Pencil test

In 1959 Halas & Batchelor sought to break into television and make the first financially viable British produced animation series. The foundation of that approach was literally pencil thin.


This is how their new breakthough was reported in the 12 September 1959 edition of "Television Mail" - a weekly industrial periodical for the commercial television sector.

New Pencil Cuts Cartoon Costs

With the arrival of the cellgraph pencil, which is specially manufactured by a leading pencil company in Britain in association with Halas and Batchelor, the largest company, producing animated films in Britain, a phenomenal reduction in the costs of cartoon film production has now become possible.

Formerly all animated cartoons had to pass through a lengthy production process in which the work of the original artists - the key animators and their principal assistants - was passed on to the tracers and painters (opaquers) who were responsible for the skilled but laborious task of transferring their work to the transparent celluloid sheets which are the basic medium in animation technique.

For each second of action on the screen every moving part of the picture must normally pass through 24 stages of minute change, each necessitating the use of a new tracing on a new sheet of celluloid, one sheet being required for each main character in a story-cartoon or mobile element of a diagram or instructional film.

The cell graph pencil allows the key animator to do this work himself, using the actual celluloid sheets that will eventually be under the camera, instead of the drawing-paper on which he formerly had to compete his vital stage of the work.

In other words, the cellgraph pencil gives the animation artist working directly on celluloid the same technical facility that he previously enjoyed on paper. The pencil produces finished work in various colours that can be photographed, and yet at the same time in the process of reaching its finished stage can be corrected not he celluloid by erasure, as simply as a pencil line on a paper.

It is capable of producing lines of any quality needed - thick or thin, strong or subtly shaded. It replaces, therefore, the old and basically clumsy method of animation in which special inks and paints had to be used by copyists who might or might not have been sympathetic to the style and movement of the animator’s original work, in order that it should be instantly reproduced.

In terms of labour costs this new technique means that the ten minute film that formerly took a team of fifteen artists led by two chief animators sixteen weeks to complete may now be completed in only six weeks by only two artists - one chief animator and one skilled assistant. In terms of artistry it means the the man who is responsible for originating the animation personally carries his work right through to the actual point of photography for the screen.

Animated films of quality, instead of being one of the most expensive forms of production, have now become potentially one of the most economical, not only for entertainment, but for education also.

Whilst this is obviously something of a puff piece (it is a sidebar in a longer focus on the Foo-Foo series) and the chinagraph or "cellgraph" pencil did not revolutionise the animation industry as a whole, it did become a hugely important part of Halas & Batchelor's production process in the years ahead.

If you are unfamiliar with a chinagraph pencil, it sometimes called a wax or a grease pencil and it used by a variety of trades and arts for marking on non-porous or wet surfaces. It was used a lot in the film industry for marking up edits and synchronisation points on film and magnetic strips, so would have been in common sight around the animation studio.

The accompanying article to the detail above credits the idea of animating directly onto cels with a chinagraph pencil to John Halas, but when I talked to Harold Whitaker about it he thinks they first used the idea for a Canada Dry ginger ale commercial a couple of years earlier - probably about 1957. The commercial (of which I have tried and sadly failed to find a copy so far) was based on the idea of animating figures in the style of a child's crayon sketches. Harold realised that by drawing with wax pencils directly onto clear animation cels they could recreate required look but with the advantage of being able to use layers and backgrounds rather than redraw everything on individual sheets of paper.

Within a few years all the animators were having to do the same to reap the financial benefits outlined above. Harold remembered that the chief disadvantage of the technique was that if you wanted to use the lightbox on your animation desk you had to work very quickly as the warmth tended to melt the wax and cause the cels to stick together - or at least this was a problem with the first pencils they used. It was probably not enjoyed by all the animators, it would have a very different feel than the bite of pencil paper and must have been hell on a hot day. But to a fluid, natural, intuitive animator like Harold it was hugely enjoyable and as he was such a big part of H&B's output the technique continued for some years.

The technique was not enough to make the Foo-foo series a success in the long term, just over 30 episodes were released in 1960 and that marked its end. Halas & Batchelor would fail to get their own successful television series, and by the end of the decade the studio was used for outsourced work for American studios

Lone Ranger detail

But as this detail of a cel from one of the Halas & Batchelor produced Lone Ranger cartoons for Format Films in 1966 shows, the "cellgraph" pencil was still very much in affect. Most of the series that the studio produced for American companies like Rankin/Bass, such as the Jackson 5ive series (1971-72) used it.

Although the technique was born from an ethos of cutting costs and corners in the production process, it is somewhat ironic that a similar technique was taken to such time-consuming extremes in later films of much acclaim. Frédérick Back's Oscar winning film Crac! (1981) was drawn onto "frosted" textured cels with more familiar coloured pencils and the much loved The Snowman (1982) would recrate the look of Raymond Briggs original drawings in a similar way.


Read more posts by this author.