The impact of the cold war and the shady role of the United States's Central Intelligence Agency in the production of Animal Farm, Britain's first feature-length animated film, was discussed by academics this week at Southampton Institute as part of a celebration of 100 years of British animation.
At the conference, held at the institute's International Animation Research Archive, Tony Shaw of Hertfordshire University will reveal new evidence that confirms the hand of the CIA in the making of Animal Farm.
Begun in 1951 and completed in 1954, the film was made by John Halas and Joy Batchelor against the backdrop of the cold war and based on George Orwell's famous book, published in 1945.
Making the film was the idea of US film producer Louis de Rochemont, who was connected to the Campaign for Cultural Freedom, a body financed by the CIA to disseminate and support the Western point of view during the cold war. Dr Shaw, a political historian, has uncovered explicit documentation of the involvement of a CIA offshoot called the Psychological Strategy Board in the film's making.
The involvement of the CIA ensured differences between the book and film. Most significant is the ending. In the book, the pigs, having initially led the rebellion against their human masters, become the new elite and behave just like their old masters; the other animals can only look on in despair. "The book ends on a pessimistic note, but the film shows the animals rebelling, overturning the pigs in a counter-revolution. And this is what the CIA wanted to encourage in the Soviet Union and its satellites," Dr Shaw says.
Halas and Batchelor were the pre-eminent animators of their time in Britain. Their work helped lay the foundation for the success of British animation today through the work of animators such as Oscar-winner Nick Park and Daniel Greaves. John Southall, research fellow at the Southampton archive, said there has been an "explosion" of animation talent in the past few years.
Part of success of young animators is due to television, in particular Channel 4, showing short films, a vital starting point in a business that often takes them to Hollywood. "The animation industry here cannot support a high level of employment. And long features are really the remit of big studios that are able to finance long-term projects. In Britain, the newer companies work to short-term contracts because that is all they can afford to do. It can be a shock to students."
Despite that, Mr Southall says there is as much to admire in well-made animation shorts. "Feature films are actually a minority of the work that is done in the industry. By comparison, the volume of animated commercials and shorts is far greater and is technically, creatively and conceptually as demanding as full features."