British Animation Icon John Coates Dies at 85

We are saddened by the news that beloved British animator John Coates, the man behind such revered projects such as The Beatles’ Yellow Submarine and the Oscar-nominated special The Snowman, passed away of cancer on Sunday in his home in Longfield, Kent, in the U.K. He was 85.

According to The Guardian, Coates had been working on the sequel to The Snowman three days a week with some of the original production team in a studio in London until he suddenly became too ill to travel. Channel 4 will air the sequel, titled The Snowman and the Snowdog, this Christmas.

The charming and influential Coates co-founded TVC in London with George Dunning in 1957, after serving as an army officer in WWII and working as a distributor for Rank films throughout Asia. Upon his return to England, he and Dunning set up TVC in London and began producing highly regarded animated fare such as The Snowman (1982), the lovely and poignant hand-crafted Christmas tale of the friendship between a boy and his snowman (directed by Dianne Jackson and Jimmy Murakami) which won the BAFTA for Best Children’s Drama and received an Oscar nomination for Best Animated Short in 1983.

The Beatles’ Yellow Submarine
The Beatles’ Yellow Submarine

Throughout a career that spanned four decades, Coates created some of the best-regarded English animated film and TV projects. Among his numerous projects were the “Soft Landing” segment of the 1981 anthology Heavy Metal, David Macaulay: Castle (1983), Jimmy Murakami’s When the Wind Blows (1986), Father Christmas (1991), The World of Peter Rabbit and Friends (series producer 1992-1995), The Wind in the Willows (1995), Famous Fred (1996), The Willows in Winter (1996), The Bear (1998) and The Tale of Jack Frost (2004). He also served as production supervisor on the 1979 BBC miniseries adaptation of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe.

The Snowman
The Snowman

Those who were lucky enough to know Coates will always remember his gentle humor, his love of life and his pleasant demeanor. In this wonderful piece published which was originally in U.K.’s Independent in 2007, author and illustrator Raymond Briggs (The Snowman, Father Christmas, Fungus the Bogeyman, The Bear) writes about the first time he met Coates and discusses their long-time friendship:

The Wind in the Willows / The Willows in Winter
The Wind in the Willows / The Willows in Winter

“I think one of my first dealings with John was when he phoned me up and said, “We’re thinking of having the Snowman characters fly to Brighton Pier, then to the North Pole to meet Father Christmas.” I said, “Oh, must you really? It’s so corny.” But it turned out he was right; it worked well. The problem was that children’s books are a set number of pages and this film had to be 26 minutes, so they had to extend it and think up things such as the Snowman’s party scene and the scene featuring Father Christmas. It’s no good the author saying that it’s no good, it’s not in the book it’s got to be good, as they need to extend it. And I have to say they did so extremely well. You can’t imagine the amount of work involved, with all these people scratching away for weeks.”

“One my other earliest memories of John and The Snowman was going into the studio at TVC in a great room and it was lined from edge to edge and floor to ceiling with the storyboard. Every scene was hand-drawn Snowman turns, Snowman raises hat, and so on. Three seconds raising his left foot, all timed to the second. I was so impressed by the enormity of the task, and that was just clocking the storyboard; there were a million frames in between each of those pictures. What was good was that they kept the technique I used in the book, which was crayon very laborious. I’ve never done it but I think they had to turn over the cell and scribble on the back. You can’t just paint it in as Disney might. That was amazing.”

“John is a great lunching man. Not just with me, but with everybody under the sun. He comes down to see me and we go to this restaurant often where they don’t like to let him go before 4 p.m. because he’s spending money, I suppose.”

“He’s the most genial man I have ever met; I’m always grumpy and miserable by nature but he is happy and positive that’s why he looks so good at 80. He has a tremendously laid-back, happy, easy-going approach it amazes me how someone with that temperament can run such a brilliant business. You think all these people are hard-nosed businessmen, but he’s not remotely like that. He can have a three- or four-hour lunch and that is supposed to be a business meeting. He doesn’t hassle people or push them around, and he gets the best out of them.”

Here’s the famous “Walking in the Air” clip from The Snowman.

You can also listen to Coates in this wonderful piece, in which he discusses his favorite movies:

We are all grateful to John, for giving the world so many precious, animated memories. Please feel free to share your own Coates’ remembrances or tributes with the rest of our readers here.

John Coates
John Coates


  1. Alas, I did not personally know John, but my favorite memory of his work is curling up with my wife and young son Ben every Christmas and crying happily as we watch The Snowman. Now that Ben is 17, and an animator like myself, we curl up with a much different idea: to watch The Snowman clinically, dispassionately, in an attempt to study the timing and animation. Seconds in, our mission is scuttled and we’re hooked, with Alison, Ben and myself reduced to happy tears. And that becomes our lesson. That somewhere in that math, the thousands of cels, the crayons and ink and paint, the timing sheets…emerges something that only the heart can create. There is LOVE in every frame. Bless you John.
    – Jim Wickey
    The Brewer Brothers
    Vistavox Entertainment

  2. John loved animation. He delighted in seeing bits of paper with exquisite line drawings scattered around the studio. He consistently produced beautiful, hand crafted, innovative animation films with a team of people he respected and admired and knew by name. He was the glue that bound us all together when the schedule was too tight, when the budget was too low, when the odds were against us. He was the first to encourage, the first to inspire and the last to dictate. The films from TVC glow with pride. They dance with happiness. They breathe in and out with freshness and creative integrity and they continue to live on through the generations. They carry the indelible stamp of their Producer John Coates ……….. I’ll miss you John x
    – Claire Jennings
    Independent Animation Producer and expert luncher! 

    • This is a marvellous and moving tribute, Claire. 

      I’m glad I got to properly meet John last Christmas at the “Snowman and the Snowdog” lunch given by Lupus. After the usual numerous glasses of wine, he gave three of us a lift into the West End – slightly hair-raising [if I had any left to raise].John will be missed by all who knew and worked with him.

  3. Having worked for John at TVC for a couple of years in the early 1970s am saddened to learn of his passing. John was a great guy & a very fair employer. Always gave encouragement & was calmness personified. Would often walk in and (whether environment of calmness or mayhem) then calmly & somewhat amusingly ask ‘now what IS going on here’? Knew how to run a happy ship!  RIP John, you will be missed by many.   Chris Nappi

  4. I first met John at the  launch of his biographyThe Man who Built the Snowman last September  written by my daughter Marie who has known John over 10  years after meeting him on a plane coming back from animation conference. I   found him to be a real gentleman. I am sad that I only knew him for a short time and so are my family who came to the launch with me.  Incidentally John wrote his own epilogue in  the book.


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