more from home after the birth of their daughter, Vivien, in 1945.  “Halas & Batchelor was no longer fifty-fifty” she wrote. “I was, as a witty friend remarked, literally left holding the baby.  John was holding the studio together and my life was never the same again . . .”. Becoming a mother may have changed the working pattern in their relationship but Joy continued to focus on the company from home.  There are letters giving instructions to the company from Joy that she wrote on the day Vivian was born.

During this period Joy concentrated more on the pre-production stages like scrips and storyboards which could be done at home.  While she did continue to work at the studio sometimes to direct animators and the other creatives, her presence was always more fleeting and elusive than John’s in people’s memories.

The distinction that Joy later put on the divide was that John became the main contact point and producer of the company because it involved travelling and socializing.  He became the primary figure associated with the company, and increasingly the British animation industry as a whole.  He was the face people saw, and he was a good storyteller, politician, and showman as well.

This was also the period when the studio’s first art film was released, the 10 minute abstract visual ballet Magic Canvas.  Having creating the images and story, Joy is uncredited on the film which is a shame because this is just the type of production that would bring more critical acclaim to the studio than their sponsored work.

In 1949 their son Paul was born. 

On what became the studio’s best known work, Animal Farm the first British feature length animated film made in 1954, Joy is given screen credit as a designer, scriptwriter, character designer, storyboarder, and director at last receiving the on screen credit that she had deserved all along.  The film was something of a commission from the American producer Louis De Rochement, whose attention they had gained with their commissioned work such as their 1949 The Shoemaker and the Hatter which was made to promote the Marshall Plan.  The surreptitious financing of the film, involving contributions and some editorial input by what was effectively the United States Central Intelligence Agency is a whole different talk, but regardless of the source of the money John and Joy jumped wholeheartedly into the adventure and it was a project for which they shared a great passion.

Joy’s contribution to the scripting, development, and characterization of the film was immense, particularly in the early stages when she primarily worked at home.  Joy tried to work around the needs of the children, insisting on a family breakfast together and spending 2 hours in the evening with the children for tea, stories, and putting them to bed.  She would make up the work hours late at night and on weekends.

It was where the work stepped into the rapidly expanding studio and was delegated to an ever growing number of staff that Joy probably couldn’t make the contribution to Animal Farm that she wanted and felt left out.  Photographs of the film in production often show John at the heart of discussions, whereas Joy’s presence survives more in the many script drafts, covered in her handwritten annotations and in correspondence with the film’s backers.  When interviewed in later life Joy stated that this was the film that ­­ she enjoyed working on the most.

Joy’s daughter, Vivian Halas, remembers that after the release of Animal Farm “Joy was hailed as “the Woman Disney” and there were journalists all over the studio and our house taking photos for magazines.  Joy thought all of this was fairly patronizing, as the press seemed to take more interest in her as a homemaker than a filmmaker”.

After the success of Animal Farm the company was perfectly positioned to take advantage of the arrival of commercial television in Britain, making over 200 television commercials in 1956 alone.  At the same time they were picking up commission after commission from large companies who were investing in lavish commercials rather than handing their profits over to the government due to a post war tax loophole which allowed them to deduct these expenses.  

Despite this success it is here that a divide really seems to set in between Joy and John. The fact that the partnership was no more fifty-fifty did not mean that she was doing less, but in fact, Joy was taking on a heavier burden in the relationship.  She still put in her 50% of efforts towards the company, but on top of that she took on the role of being a mother with more commitment than John seemed to be giving to being a father.

The damage and demands of her wartime work load over ten years of such a double life put a strain on Joy that would come back to haunt her health in the coming years, mentally as well as physically.  The strain coupled with injuries from a bomb which hit their flat in 1941 leaving Joy buried up to her neck in rubble resulted in years of back pain and depression. 

Aside from Animal Farm, Halas  & Batchelor’s reputation is largely based on the independent short films that they made for themselves rather than the commissioned films. John does appear to be the driving force behind these works and Joy’s role in these films is harder to pick out.  She stated that she initially manned the History of the Cinema project, a 1957 10 minute satire on the growth of film and television, but the final credits list John alone as director and producer, and he shares script and design credits with two other men. Joy is not credited anywhere.

She has a script credit on Automania 2000, the first British animation to gain an Oscar nomination but no credit for design, production, or direction.

The start of the 1960’s saw a diversion from the norm as Halas & Batchelor produced their second feature film, one of their very few live-action films, the Monster of Highgate Ponds.  Funded by the Children’s Film Foundation, the film was based on a story that Joy wrote.  She also designed the monster although she did not direct the film.  Joy was fairly dismissive of the project and even the stop-motion sequences of the monster in the film did not offer her the same rewards as drawn animation.  

