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Comic strip artist Winsor McCay receives the lion's share credit for innovating animation in America, but other early pioneers also contributed to its art and industry. Illustrator and cartoonist John Randolph Bray, a peer of McCay's, gave animation a commercial direction by devising means and methods to eliminate the need for thousands of individual drawings for each cartoon.
Bray became interested in animation when he saw Edwin S. Porter's The Teddy Bears, which used stop-motion to make toy bears walk and move. The creator of a comic strip featuring teddy bears, Bray believed his characters were good candidates for animation. Around 1911, he caught McCay and his animated version of Little Nemo as part of a vaudeville act in a theater, which further fueled his interest. By 1913, Bray had founded his own studio in New York City, which, not long after, would become the center of animation in America.
McCay and fellow pioneer Emile Cohl saw animation as a craft and themselves as artisans; they took a certain amount of pride in the number of drawings necessary for an animated short. However, Bray believed that creating a huge number of drawn images for each animation was an economic liability because of the time and labor involved. From the beginning, he sought to reduce the amount of drawings needed for each cartoon. For his first completed cartoon, The Artist's Dreams (1913), instead of retracing the same background over and over, he printed the background onto hundreds of sheets of tracing paper via a photo-reproduction process. The centers were left blank for the moving elements, and cross marks were added for correct registration. Later, he and animator Earl Hurd patented a process in which a single background image was used for each scene. Transparent pieces of celluloid, or cels, were laid one at a time on top of the stationary background image. The artist drew the moving parts of the characters or objects onto the transparent cels. The combined image was then photographed. Though the two animators shared this patent, Hurd was an employee at the Bray Studios, not a partner. Bray and his wife were relentless and ruthless in securing and maintaining any patents that would speed up the animation process.
Bray also understood the value of the division of labor to save time. The portions of the characters or objects that needed to move were drawn by artists; the portions that remained static were retraced by assistants. He also thought to double or triple the exposure time of each drawing in order to manipulate the speed of the movement or to stretch screen time while using fewer drawings.
Over the years, Bray sought better and better deals for the distribution of his cartoons, moving from Pathe to Paramount to Samuel Goldwyn. He never ceased to expand his enterprises, and during World War I, he struck a deal with the army for producing training films, including animated shorts to show how certain weapons and equipment operated. His work for the military revealed the value of film as an educational tool. Bray's studio became a leader in producing film and animation for the government, educational institutions, and corporations. By this time, Bray had lost interest in working as an animator, preferring to run the front office to steer his company forward. However, he was responsible for hiring some of the best animators in cinema history, many of whom went on to become legends in film and television.
Ironically, while some of his former employees ended up in the history books, Bray and his studio are underrepresented. Part of the reason is because his animated series suffered from distribution problems in later years. Only recently has his name and contributions to the animation industry been recovered and reassessed.
The Artist's Dreams (1913)
In Bray's first completed foray into animation, live action and cartoon are combined in the tradition begun by Winsor McCay with Gertie the Dinosaur. Bray plays Charles Heckler, an artist who is shown drawing a chest of drawers with a huge sausage on top of it. A cartoon dog sits nearby. When the artist goes off to a party, the dog comes to life, opens the drawers one at a time, and climbs up the chest to grab the sausage. The artist returns only to discover that part of his drawing is missing. Puzzled, he redraws the sausage, but when he leaves the room again, it, too, disappears. The joke is repeated until the consequences become dire. For this cartoon short, Bray streamlined the painstaking process of hand-drawing hundreds of individual illustrations by reproducing the basic background image onto a zinc plate, inking it, and printing dozens of copies.
Director: John Randolph Bray
Cast: John Randolph Bray, Margaret Bray
Additional Animators: Raoul Barre, W.L. Glackens
How Animated Cartoons Are Made (1919)
Influenced by the how-to films and animations that Bray's studio did for the military, this short uses humor to explain the process of creating a cartoon. Combining live action and cartoon, animator Wallace Carlson serves as host, communicating to the viewer via intertitles. Carlson doodles at his artist's table, explaining that he needs story approval from the boss. Knocking on a door labeled J.R. Bray, Carlson enters cautiously, only to be tossed out in a huff. As part of the joke, Carlson downplays the rejection, noting that Bray said, "It's great. Needs a little refinement." From drawing backgrounds to animating the figures to photographing each drawing, he deadpans his way through the process. The final comic bit involves screening the completed cartoon for his peers, who offer their "constructive" criticism.
