The spirit of John is alive and well. At least it is, in the exhibition of 100 years of Hungarian Animation that I was lucky enough to see at this years’ KAFF, the international animation festival held in Kecskemet in late June 2015.
The exhibition of photos, artefacts, models and films charted Hungarian animation from its earliest moments to the latest prizewinning student films. I knew John that would be featured as one of the pioneers but it was still a shock to see him larger than life holding forth on the importance of animation. There as you walked in, he was on a large TV screen, speaking in what even to my ears was Hungarian with a heavy English accent…just as his English was very Hungarian so his Hungarian was very English.
John holding forth in Hungarian
The TV documentary made in the 1980s featured many other old friends such as Janos Kass who designed some of Halas & Batchelor’s later films Contact (1973), the Great Masters series* (1986) and Dilemma (1981) and the many stars of Hungarian animation. What might have been history to some was nostalgia for me as I grew up knowing many of these filmmakers and am often surprised that they are not more widely known outside of Hungary. Talented animators such as Marcell Jankovics, Maria Horvath, Zsolt Richly, Sandor Reisenbucheler and many more as well as the younger generation such as Tomek Ducki and Peter Vacz are all worth discovering if you haven’t already.
Models and drawing for the 2D/3D film Rabbit and Deer 2012 by Peter Vacz
It was the early part of the exhibition that interested me the most. Until I saw the exhibition I didn’t fully appreciate that John’s birth in 1912 was so close to the moment that Hungarian animation began in 1914. It was 2 years after his birth that Istvan Kato-Kiszly first used paper cut outs to make a film. He went on to make shadow play films such as Romeo and Juliet 1921 and Beetle Orfeum in 1932.
A still from Kato-Kiszley’s Beetle Orfeum 1932
The earliest surviving animated film is The Dreadful Night of Mr Pipe by Sandor Bortnyik 1930 [Jez note - see http://halasbatchelor75.co.uk/halas-batchelor-at-40-hungarian-perspective/ for more on this]. The young Janos Halasz worked on that film doing in-betweens and also working on some of the other early experiments by Moholy Nagy who briefly taught at the Muhely (the Bauhaus inspired atelier) in Budapest. It was there that John met his future partners Gyula Mackassy and Felix Kassowitz. Together they made advertising films and founded their first animation studio Coloriton.
Poster for Coloriton
Macskassy, the grandfather of Hungarian animation went on to head the state studio Magyar Szinkronfilmgyártó Vállalat in 1948 that became the Pannónia Film Stúdió in 1959.
I have talked about this at length in The Halas & Batchelor Cartoons book and history of Hungarian Animation can be found here.
Due to the difficult and changing political climate over the years the content of the films often stay with safe subjects such as fairy tales or the origins of Hungary in its glory days. This may have limited appeal worldwide but usually they are so well conceived and designed that the art transcends the content. It has also meant that the artists have been challenged to find ingenious often abstract means of expression. Yet another sweeping generalisation that is purely my observation is that in Hungary no one is blocked by which medium they use. An animator is just as likely to have made posters, books, prints, graphics or sculpture and to be male or female without any problem.
I hope that one day the exhibition will be shown in London but so far funding is thin on the ground. A shame because Hungary was the cradle of so many well know film makers, photographers actors and artists who enriched our own culture by having to leave their own country with the rise of Fascism in the late 1930ies. Filmmakers such as Alexander Korda, Emeric Pressburger, Michael Curtiz and George Cukor; artists such as Victor Varsarrelli, and Laslo Moholy Nagy; and animators such as George Pal, Tissa David who worked at UPA, Jules Engel (who worked on Disney’s Fantasia and and later taught Tim Burton and John Lasseter) and of course my father John Halas.
The exhibition certainly helped me to more fully understand my fathers passion for animation and his wish to spread the word about the then new experimental medium that has now become so ubiquitous.
John welcoming everyone at an early KAFF. Behind in the white jacket is Ferenc Mikulas founder of the Kecskemet studio and festival that started in 1985