Art and Animation - A History of Halas & Batchelor - Part 3

This post continues Roger Manvell's history of Halas & Batchelor, written for the 40th anniversary of the studio and re-edited by Paul Wells for the book Halas & Batchelor Cartoons: An Animated History in 2012. If you missed part one and two then you will find them here and here. This part covers the start of the 1950s up to Animal Farm (1954).

The studio was to continue making personal and commercial projects throughout their history. During the 1950s, BP (whose Public Relations officer, Ronald Tritton, had held a senior position in the Films Division of the Central Office of Information, successor to the wartime Ministry of Information) became one of the unit's principal postwar sponsors of public relations films in which the emphasis was as much if not more on education than on the advertising aspects of promotion. These films were to include several representing the unit's best and longest lasting work in international distribution, films such as As Old as the Hills (1950), Moving Spirit (1953), (the history of the motorcar), We've Come a Long Way (1951), (the history of tanker ships), followed by many of the best known titles in this series, Power to Fly (1954) (the history of aviation), Down a Long Way (1954) (the search for oil), Animal, Vegetable and Mineral (1957) (the story of the overcoming of friction), Speed the Plough (1956) (agricultural history), and Energy Picture (1959) (the history of energy). These films brought out the best in schematic design of which the unit was capable, the work principally of designer animators such as Bob Privett, Digby Turpin, and latterly Vic Bevis and Gerry Potterton working in close association with John Halas and Joy Batchelor themselves. Except for Moving Spirit and Power to Fly (scores by Benjamen Frankel) the music for these films was composed by Matyas Seiber.

To Your Health

Halas & Batchelor were now in a strong position. They had continuity of specially sponsored productions backed by an increasing number of animated commercials for cinema and for television, once commercial television was introduced in 1955. Their best work in the sponsored field during the 1950s in addition to the BP series included All Lit Up (1957) made for the Gas Council and For Better For Worse (1961), a sharp satire on television viewing habits made for Philips of Eindhoven. An excellent officially sponsored film was To Your Health (1956) designed and directed by Philip Stapp, on the nature of alcoholism, made for the World Health Organisation.
The quality of such films lie in the ability to show things which live action could not. Bob Privett and Brian Borthwick, with Alan Crick as producer and Mullard as sponsor, for example, made a 20 minute technological film, Linear Accelerator (1952), which showed the properties and functioning of X-ray equipment impossible to demonstrate by live action.

The Festival of Britain in 1951 offered another opportunity for the studio to showcase its work. Under the general charge of the late Sir Gerald Barry, formerly editor of the London News Chronicle, the Festival (a centenary celebration in the spirit of the Victorian Exhibition of 1851), it was intended to put new heart into post war Britain with the tragedies, deprivations and rationings of war and post war still fresh in the memory during the period of struggle to rebuild bombed cities and rehabilitate the depleted economy. It was intended to be cheerful, even frivolous, and to bring into prominence British architects, artists, and craftsmen. It enabled the British Film Institute to found what was to become the first form of the permanent National Film Theatre, opening its doors in one of the many temporary structures erected by the Festival on the South Bank, the exhibition centre; the BFI also sponsored a considerable number of films, among them experiments in 3D production and exhibition under the creative supervision of Norman McLaren of the National Film Board of Canada, who in turn asked John Halas for help on the technical level in his stereoscopic programme, which included the 3D colour films, Around is Around (1951) (a semi abstract film in which the colour base changed for each sequence in a successive flow of patterns) and Now is the Time (1951). These films, viewed in the theatre with anamorphic spectacles, exploited images that advanced and retreated from the frame of the screen to the horizon, and came forward from the screen towards the spectators in the auditorium.