Director: Wallace Carlson
Cast: Wallace Carlson
Farmer Al Falfa Sees New York (1916)
Paul Terry, who later founded the animation studio Terrytoons and originated the characters Heckle and Jeckle and Mighty Mouse, developed a series for Bray Studios titled Farmer Al Falfa. The character was a version of the old man archetype, generally a bearded, elderly gent who is spry and feisty for his age. Al Falfa was further characterized as a rube, another popular archetype of the day, particularly in vaudeville. In this short, Al Falfa travels to the big city where is conned, drugged, and roped into a crooked card game.
Director: Paul Terry
Screenplay: Paul Terry
A Fitting Gift (1920)
Judge Rummy and his pal Silk Hat Harry decide to buy a girdle as a gift for the Judge's wife, but the Judge becomes embarrassed once inside the dress shop. He disguises himself as a woman but this inside perspective does not make the task any easier. The unusual premise is made more bizarre because the Judge and Harry are anthropomorphized dogs. A short-lived series for Bray Studios, the Judge Rummy cartoons were based on characters created by Thomas A. "Tad" Dorgan, whose comic strip ran in the Hearst newspapers. The strip had been turned into a cartoon series, which was also taken over by Bray in 1920. The strip and cartoon series represented an early example of domestic comedy, with the series a forerunner to radio and television sit-coms.
The Best Mouse Loses (1920)
Part of the Krazy Kat series, this cartoon focuses on Ignatz the Mouse as he enters a boxing match. He plans to throw the fight, bet against himself, and win a lot of money. Krazy Kat, who does not know the plan, conspires to help him win the match. Another series taken over from Hearst in 1920, Krazy Kat was animated by Vernon Stallings.
Director: Vernon Stallings
Colonel Heeza Liar, Detective (1923)
The Colonel was created by J.R. Bray himself and became his studio's first bankable character. Another example of the old man archetype, the character was originally a gruff, aggressive gent patterned after Teddy Roosevelt. However, the character changed over the years depending on who was drawing him. By the 1920s, Walter Lantz and Vernon Stallings, who alternated animating this series, had turned him into a kind-of buffoon.
Director: Vernon Stallings
Screenplay: Vernon Stallings
Bobby Bumps' Pup Gets the Flea-enza (1919)
Another example of the mischievous boy archetype, Bobby Bumps was created and animated by Earl Hurd. The title of this cartoon, which was produced during Hurd's last year with Bray's studios, is a take-off on "influenza," a word in everyone's vocabulary because of the deadly Spanish flu epidemic of 1918-1919. A Boy-Scout type who was well behaved and full of homespun humor, Bobby interacted with his African American friend Choc'late and his pal Fido. The Bobby Bumps series was an influence on Walt Disney.
Director: Earl Hurd
Screenplay: Earl Hurd
The Circus (1920)
Koko the Clown tries to train Napoleon the circus horse, but this old nag just ain't what he used to be. In fact, he's such a disgrace that he can't even die - horse heaven won't let him in. (synopsis provided by David Gerstein)
Dinky Doodle in the Lost and Found (1926)
Walter Lantz created and animated the Dinky Doodle series. A boy and his dog series, Dinky Doodle was influenced by Lantz's experiences with Jerry on the Job. Using fairy-tale scenarios, Lantz combined live action and animation by appearing onscreen with his character and his trusty canine companion, Weakheart the Mutt.
Director: Walter Lantz
Screenplay: Walter Lantz
Other Animators: Clyde Geronimi
The Tale of the Wag (1920)
When railroad boss Mr. Givney needs a pesky mosquito exterminated, Jerry is on the job. But Jerry's efforts bug Givney more than the bug. (synopsis provided by David Gerstein)
By Susan Doll, additional synopses provided by David Gerstein
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