She later wrote of John and the company “By the end of the 1950’s our interests and films began to diverge.  The process continued through the 1960’s with a succession of boring film subjects that fell to my lot and left me bored which didn’t improve the films.  The realization that I lacked experience and skill in all the political, business, and social games that go with filmmaking, resulted in long, tedious illnesses and a great creative loss”. 


Joy felt that she had been left to deal with the bread and butter sponsored film commissions that had established the company’s reputation and were the true source of income, but they were generally artistically unsatisfying after over 20 years in business.  The fact that John’s reputation was going from strength to strength domestically and then internationally through his role as a founding member of ASIFA , the International Animation Association, in 1960 added to Joy’s sense of neglect. Even though she was also one of the founding members of ASIFA her contributions were not widely acknowledged.

John’s first published writing on animation in English was a joint essay with Joy for the Penguin Film Review in the 1940’s, but his subsequent books on animation were all undertaken with a series of different writers and never again with his wife and business partner.

Strains on their relationship led to distractions outside of it for both of them.  The medications that went along with the succession of illnesses that plagued Joy throughout this period did not mix well with an over-reliance on drink as a stress reliever and social lubricant.  While John was directing films for mass audiences such as Hamilton the Musical Elephant in 1961 and Automania 2000 in 1963 as well as dealing with children’s television series such as Foo-Foo, Joy was left directing commissioned films on the Commonwealth and its Columbo Plan, and producing a film called Sputum.  She increasingly found that she could get more pleasure from taking time off animation to work in the garden, yet she was launched into 3 years of work on an adaptation of Gilbert and Sullivan’s Ruddigore which was released in 1964.

Made for American television, at 54 minutes Ruddigore was the company’s longest animated feature since Animal Farm although it was made with a 10th of the personnel and suffered in consequence.  Joy embarked on the project reluctantly and thought that she would be sharing the direction with John.  Even though he received a directing credit on the film, he became involved in the Tales of Hoffnung series for the BBC television instead so that his involvement in Ruddigore was next to none even though he received a directing credit with Joy.  Ruddigore is clearly Joy’s film with character designs exhibiting traits back to her earlier designer work in the 1940 on the film.  Joy was in actual fact the director, producer, script writer and character designer.   Even if she entered the project half-heartedly the poor critical reception must have been personally hard for her to take.  She blamed the film’s lack of success on the limited budget the studio was given for the project.

In the early 1960’s Halas & Batchelor established an off-shoot company, the Educational Film Center, which as the name suggests specialized in films for classrooms and educational institutions.  10 years on from 1955, the golden age of British animation production which had been kick-started by the arrival of commercial television was beginning to wane along with the large scale sponsored commissions due to changes in business tax laws.  The impetus of Halas & Batchelor as a company was also beginning to wane along with Joy’s enthusiasm.  The new opportunity was thought to be in American television cartoons.  John and Joy decided that to keep the business running required new investment and they sold the majority of the company to Tyne Tees Teevision keeping a 20% investment for themselves.  Their influence in the company that still carried their name fell rapidly and what Joy referred to as the “new empire” at the company rejected and even maligned the style of past work in order to promote a new house brand.  

The situation came to a head in 1972, when John and Joy felt that they were forced to release their remaining shares under false pretenses.  Much of the stressful fallout from this situation fell to Joy to deal with because John was away at a conference of the International Council of Graphic Design Association.  She also began to suffer from severe arthritis in her hands.

Joy continued working using other artists to draw and complete the storyboards that she could no longer produce to her satisfaction.  One film produced by this method was Contact, a 17 minute history of the development of electricity.  The 1973 film which used computer assistance and slick, modern design won a number of international awards.  In 1974 Joy almost completely retired from film making but she did begin to teach at the London International Film School which she thoroughly enjoyed. She continued teaching there for many years. 

In 2014 the animation world celebrated the centenary of Norman McLaren, an event well worth celebrating, but 2014 was also the 100th anniversary of the birth of Joy Batchelor and sadly it passed almost unnoticed.  To commemorate the event, Joy’s daughter Vivian Halas made a short film tribute to her mother titled Ode to Joy. 

Joy’s story is not unlike that of many other women in the animation industry who are expected to juggle long hours of work for less pay or recognition with taking care of a family and unfortunately it is still far too true today.  Now it is up to the new generation of women in the animation industry to change this.  Go out there, work hard and don’t settle for anything less than equality in opportunities for pay and recognition.

By Nancy Denney-Phelps, Animation World Network

You can read more of Nancy's insightful articles here:

Unsung Women Heros in Animation

by Nancy Denney-Phelps

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