The Owl and the Pussycat

The following year, 1952, John Halas, in association with Brian Borthwick, experimented independently with a 7 minute stereoscopic film, The Owl and the Pussycat (1953), based on Edward Lear’s poem, with music by Matyas Seiber. The character design was highly stylised to match the nonsense fantasy of the poem. This was Europe’s first stereoscopic cartoon film and, although available in normal, two dimensional form, was shown in many parts of the world in 3D. With further sponsorship from the BFI, John Halas made a series of eight Poet and Painter 1 films (1951) for the Festival - the poets were both traditional (Shakespeare, Nashe, Cowper) and contemporary (David Gascoigne, Kathleen Raine, Owen Meredith). Specially produced artworks were also created for filming, including material by Henry Moore, Ronald Searle, Mervyn Peake, Michael Rothenstein, John Minton and Michael Ayrton). Distinguished actors and actresses, such as Mary Morris, Cecil Trouncer, Stanley Holloway and Michael Redgrave, with Peter Peers singing Shakespeare’s ‘Spring and Winter’, recorded the verse. The basis for the Poet and Painter series was created to reflect cinematic action or atmosphere. For example, the action for William Cowper’s ‘John Gilpin’ (spoken with a sardonic appreciation of its humour by Cecil Trouncer) was recreated in a whole succession of caricatures lasting ten minutes on the screen over which the rostrum camera panned and tracked until these numerous drawings, subjected to skilful editing, seemed to explode into dramatic life, whereas Rothenstein’s work for Two Corbies and Ayrton’s for Nashe’s poem In Time of Pestilence (both very brief on the screen) were wholly atmospheric. The music for the series was composed by Matyas Seiber.

In 1953, Halas and Batchelor made The Figurehead (1953), which the unit sponsored itself, again with Seiber as composer. In this case, Seiber was asked to compose and record the score in advance of the animation, which was carefully synchronised with his musical rhythm structure. The film was a fantasy about Neptune’s daughter falling in love with a wooden figurehead of an old ship, and taking this handsome but unresponsive love down to her sea bed. The experimental nature of this puppet film lay mainly in what John Halas has called a technique of ‘drawing and painting with light’ devised by Alan Crick, ‘a technique based on the use of transparent celluloids, polaroid screens and filters. By the adjustment of polaroid filters the colours of the transparent celluloids could be automatically changed. Other one-reel entertainment films sponsored by the unit itself during the 1950s included History of the Cinema (1956) and Man in Silence (1964)2. Both The Figurehead and The History of the Cinema were chosen for inclusion in the annual Royal Command Performance of their year.

Figurehead model picture

It was during the early 1950s that Halas and Batchelor began to receive increasing recognition in the United States, following the Marshall Aid films of the 1940s. This resulted in the sponsorship of The Sea (1955) by the Ford Workshop of New York and the production of five one reel films reviving for American television, Fleischer’s character, Popeye the Sailor (1955)3, films sponsored by Rembrant / King Features and designed and animated by Tony Guy (some years later to become animation director of the feature Watership Down). The Lutheran Church Federation sponsored a religious animated story film, The Candlemaker (1957), while NBC funded the amusing experiment of making cartoon entertainment out of Stone Age characters in The World of Little Ig (1957). But the principal sponsorship from America was Louis de Rochemont’s funding for Halas and Batchelor to make the first seriously intended feature length graphic animation film to be produced in Europe, the dramatisation of George Orwell’s tragic political fable, 'Animal Farm’, which was originally published in 1945.

1. Poet and Painter or Painter and Poet - tomato or tomato? OK the latter example doesn't work in text, but there is no right answer to either question. Though listed here as 8 films, the individual parts were generally released compiled into 4 films. The copies that I have seen of Parts 1-3 are titled "Painter and Poet", but the fourth film, which only contains the John Gilpin film is subtitled "Poet and Painter". Definitely sounds like the subject for another post sometime, or if you would prefer one on the tomato issue then drop a line in the contact box...

2. As with Part 2, I have tweaked dates throughout the original text to what I believe is the correct release date, which is usually the easiest date to fix in time, if not always reflective of the period in which production started. I have footnoted this particular change as the original text dated the film as 1959 putting it in this section, but the film does not appear to have been reviewed before 1964 suggesting that it is when it was released.

3. This date is about five years out - these were more likely produced in 1959/1960.

H&B at 75

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