Art and Animation - A History of Halas & Batchelor - Part 1

In 1980, on the occasion of the 40th anniversary of Halas & Batchelor, British film historian Roger Manvell wrote a contextual history of the studio for a celebratory book about the studio, Art and Animation. In 2012 when Vivien Halas and Paul Wells published a new history of the studio, Halas & Batchelor Cartoons: An Animated History, Paul re-edited and updated the text and in the coming weeks we will republish it here in sections. Where subsequent research has clarified or confused this version of events we have added some guidance notes.

For the fully illustrated story, then Halas & Batchelor Cartoon: An animated history (Southbank Publishing 2012) is the book for you.

Halas & Batchelor Cartoons: An Animated History - Book Cover

1940s Part 1

The unit of Halas and Batchelor was formed in May 1940 as an independent part of the J. Walter Thompson Advertising Agency, which had its headquarters at Bush House, Aldwych, London. The Agency's policy was to develop the talents of such young creative artists as were available during the early war years for official propaganda as well as advertising, so that after the war there would be a reserve of skill ready to make motion picture commercials.

The first two films to be made by Halas and Batchelor were in fact commercials, Train Trouble (1940) (which was scripted by Alexander MacKendrick, later to become well known as a feature film director at Ealing Studios) and Carnival in the Clothes Cupboard (1940), a commercial for Lux toilet soap1. Even at this early stage the stress on quality was apparent, more especially in inviting the distinguished composer, Francis Chagrin, to provide scores for both films.

It was John Grierson, back in Britain for a period in 1941 after setting up the National Film Board of Canada, who guided the unit into the field of wartime propaganda. During the remaining war period, 1941-45, the unit produced some 70 shorts2in fulfilment of various wartime needs. Several of these films were notable: the newly formed Ministry of Information, uncertain of its role as a source of propaganda during its first year, had begun to discover its function in film under the enlightened direction of Jack Beddington (the brilliant public relations officer from ShellMex and BP, who had taken over the Films Division in 1940).

Filling the Gap

Halas and Batchelor were invited to bring a breath of fresh air to such pedestrian but necessary subjects as the development of allotment holdings and the saving of scrap metal, bones and paper, and produced Dustbin Parade (1941) and Digging for Victory (1942). The former, with its beautifully moulded black and white design and its joyful ballet of the parade of much needed refuse homing onto the ever receptive waste bin, was a delight; it was in use non-theatrically throughout the war, while in Digging for Victory John Halas and Joy Batchelor employed as composer for the first time Matyas Seiber (student of Bartok and Kodaly) an association, like that with Francis Chagrin, which was to result in over 250 film scores from these two eminent composers. Halas and Batchelor was to become a major patron of British music.3

Dustbin Parade from BFI on Vimeo.

An interesting extension in propaganda was the Abu series (1943), directed to Arab audiences in the Middle East. Abu was a small Arab boy in charge of a donkey; both proved highly resistant to the Fascist propaganda of a looming, snakelike Hitler and a massive frog like Mussolini.

Abu series

The longest of the unit's wartime films was in the area of technical instruction Handling Ships (1945), a 70 minute film 4 sponsored by the Admiralty, which was later, postwar in 1949, to commission a half hour film of a similar kind, Submarine Control (1949).5 Handling Ships demonstrated the intricacies of ship movement with deliberation and absolute clarity, using simplified schematic designs, which were to become a characteristic of many post-war Halas and Batchelor films, demonstrating physical and technological processes. For example, an admirably clear, postwar instructional film sponsored by the Home Office was to be Water for Fire Fighting (1948); it was made with three dimensional, simplified models and was intended to help in the training of recruits to the Fire Service.

Water for Fire Fighting

Editors’ notes:
1. For many years Train Trouble has been cited as Halas & Batchelor’s first film, including by John Halas himself. Subsequent research has shown that it was in fact not made until 1945 and was released in 1946 - as a future blog post will explain. Carnival in the Clothes Cupboard was produced in 1941 from dating marks on the original film materials, and was probably not released until 1942. It is an advert for Lux washing powder rather than soap.

2. An advert for Halas & Batchelor in a Documentary News Letter from 1946 claims that the company made over 42 films for the MOI, The War Office and the Admiralty in the previous four years, which is probably a more accurate figure.

3. Dustbin Parade was released in 1942, not 1941. No reference can be found to a surviving film with the title “Digging For Victory” and it may have been confused with the Filling the Gap (1942) which ends with an appeal to “Dig for Victory - Next Winter may be a matter of life or death”. However the music for that film, and Dustbin Parade, was by Ernst Meyer.

4. Handling Ships is probably more accurately described as a series than a single feature length work, as is the later Water for Firefighting. They are both remarkable examples of the classroom film, with the latter in particular designed to promote interaction and feedback with an audience. but was still a considerable achievement to produce in the years 1944-5

5. All contemporary review references to Submarine Control in periodicals like “Film User” suggest that the film was not released until 1951, although production may certainly have started in 1949

H&B at 75

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