Art and Animation - A History of Halas & Batchelor - Part 4

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. Here are links to parts one, two, and three. This part covers the production of Animal Farm (1954). The film was remastered in 2014 for its 60th anniversary and is available on DVD and Blu-ray.

AF production meeting

To make Animal Farm (1954) alongside their normal, and expanding sponsored work, Halas and Batchelor became the largest animation studio in Western Europe with a creative and technical staff of nearly one hundred. No one unacquainted with an animation company at work can envisage at all easily the creative and administrative work involved in the production of a film of this kind, although its running time is only 75 minutes. 300,000 hours (almost a complete individual lifetime) were required to create 250,000 drawings and some 1,800 coloured backgrounds. Two tons of paint were needed for the vast series of coloured drawings which presented the illusion on the screen of continuous action.

"Animal Farm" is a book with a very strong idea. It is a fable about animals but these animals are as serious in their attitude to life as any cow or pig or dog or fowl you may meet on a real farm. They are not sentimentalised to suit human prejudices, nor are they cutely humanised like most animals in cartoon films; for Orwell’s fable is symbolic, and the result is a political satire full of deep feeling. The animals on an ill-kept farm revolt against its cruel and drunken owner, drive him out by means of an organised revolution, set up their own form of democratic community, led by the pigs, who prove to be the most intelligent of the animals. But although they begin with democracy, it gradually develops into a dictatorship in which the pigs are the herrenvolk, and Napoleon the most powerful and evil of the pigs, is the dictator. In the book, the final stage is the saddest, for the pigs wear human clothes and banquet with the enemies of animal-kind, the cunning and cruel exploiters of their wealth and labour. In the film a happier twist is given to this situation by showing that the animals are yet again capable of organising resistance against the leaders who have betrayed them.

"Animal Farm" is about animals who are not merely story-book creatures; their life on the farm is presented by an author who knew both farm life and animal life well. There is in his writing not only a lyrical feeling for the countryside, but also a down-to-earth realism; the animals are quite uncompromising in their behaviour. Matyas Seiber’s music was able to help the audience respond to the emotions of the animals as they pass through their bitter experience in exchanging one cruel yoke for another of their own making. They must hope and suffer, they must sing and weep, and they must learn by hard experience what happens when they are too optimistic, simple-minded and trusting.

AF storyboard

The initial work on the treatment, graphic design and character sketches was carried out by John Halas and Joy Batchelor together. They constructed the dramatic flow of the story into a succession of 18 sequences of variant mood, and accompanied their first visualisation of the principal characters with such descriptions as that for Old Major, the wise old pig who leads the initial revolt: ‘Old and dignified. Ponderous. As always seen lying down, drawing must suggest his size and weight within limited movement allowed.’ At this stage Philip Stapp was engaged to help develop the storyboard of some 350 drawings, with a more exact breakdown of the verbal track in the form of limited narration and dialogue. The dialogue used came entirely from Orwell’s book, dialogue direct and simple and confined to essentials. The sound-effects, on the other hand, were all used to increase the impression of naturalism – they were mostly the real sounds of a farm, the cries of animals, the creaking of wheels and machinery; the sounds, in fact, which would be made by the natural counterparts to the drawn images on the screen. At the same time the musical structure was being planned, especially as the music was to be composed and recorded by Seiber prior to the animation. Interpretation and emphasis of mood remain at certain stages the chief purpose of the score, allowing the music to develop its own unique qualities in the expression of emotion. It serves to bind together the various sequences and add to the sense of continuity in the film. Many of the individual sections of the score form long compositions of some minutes’ duration. But at other stages in the film the composer had to be prepared completely to subordinate the nature of his work to the details of the action, permitted it to become a colourful elaboration of a sound effect. The composer had obviously to work in the closest association with the film-makers, or his work, however beautiful or atmospheric in itself, would tend to draw away from the immediate needs of the film. The orchestration of the score for Animal Farm was designed for performance by 36 instruments. As for the dialogue, Jack King, who had been in charge of sound at Halas and Batchelor since the early 1950s, used multiple tracks with extraordinary skill so as to enable a single actor, Maurice Denham, to voice nearly all the animals in turn, and with the Dorian Singers even sing, as it were collectively, their first revolutionary anthem.

Farmer Jones shoots

The design for Animal Farm was informed by the view that the animals had to be, partially at least, anthropomorphised, in order to engage audience sympathy over the full extent of a feature presentation. They had to be drawn in a developed, moulded form. This humanisation of the animals led, in effect, to the principal dramatic problem – how to end the film. If it were to follow exactly the mood of Orwell, then it must end in total defeat of those animals representing decency and animal ‘humanity’. Louis de Rochement was averse to this, insisting on at least some degree of hope being introduced at the end. To this extent, then, the animals representing freedom are shown as preparing to defend their rights. Many critics took exception to this, holding that since Orwell despaired of the survival of human rights in the face of increasing invasion by anti-democratic bureaucracy, the film should have remained uncompromisingly faithful to his view.

H&B at 75

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