John Halas : Obituaries

Denis Gifford
Wednesday 25 January 1995 00:02 GMT

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Louise Thomas

Louise Thomas


It is tempting to dub John Halas "the father of British animation". But, although he and his wife Joy Batchelor formed the longest-running animation studio in our history (spanning over half a century), and produced the largest number of cartoons (some 2,000 films, long and short), they remained curiously European in their styling, design, colouring and humour, raising the occasional smile rather than the gutsy guffaws of the slapdash works of Bob Godfrey. Nevertheless, Halas's hard work for the animated cartoon, which he saw as an international rather than national form, secures him a permanent place in the history of the art.

Born Janos Halasz in Budapest in 1912, he was always a cartoonist. His earliest drawings were freelanced to various French magazines when he was a teenager in Paris in 1930, after which he returned to Budapest to work for the animation pioneer George Pal. Pal, who would later invent the Puppetoons, make musical shorts for Horlicks, and become Hollywood's first science-fiction film-maker (Destination Moon, 1950, etc), was at the beginning of his career, making advertising animations with paper cut-outs. Halas left Pal in 1933 to study at "The Studio", a private graphic-design school run by Alexander Bortnyik and Laszlo Moholy-Nagy as a split-off from the famous German Bauhaus. Two years later Halas established his own animation studio in Hungary, but was unable to produce anything other than cinema commercials for various brands of cigarette and alcohol.

One of his colour cartoons was shown in London, leading to an invitation in 1936 to join the staff of British Animated Films. Here, working on the short Music Man (1938), John Halas met Joy Batchelor. The film itself, long lost, was described by Today's Cinema as "of fair technical quality, but [with] a certain amount of quaint charm". Halas returned to Hungary, taking Batchelor with him, and they attempted to set up their own studio, but the climate, financial and political, brought them back to Londonin 1939. For a while Halas contributed cartoons to Lilliput, the pocket magazine, and illustrated children's books, but then the pair found work with the advertising agency J. Walter Thompson, who as J.W.T. Productions made commercials for cinemas. Halas and Batchelor married in 1940, and Halas & Batchelor became their animation unit, turning out three-minute films for Lux Toilet Soap, including Carnival in the Clothes Cupboard (1941) and The Fable of the Fabrics (1942). Scripts were written by Alexander Mackendrick, not yet the great film director at Ealing, and the animation team included many who would become Halas & Batchelor regulars: Kathleen "Spud" Murphy, Harold Mack, Wally Crook, and the composer Francis Chagrin.

The top film sponsor throughout the Second World War was the Ministry of Information, and with Realist Films, an important documentary unit, as their parent, Halas & Batchelor started on a series of propaganda cartoons with Filling the Gap (1942). Made for the Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries, this advised the picture-going public to cultivate their allotments, a popular theme of the time. Other shorts which received saturation release in wartime cinemas included Dustbin Parade (1942), with an anim ated bone and a toothpaste tube turning into a useful shell with the message, "Mobilise Your Scrap!" In 1943 the team made The Abu Series, four cartoons shown only in the Middle East, and Compost Heaps, starring an animated Mr Middleton, the BBC radio ga rdener. There was even a warning against venereal disease (Six Little Jungle Boys, 1945). Unfortunately specialised audiences robbed animation fans of seeing many Halas cartoons, including their first full-length animated feature, Handling Ships (1945), a 65-minute documentary cartoon cum puppet film made for the Admiralty.

Halas preferred to continue with "official films" for the MOI, and after the end of the war the COI (Central Office of Information), rather than compete with J. Arthur Rank, the film and flour tycoon who had opened G.B. Animation under the ex-Disney animator David Hand, to produce entertainment cartoons for his Gaumont and Odeon circuits. Given longer (nine-minute) productions to make, he created "Charley", the company's first continuing character. Charley, a cheery cockney voiced by comedian Harold Ber ens, made his debut in New Town (1948), sponsored by the Ministry of Town and Country Planning. There would be seven "Charleys" in all.

There was no shortage of sponsors for advertising cartoons, and the studio, now an entity in its own right,made such titles as Dolly Put the Kettle On (1949) for Brooke Bond Tea and The Flu-ing Squad (1951) for Aspro. Halas's first big move into the art film field came with the Festival of Britain when, in conjunction with the British Film Institute he produced The Poet and Painter Series (1951), adaptations of poems such as Shakespeare's "Spring and Winter" and William Cowper's "John Gilpi n". 1953 andthe 3-D craze inspired Halas to make the first British stereoscopic cartoon, The Owl and the Pussycat, from Edward Lear. "The extra dimension, the colour and design are all utilised with discretion and taste," said the Monthly Film Bulletin, pinpointingthe very qualities that make the Halas & Batchelor cartoons so different from Hollywood's Looney Tunes.

1954 saw the premiere of Halas & Batchelor's greatest bid for world fame, a feature-length adaptation of George Orwell's political fantasy Animal Farm. Unable to raise British finance, the producers were backed by Louis de Rochemont, producer of the March of Time documentary series. The heavy satire of Napoleon and Snowball, two cunning pigs who promote a revolution against tyrannical Farmer Jones only to become dictators themselves, was attractively animated but unoriginally designed, owing more to Walt Disney's familiar barnyard beasties than any true artistic interpretation. Perhaps this was to promote the picture to an audience attuned to the cute cartoonery of Dumbo and The Three Little Pigs, rather than the sharp satirical style of a S earle or aSteadman. Certainly Halas must be praised for his bravery, if not for his concept.

Halas also deserves respect for his continual enterprise in opening up new vistas for animation. In 1965 he produced cartoon sequences for the giant screen of Cinerama Holiday and was the first British animator to enter television with the clumsily titled series Habatales (1956), followed by Foo-Foo (1960), a wordless slapstick series made with an eye on the international market. Snip and Snap (1961) followed, another television series for children, The Monster of Highgate Ponds (1961) was his firs t live-action film, produced for the Saturday morning cinema clubs, and then came another new animation technique he called "Living Screen", made for a travelling show, Is There Intelligent Life On Earth (1963). Two years later saw Dodo the Kid From Oute r Space, the company's first television series in colour.

The enormous outpouring of animation for television that followed, featuring everything from Popeye to The Lone Ranger, was nothing to do with either Halas or Batchelor. They sold their company to one of the independent television contractors, and concentrated on educational and sponsored shorts. One television series that was theirs, however, and stands as one of the best ever made for television by any animation outfit, was Tales of Hoffnung (1965), a brilliant adaptation of the eccentric cartoons ofthe musical and artistic genius Gerard Hoffnung. The Hoffnung Symphony Orchestra, with its dozens of visual gags, is perhaps the best.

Halas's final feature, Max and Moritz (1977), was a televison special made for Germany. It brought to life the work of Wilhelm Busch, pioneer of the comic strip. Only shown once on British television, it proved to be a charming and important piece of animation. In his late years Halas seemed to pioneer every advance in animation, culminating in his award-winning Dilemma (1981), one of the earliest fully digitised computer-animated films, posing the eternal question that had bothered Halas more than oncedown the years: will man's inevitable progress bring about his destruction?

John Halas was the founder and president of ASIFA (the international association of animators) and author of several books on the art of animation.

Denis Gifford

Janos Halasz (John Halas), animator: born Budapest, Hungary 16 April 1912; OBE 1972; married 1940 Joy Batchelor (one son, one daughter); died London 20 January 1995.

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