Halas & Batchelor Cartoon Films 1940 – 1995
By Vivien Halas
This year marks the 80th year since my parents, John Halas and Joy Batchelor founded Halas & Batchelor Cartoons, in its day a household name responsible for over 2000 animated films.
Their best-known film Animal Farm (1954) was the first animated feature to be made in the UK. It has become increasingly relevant, as George Orwell’s fable of power, revolution and corruption continues to have fresh resonance today, 70 years after the writer’s death. Students are still amazed by wonderfully fluid 2D animation made long before the introduction computers or digitization to the medium.
The studio’s output covered a huge number of genres from propaganda and information films during World War 2 including Dustbin Parade (1941) and the Charley Series that introduced the idea of social welfare (1946/7), to entertainment films such as The History of the Cinema (1957), Tales from Hoffnung (1964) and the FooFoo series (1960). They also made films for children such as Hamilton the Musical Elephant (1961), the Snip and Snap series (1964) and experimental films such as the Owl and the Pussycat (1952) and the Figurehead (1953), including early computer animation like Dilemma (1979), educational films such as the Evolution of Life (1964) and What is a Computer? (1967).
With the money made from these they were able to make personal films that expressed their own beliefs such as Magic Canvas (1948), The Question (1967), and Automania 2000 (1963), which was the first animated film be nominated for an Oscar and remarkable for its script by my mother, foreseeing the terrible effects of consumerism.
My father was born Halász János (later anglicised to John Halas) in Budapest’s Petersezbet district on 16 April 1912 (died in London on 21 January 1995). He was the seventh son of a Jewish couple, Gyözö Halász, a journalist and Bertha Singer, who had been a dancer in Vienna when young. Their comfortable life before my father was born ended with the increasing intolerance of Jews, when the family was forced out of the centre of Budapest to a shared house in an outer suburb where my father remembered sleeping under the table. The family was so poor that my father was sent to stay with an aunt in Zurich to be better fed. He remembered the Red Cross giving him food on the train and how his greed made him sick. It was the first of many journeys John made during his formative years that fuelled his appetite for escaping his background.
Although clever at school, John spent his time truanting, playing football with a gypsy friend, hiding under cinema seats to see films for free and running errands for his father. He made money from painting film poster hoardings and eventually got a job at Hunnia Film, putting subtitles onto silent movies. It was here that he met George Pal, the renowned puppet-film maker, and together they taught themselves to animate by embellishing the titles with moving figures.
Having no money, John blagged his way into art school. He persuaded the painter and graphic designer Sandor Bortnyik to hire him as an assistant at the renowned Muhely Atelier that taught Bauhaus principles. This brought John into contact with thevartists Victor Vasarely and Moholy Nagy. He was able to help them with their kinetic experiments while they imbued him with the Bauhaus ethos. He said ‘I learnt construction from them and how to look behind the surface to solve a problem’. It was here that he met his future partners Gyula Macskassy and Felix Kassowitz. They started their first studio in 1932, making ads and short films. When in 1936 a client asked them to set up a studio in London to make an entertainment series, John jumped at the chance and set off, undaunted by his lack of language. He was a natural communicator.
Once in London my father put an ad in a newspaper calling for animators. This was how he met my mother, Joy Batchelor. A happy accident, strangely brought about by the forces of rising anti-Semitism in Europe. His drive and my mother’s talent for drawing, animating and writing ensured their success in difficult times and underpinned their belief that animation was the most complete art form that could make the world a better place.
Joy was born in Watford, England, 12 May 1914 (died in London 14 May 1991). Her father Edward Joseph Batchelor worked in London as a lithographic draughtsman. Her mother Ethel gave up running a prestigious golf club to marry Edward, and Joy was born exactly nine months after the wedding.
Joy took interest in drawing from an early age, encouraged by her father who brought home long paper off-cuts for her to draw on. Always top of her class in everything Joy won a scholarship to grammar school, and later to the Watford School of Art. Though she was subsequently offered a scholarship to the Slade, she could not afford to go, so instead she looked for work.
The best she could find was painting trinkets in an assembly line. The job ended quickly as she criticised the working conditions and was fired. In 1934, she went to work for Dennis Connelly’s animation studio in London. She had had no training in animation but learned on the job and was soon promoted to key animator and trained the other animators. By the time she saw John Halas’s ad for an experienced animator, she was ready.
John and Joy started working together on a film titled Music Man, very loosely based on the life of Liszt. John took the production and Joy back to Budapest as he already had a studio there. Joy remembered that time with nostalgia as she was made a great fuss of by all the partners. By then she and John were in love. The idyll was soon ended as Hitler entered Vienna and their funding was abruptly cut off. In fear for their safety John and Joy borrowed money to flee on one of the last trains out of Budapest, in June 1938.
Once back in London they took any graphic design work they could find. John’s English was almost non-existent, so it was Joy who looked for employment. She found illustration work for newspapers, Harpers magazine and cookery books. John, who was an expert with the airbrush, was lucky as Moholy Nagy (who was briefly art director for Simpsons on the Strand) gave him a few ads to design.
Eventually they found work at the J Walter Thompson agency in Bush House. Although there was a shortage of paper there was still a film unit and at last they were back in business making animated ads, for Lux soap and Brook Bond Tea. As the war started in earnest, the agency was taken over by the Government and the couple found themselves making information and propaganda films for the war effort, for which my father was given special dispensation to stay in England. However, to be paid they were obliged to set up a company, and to save John from internment they got married. Both events took place in May 1940.
This backfired slightly as by marrying my father Joy found herself stripped of her British citizenship and suddenly considered Hungarian; an enemy alien in her own country!
She said, “I ended up being Hungarian on paper. There were some inconveniences, like observing an 8 pm curfew, or not being allowed to own a bicycle, but John and I survived this period quite well’. They did indeed as during the war they made over 70 films, two of which were feature length training films. In this way they honed their skills and developed a sophisticated style. My mother in particular had the knack of turning dry subjects into engaging films.
After the war they continued making information films for the Marshall Plan and the reconstruction of Europe. One of them, The Shoemaker and the Hatter (1949), explaining how lowering trade tariffs and working together would encourage prosperity, was responsible for the studio being asked to make Animal Farm in 1951.
From that time they expanded the company and continued until the early eighties, becoming the most influential animation studio in Western Europe, responsible for employing and training many new generations of animators. Without them British animation would not have flourished as it did and still continues today.
Their story and that of the studio was recently seen in a new documentary made by Richard Shaw at Unity House, broadcast on Sky Arts this spring. Also visit our website http://www.halasandbatchelor.co.uk where you can watch clips of the films, buy DVDs, the book ‘Halas & Batchelor, an animated history’ and ‘A Moving Image’ that traces the life and work of my mother.
First published in The Jewish Review
Vivien Halas, March 2020
For more information please go to:
The Animated World of Halas and Batchelor –
She is co-author of Halas & Batchelor, an animated history 2006 and A Moving Image, Joy Batchelor 1914-91, Artist, Writer and Animator 2014. With the help of Martin Pickles, Vivien has directed and produced two documentaries on her parents, Remembering John Halas 2012 and Ode to Joy 2014. She has contributed to numerous animation and design publications worldwide and served on many juries at international animation film festivals. In her spare time she is a printmaker.