John Halas: an era has closed

John Halas, OBE, FCSD, Hon BKSTS, FRSA. 16 April 1912 – 20 January 1995.

With the passing of John Halas an era of animation has closed. It was the golden era when British animation became a dominant force in this medium. It would certainly not have happened without his influence.

John Halas.

John was in many ways a paradox. A Hungarian who came to epitomise the British style of animation. The Halas and Batchelor studio set up with his wife Joy Batchelor became the largest and most influential animation studio in the UK for over forty years, turning out over 2000 films ranging from features, TV series, commercials, entertainment, and experimental films. These films between them won hundreds of awards, including the Annie award in 1985, and brought together animators from every part of the globe. They included George Orwell’s Animal Farm, the first and still the best animated feature produced here.

Born in Budapest in 1912, John was strongly influenced by the Hungarian Bauhaus movement, and his encounters with such figures as Moholy-Nagy and Victor Vassarelly. Having lost close friends and relatives in the Holocaust, his films had the recurring theme of a world destroyed by war, pollution, and technology out of control. Automania 2000 shows the world grinding to a halt piled up with cars, The Question questions politics, religion, art, and science, in the search for the meaning of life. His award winning film, Dilemma looked at Man’s problems and how he sought to control them. The underlying theme in his films was also to be explored in his way of life that brought together many international animators in collaborative projects. As a film maker, he constantly sought ‘The Grand Idea’, the universal statement that presented his belief in world unity and peace.

Animal Farm - Halas & Batchelor.

John studied painting and animation; he worked with George Pal the puppeteer film maker, and formed his first studio in Hungary in 1932. He later went to Paris briefly before moving to London in 1936, where he met Joy Bachelor, then working as an animator and fashion artist. They formed a small studio. In 1940 they joined the J. Walter Thompson film unit making commercials; formed Halas and Batchelor; got married, and were bombed out. A truly memorable year.

With the war came the demand for propaganda films. Through an introduction by John Grierson, the documentary film maker, The Central Office of Information then hired the studio to make seventy films. Work followed from other government departments, and the studio bad as much work as it could cope with. The company expanded fast, and became the largest animation studio in the UK, and remained so up until the 1980s.

John’s real strength was as an organiser. He had inexhaustible energy, and was travelling the world producing, and involving himself in film projects up to a few months before his death. As a founder member, and for many years the President of ASIFA, the International Animation Organisation, he promoted animation around the world. With his interest in graphics as a key element in the art of animation, John involved himself with the International Design Association ICOGRADA of which he was President for some time. He was Chairman of the British Federation of Film Societies, and Honorary member of the British Kinematographic Society. For some years he held these posts concurrently as well as being a full time producer.

He was a prolific writer on animation, producing hundreds of articles. A regular contributor to Graphis, Novum, and several animation magazines. He edited and collaborated on many animation books including “Art in Movement”, “Computer Animation”, “Visual Scripting”, and many more that form the essential library of animation students. He also produced a series of video interviews with leading international animators, so preserving a heritage that might have been lost. Over and above this he involved himself in the organising of conferences, festivals, and training schemes.

On a personal level, he had an old world central European charm. In spite of living in the UK for nearly sixty years, he still retained a strong Hungarian accent. Such Goldwynisms as, “To put it in a short nutshell”, and ‘We are neck to neck”, were also his trademark. His friends extended to every branch of the film, music, and art world. Dinners at his beautiful Hampstead house would bring together illustrious names and unknown talents. Many animators made essential contacts for their careers through such meetings.

He could at times show aspects of eccentric meanness and extreme generosity. He had peg bars and paper made in a non-standard size so no-one would take them. A saving at most of a few pounds, yet for many years he funded the UK ASIFA office at his own expense, which must have cost thousands.

The true legacy of John Halas was his insight into how animation could be used. He saw animation as a documentary and teaching medium well beyond the bounds of cute entertainment. He advised the UN on using animation as a universal language for third world countries. He also saw how animation could be developed with new technology. His studio experimented with holography, 3D systems, computer animation, Xeroxed drawings, and a whole range of new techniques and styles well before their general acceptance by the industry as a whole.

Twenty years ago he was saying, “Computers will give us the art of the future”. His studio was the first to use computers for regular animation. His book, “Computer Animation” was the first on the subject here, and he helped promote the concepts in this field. At the time such ideas were not considered feasible and often derided, yet as this Century closes the techniques of animation have become the basis for computer games, scientific simulation, virtual reality, and the like. And it is animators who produce much of this work.

Perhaps the most important legacy of John Halas was his vision and his ambassadorial spirit of collaboration. The international network he created is now an essential part of the animation industry, and adheres to his philosophy of animation as the “universal language” capable of resolving problems of communication that other means failed to realise. He certainly achieved his ‘Grand Idea’.

John Halas was awarded the OBE in 1972, and the Pro Cultura Hungaricus in 1992. He leaves his daughter Vivien, son Paul, and four grandchildren.

Tribute by Stan Hayward who worked with John on over forty films.

Printed in Animator Issue 32 (Spring 1995)