We’ve talked previously on this blog about the influence of cartoonist/animation pioneer Winsor McCay, but I’m going to mention it again (and again and again and again), as it would be nearly impossible to overstate his importance in promoting animation as a viable artistic medium. Films like Little Nemo (1911) and Gertie the Dinosaur (1914) directly inspired countless young artists and cartoonists to try their hand at making their static pictures “move” onscreen. An entire industry was born off the scaly back of McCay prehistoric creation–an industry that, much to McCay’s chagrin, quickly became a highly commercialized one, one that remains to this day a huge moneymaker, inviting both inventive creations and hasty, ill-conceived attempts to capitalize on children’s short attention spans and rake in the dough.
Even in its infancy, animation lured those with dollar signs in their eyes, men who perhaps cared less about making an artistic statement and more about churning out multiple reels of crude entertainment every week. John Randolph Bray, a contemporary of McCay’s, has such a reputation in the annals of animation history. The man who has been referred to as the “Henry Ford of animation” was instrumental in forming the production model that still serves as the basis for the industry today. But for all his undeniably important contributions to the growth of animation as a cinematic form, Bray also demonstrated a famously litigious nature (he was almost Thomas Edison-like in his attempts to corner patents for the animation process) and a sometimes heavy-handed rule of the animation studio that bore his name. The result is a series of conflicting portraits of Bray, ranging from the reverent to the disdainful, depending upon the source.
Like McCay, Bray started out in journalism and eventually created his own weekly comic strip, Little Johnny and His Teddy Bears, which capitalized on the fervor for the stuffed toy in the wake of Theodore Roosevelt’s presidency. The strip debuted in 1907, and several years later, Bray was inspired to try his hand at animating Teddy Bears. He was likely inspired by a similar short, the 1907 Edwin S. Porter release The “Teddy” Bears, which largely used puppetry to portray a satirical animated recreation of Goldilocks and the Three Bears. But Bray, unfamiliar with the process involved in transferring action to the screen, was unhappy with his own results and scrapped the project.
By 1913, in the wake of McCay’s success with Little Nemo and another short, How a Mosquito Operates, Bray was ready to give animation another try. Building off McCay’s model, Bray produced The Artist’s Dream, a live-action/animation combo in which Bray stars with a ravenous animated dachshund.
This relatively simple short led Bray to develop several innovations that would greatly impact the work of future animators. When Bray signed a deal with Pathé to distribute The Artist’s Dream, the company expressed an interest in distributing even more animated shorts. An eager Bray set to work figuring out a way in which he could meet the demand without collapsing from sheer exhaustion. Up until this point in time, animators typically would complete their shorts entirely by hand (sometimes with assistance, sometimes without), drawing and redrawing each individual frame, a process that added up to hundreds upon hundreds of drawings. Bray soon realized that by delegating work to other artists–essentially dividing the production of each cartoon into several different units who could work concurrently on multiple shorts–he could greatly streamline production, saving time and money.
His most important innovation, however, was born out of Bray’s decision to print the backgrounds as opposed to animating them by hand on each frame. Originally, Bray had the backgrounds–which were little more than simple zinc drawings–printed onto many individual sheets of paper with a blank space remaining in which the animated action would then be depicted. This allowed for a certain uniformity from shot to shot as opposed to the sometimes wavy or fuzzy backgrounds in earlier cartoons. In later years, when Bray began working with fellow animator Earl Hurd, the two of them collaborated on the creation of the cel animation process, which took Bray’s initial idea a step further by having the backgrounds reproduced on celluloid, which then allowed images to be layered over the background images, creating a more seamless sense of movement in a solid setting. Bray and Hurd patented their process in 1915, and it remained the standard for hand-drawn animation for decades.
In 1914, Bray founded and incorporated one of the first full-fledged animation studios in Hollywood, Bray Productions. As the studio grew, Bray stopped animating and took on the responsibilities of running the studio full-time, adeptly managing promotions, marketing, and distribution of his shorts. By some accounts, Bray ruled with the proverbial iron fist, reportedly taking credit for work that his employees actually completed and even attempting to patent ideas that were not his own. [In fact, Bray attempted to patent practically every aspect of the animation process, even techniques that his predecessors like McCay had utilized for years before Bray ever animated his first frame. He sued anyone he thought had violated his patents–including McCay–until the patents expired in 1932.] Bray was largely responsible for animation becoming a formalized industry, and he played the part of big businessman well, separating himself physically and mentally from his employees and creating a stratification that separated the workers from the “front office.” He was, by some accounts, standoffish and cold, with a highly superior demeanor that was rather off-putting to some in his employ.
