A Brief But Fascinating History Of London's Animation Studios

By Londonist Last edited 8 months ago
A Brief But Fascinating History Of London's Animation Studios

From the pioneering and downright weird, to household classics: London has a rich history of creating animated films. Jez Stewart, Animation Curator at the BFI National Archive, seeks out the studios behind them.

The Snowman was made on Charlotte Street, central London

While British animation truly is a regional story — think Cosgrove Hall in Manchester, Sirol in Cardiff and Aardman in Bristol — the heart of its industry has always been London. Even the briefest of walks through the capital's West End leads you past the ghosts of 12 decades of history for our screen entertainment industry, and animation has long been a part of that.

It's possible to start pinpointing locations back as far as the 1910s, when Kine Komedy Kartoons produced episodes of John Bull's Animated Sketchbook from 66 Shaftesbury Avenue during the first world war. The second world war was actually a spur to clear out some of the studios to the English regions, with the Cotswold town of Stroud proving an unlikely outreach of the industry into the 1970s. Freelancing and the more recent ability to collaborate online have added to the exodus, but the eyes of the industry still look to London and many of its leading companies continue to make it their home.

Here are some of the more significant locations of London's animation history, and some of the films made there.

Halas & Batchelor, 10A Soho Square

The Hungarian John Halas and the Watford-born Joy Batchelor started their animation company in 1940 under the wing of the J Walter Thompson advertising agency in Bush House, Aldwych. Their services were called up by the Ministry of Information to make cartoon propaganda shorts, which were seen as essential enough to the war effort that the studio was briefly moved to the far suburbs of Bushey to escape the Blitz.

By 1944 they had found a new home in leafy Soho Square, at number 10A where they remained for two decades. In the post-war period they continued to make government-backed shorts like A Modern Guide to Health (1947) but they came to prominence with their 1954 version of George Orwell's Animal Farm — Britain's first animated feature film. The expansion required to make a film of that scale led to them spilling out to Paddington and beyond, but Soho Square remained an animation centre. Who Framed Roger Rabbit (1988) animation director Richard Williams had a studio at 13 Soho Square for many years.

Larkins Studio, 51 Charles Street, Mayfair

William "Bill" Larkins was born in Bow to a family of steeplejacks. He studied etching at Goldsmith's but then moved into advertising, building a reputation as a package designer (including the first box of Black Magic chocolates). He used the war to move into animation producing aircraft training films, but had little to do with the studio that bore his name in the post-war period.

The Larkins Studio made its home at 51 Charles Street in Mayfair, occupying the four main floors but also spilling backwards through a basement that went underneath a rear yard, before climbing back-up again through a building known as 'The Cottage' on Hay's Mews. Under the influence of the German art director Peter Sachs they produced a string of visually innovative sponsored shorts, with Balance 1950 (1951) a typically distinctive example. Few companies could make the annual accounts of an industrial conglomerate such a visual pleasure.  

Biographic Cartoon Films, 90 Dean Street

Roobarb (1974) and Henry's Cat (1983-1993) animator Bob Godfrey began his career at the Larkins Studio working on background art. The start of commercial television in 1955 enabled him to break away and set up Biographic Cartoon Films with Keith Learner; initially above a jeweller's shop on Noel Street (since demolished, and now the site of the post-production company Framestore). Despite their minimal means, their lo-fi, offbeat approach quickly brought success and expansion.

In 1957 they were able to move to the roomier environs of 90 Dean Street, bringing in the fellow Larkins alumni Vera Linnecar and Nancy Hanna to bolster the team. In 1965 Bob decided to break out on his own, and moved to nearby Wardour Street to establish Bob Godfrey Films, but the remaining trio continued Biographic into the early 1980s when their remarkably generous fixed rent lease ran out. The Plain Man’s Guide to Advertising (1962) is a great document of the fun and creative freedoms the Dean Street premises allowed them.

TV Cartoons, 38 Dean Street

Canadian-born George Dunning made his journey to London via New York, where he worked at an east coast studio of the celebrated United Productions of America. UPA very briefly set-up a London operation to make TV ads in the mid-1950s and George Dunning was brought across as a key creative. When UPA retreated, George stayed and set up TV Cartoons with producer John Coates at 38 Dean Street, which quickly became one of Britain's leading animation companies.

In the 1960s they produced a cartoon series based on The Beatles for American television, and this led to their most famous commission to make Yellow Submarine (1968) directed by Dunning at Dean Street. Though this will always be his best known work, his series of independent short films is the true testimony of his genius, with Damon the Mower (1972) perhaps the high watermark. After George's death in 1979, John moved the company to 70 Charlotte Street where perennial classics like The Snowman (1982) were made.

Drawn from both the BFI National Archive and Regional and National Film Archive Partners across the UK, Animated Britain is a new online collection of over 300 films, surveying a stunningly rich century-long history of British animation, made available for free via BFI Player, sitting squarely at the centre of a year-long BFI-wide focus on animation in venue, online and on release.

Last Updated 01 March 2018