John Halas Profile – Page 4

Scenes from Light of the World.

This project is the commencement of a life-long ambition for John Halas, and he is to be congratulated on the successful integration of conventional animation, diagrammatic stylisation, and computer generated visuals. My only criticism is of the scriptwriters. Faced with the monumental task of presenting a large part of the Bible in just half-an-hour while retaining ‘the word’ and the underlying message, they have ill-advisedly included an overlong circus parade. The intent may be well-founded, but the sequence jars in an otherwise reverent exposition.

Many of our top exponents of animation began their careers with H & B Cartoon Films. While it is unfair to spotlight one to the exclusion of all others, John draws attention to Tony Guy whose outstanding character work in Birds and Bees recommended him to Joy Batchelor who needed an experienced animator to work on Ruddigore. Birds and Bees was voted the best animated film in America, beating Disney at his own game. Tony was responsible for the character ammation and choreography of movement, which did not go unnoticed by Mark Rosen who later engaged him as animation director for Watership Down and Plague Dogs. Tony originally came to Halas & Batchelor’s from the Anson Dyer studio based in Stroud, Gloucester.

Back in the Fifties, a delegation of three:

Scenes from Moholy Nagy.

Len Kirley, Sid Griffiths and Harold Whitaker came to John and begged him to buy out Anson Dyer, but John did not want the Dyer studios lock, stock and barrel. The timing, however, could not have been bettered. Animal Farm had been broached as a potential feature production and so Halas brought into his organisation about a dozen of Dyer’s staff. Although he could not speak too highly of the three key members skill and expertise, in general the transition from one studio to another was not an instant success. Dyer’s technique was too Disney-like with its dependency on circles as a base. Timing, delineation and characterisation tended to be so standard that one character appeared to be very much like another. John was looking for something quite different for Orwell’s powerful story, something which called for a completely fresh approach. The individual had to subject himself and herself to a re-appraisal of their abilities and a sharpening of their technique. Some took longer than others. Nevertheless, the acquisition of this new blood was distinctly opportune and the Stroud unit survived the course with flying colours. Under the leadership of Harold Whitaker the little group went from strength to strength eventually providing 40 – 50% of H & B’s output, while all the time training a succession of new artists. One of Harold’s strongest attributes has been his ability to pass on his own expertise and to uncover and develop latent powers in his young admirers. John is genuinely proud of Harold’s achievements.

Now all of that is in the past. With his faithful secretary, Pat Webb, at his side he is a ‘company of one’, sub-contracting only as and when the need arises. He is still seeking to widen the frontiers of animation. I have drawn attention to his personal interest in a computer-generated-animation studio abroad and his readiness to use such output
in his current films. Lecturing to the British Kinematograph, Sound & Television Society in 1972 on the then emerging technique of computer animation, he said that up to that point there had been four different categories of animation;
1: The Disney approach;
2: The avant garde Len Lye/Oskar Fischinger style;
3: The contemporary graphic stylisation as witnessed in Yellow Submarine and in Yugoslavia’s Zegreb studios productions;
4: Of the remaining style he said, “It was developed in this country just after the war and it is likely that Joy Batchelor and myself will be accused of establishing it. It is the creation of a new category of film animation appealing primarily to an adult audience and dealing with an adult subject, such as a social situation dramatised and simplified for a mass appeal.” Shoemaker and the Hatter, Moving Spirit, Automania, and of course, Animal Farm were named as typical examples of this intellectual approach. Light of the World and his latest film on Moholy Nagy are modern day examples.

At that time his view of computer graphics went straight to the point, “Although the film itself is a scientific invention – as a recording instrument it is in itself sterile.” And so it has remained these past twenty years. In those feature films sporting animated computerised images one finds they have been primarily background details and special effects rather than characters. But we cannot hold back progress. The morrow may bring the ideal tool for the character animator. Whether the innovation will ever succeed in conveying the sensitivity, the humour and the drama found in the best of the hand-animated productions is an open question. It has already earned a place in the scheme of things and John Halas has eagerly embraced the facility, exploiting and expanding the medium.

His inventive, enquiring mind will not be stilled, and I cannot help but approve and applaud any man who refuses to accept retirement when he still has so much to offer. More grist to your elbow, John!

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Printed in Animator Issue 26 (Spring 1990)