Bray’s wife, Margaret Till Bray–a successful businesswoman in her own right who also managed her own real-estate company while working alongside her husband–was instrumental in helping Bray run the new studio. She was given the title of production manager, which in actuality meant that she was little more than a glorified babysitter at times, as it was her responsibility to corral the animators on staff and ensure that they were meeting deadlines. She was well-suited to the position; like her husband, Margaret Bray was a no-nonsense type of personality who frowned upon wastefulness. When she realized that the animators would leave the studio on Friday, paychecks in hand, and spend the weekend blowing their money on booze and women before stumbling back to work late the next week, she changed payday to Monday to facilitate more productivity. She was also one of the strictest enforcers of Bray’s animation patents, encouraging him to pursue any perceived violation without delay.
In the studio’s heyday–from the mid-1910s through the early 1920s–Bray Productions released hundreds of animated shorts, and brought a number of popular series to theaters. The first series released under the new Bray Productions banner was Colonel Heeza Liar, who initially debuted in the 1913 cartoon Colonel Heeza Liar in Africa. The Heeza Liar shorts are notable for being the first animated series starring a recurring character, the titular big-game hunter/boastful Teddy Roosevelt caricature. The first cartoon was intended to be a parody of Paul J. Rainey’s African Hunt, a hugely popular 1912 documentary-type film that followed the titular hunter on safari, as he spent time with some native tribes and slaughtered more than his fair share of exotic creatures. The animated short’s success led to a series of nearly five dozen Heeza Liar cartoons, which followed the Colonel’s “daredevil” adventures around the world.
In 1915, Hurd began animating the studio’s second recurring character, a mischievous young boy named Bobby Bumps (some modern-day animation scholars refer to Bobby as the “Bart Simpson” of the 1910s). Young Bobby was not an entirely new creation–he was based, in part, on a character Hurd had created for another comic strip earlier in the decade. The Bobby Bumps shorts were the first to be wholly created using Bray and Hurd’s patented cel process. The series was popular from the start, and remained one of Bray Production’s biggest draws from his debut until 1919, when Hurd left Bray’s employ. Afterwards, Hurd animated only a couple of Bobby’s adventures each year (for other distributors) before the series came to a close in 1925.
When William Randolph Heart’s animation studio, International Film Service (founded the year after Bray’s studio), folded in 1918, its many popular series like Krazy Kat and Jerry on the Job were left virtually homeless. A year later, Hearst allowed Bray to license certain IFS properties to be released under the Bray Productions banner. In the process, Bray inherited Gregory La Cava, who had directed many of the cartoons for Hearst’s company; La Cava, who would later become an influential, Oscar-nominated film director in the 1930s, continued to direct some animated shorts for Bray for a couple of years before leaving animation altogether.
Bray may not have been an ideal boss, but he was singularly proficient in drawing talented artists into his crew. Bray’s studio, at one point or another, hired some of the most famous names in classic animation, many of whom got their start there: Walter Lantz (creator of Woody Woodpecker), Paul Terry (of “Terrytoons” fame), Max and Dave Fleischer (Betty Boop, Popeye, Superman), Grim Natwick (the “father” of Ms. Boop), and early Disney animator Burt Gillett, among others. Some of these artists even created their own indelible characters while under the auspices of Bray Productions–for instance, the Fleischers’ innovative Out of the Inkwell series, which ultimately ran for more than a decade, spent its first two years as a Bray production before the Fleischers opened their own studio, and Terry’s Farmer Al Falfa was created during the brief period in which the animator worked under Bray (Terry, unhappy working for the studio, barely lasted a year before striking off on his own. He and Bray subsequently spent years in court, as Bray alleged that Terry’s own studio, Fables Pictures, regularly violated Bray’s cel patent).
Conflicting accounts of Bray’s life and career indicate that the idea of Bray as the prototypical soulless businessman may or may not have been blown out of proportion over the years. History is subjective, dependent on memory, and Bray is remembered almost equally as a gallant pioneer of a new industry and a tyrant who stifled artistic intent. Still, there is little doubt that Bray began his career as a creative artist in his own right (if his early cartoons are any indication) and came to know his craft well. Nor is there any question that Bray was intent on improving upon the creative process so as to bring animation–and lots of it–to the masses. In many ways, it seems Bray set the stage for Walt Disney’s ascension and eventual stranglehold on the animation business in subsequent decades; at the very least, like Bray, Disney’s personal reputation is a veritable grab bag of both good and bad recollections, told by friends and foes, supporters and detractors alike. In the end, though, perceptions of his behavior and business practices are extraneous–what’s important is that animation, as it exists to this day on screens both big and small, owes an immeasurable debt to the work of John Randolph Bray.
Bachman, Gregg and Thomas J. Slater, eds. American Silent Film: Discovering Marginalized Voices. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 2002.
Crafton, Donald. Before Mickey: The Animated Film, 1898-1928. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1982.
Sito, Tom. Drawing the Line: The Untold Story of the Animation Unions from Bosko to Bart Simpson. Lexington: The University Press of Kentucky, 2006.
Stathes, Thomas J. The Bray Animation Project. 1 June 2011. Web.