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Animation History: John Bray and Assembly Line Animation

John Bray, the Art of Theft, and Assembly Line Animation

By Robert James, Ph.D.

Not every innovator is the kind of person you’d want to invite home to dinner to meet the family.

Take John Randolph Bray, who founded the very first animation studio in America. Robert Osborne from Turner Classic Movies has called him the “Henry Ford of American animation,” as he was the very first to organize an assembly line to mass-produce cartoons. Winsor McCay produced his animation initially by himself, then with a single assistant. But Bray realized he would never be able to turn a profit without rapidly increasing his output.

Bray also decided he needed whatever McCay was bringing to animation, so he pretended to be a reporter and interviewed McCay, then proceeded to patent the original techniques McCay had developed, in Bray’s own name. The patent was eventually rejected, but Bray went right on putting out animation product from his Bray Studios from 1913 to 1928, when he began to be outclassed and pushed out of the cartoon business by his competition, especially by a guy named Walt Disney.

Bray deserves at least partial credit for implementing one original idea: the shift from paper to celluloid as the primary material used in producing animation.

Bray also deserves credit for hiring and training an entire generation of animators, many of whom went on to far greater work elsewhere. Among those who worked at the Bray Studios were Walter Lantz, later to create Woody Woodpecker; the Fleischer Brothers, who founded their own studio, the main rival to Disney and home to Ko-Ko the Clown, Betty Boop, Popeye, and Superman; Paul Terry, who later put out Terrytoons, Heckle and Jeckle, and Mighty Mouse; and Gregory La Cava, who moved on to live action directing and made the immortal screwball comedy classic, My Man Godfrey, with William Powell and Carole Lombard. However immoral he may have been, Bray had an eye for talent.

Bray’s production began with a mixture of live action and animation now known as The Artist’s Dream (also billed as The Dachshund and the Sausage). Bray had not yet switched to cel animation, using instead multiple copies of the backgrounds, on which the animated dog was penciled directly onto the pre-drawn copies, which were then scraped to remove the conflicting part of the background. I found the piece to be amusing, as the animator keeps leaving the room; during his absence, the dog moves and devours the sausages. When the animator returns, he is puzzled to discover his drawing has changed, and has to fix it, and the cycle repeats. The ending is explosive – literally – and highly derivative of Winsor McCay’s How a Mosquito Operates. The quality of the animation is more like line drawings for children’s books than the less detailed work done later on the assembly line cartoons. Bray clearly had a gifted chief assistant, Earl Hurd, who was instrumental in moving away from paper to the use of cels for animation, which became the industry standard.

 

Hurd himself patented the process of combining translucent paper with transparent celluloid, which could then be placed on background drawings and photographed. Hurd thus combined the best of all the methods previously tried – full drawings, paper, and cels – into a faster, more efficient means of animation (another early animator, Raoul Barré, had previously used celluloid and pegs to hold the drawings in place, which also contributed to the basic methods of studio animation for the next half century).

Light boxes were also incorporated during this time period to facilitate seeing the multiple layers simultaneously and allowing the animators to become even more efficient. Hurd was hired by Bray shortly after he received his patent, which allowed Bray to run the first animation studio capable of delivering regular product. Hurd was most famous for his character Bobby Bumps, which Bray began putting out as a series.

Bobby Bumps was a Buster Brown clone about a boy and his dog who get into – and out of – trouble.  Bobby Bumps at the Circus is a typical entry in the series. Bobby and his dog pump water for an elephant, but the trainer keeps switching elephants on them – so he gets a bath. Simple stuff, with word balloons instead of the usual title cards. Mild violence, milder puns, and some slapstick are what we see – and in that, Bobby Bumps is a better predictor of most cartoons from the next century than Winsor McCay’s more charming Gertie the Dinosaur.

 

Max Fleischer and his brother Dave remain famous today for their own studio’s creations, but Max had known Bray since he was a teenager retouching photographs for Bray in the art department at the Brooklyn Daily Bugle. In 1917, Fleischer ran into Bray at Paramount – and Bray hired him for his team (Bray had a distribution contract with Paramount at the time). Fleischer had patented his own method of animation, using live action film that was shown, frame by frame, through a kind of movie-and-light box combination. The artist could then trace each individual frame for the main character, thus creating a very realistic piece of animation. Fleischer called it rotoscoping, and the method has been used occasionally ever since (in the modern era, Ralph Bakshi employed it extensively in his 1978 installment in his unfinished version of the Lord of the Rings). Dave would put on a clown suit, and Max would film him for their Out of the Inkwell series, featuring Ko-Ko the Clown and a live-action Max who would draw him on-screen. The Fleischers soon left Bray, taking Ko-Ko with them to start their own studio, but Bray had brought them their first national attention. One of the best of the series from when they were still with Bray is The Clown’s Little Brother. Winsor McCay’s influence is clear from the beginning, with the artist’s hand drawing Ko-Ko, much as McCay had illustrated the figures in his first cartoon, Little Nemo, and with the emphasis on the likeability of the main character, as with McCay and his dinosaur Gertie. Dave also interacts with the little clown as McKay had with Gertie. Ko-Ko’s little brother is coming to visit, delivered by the mailman in a package.

What’s fascinating is in the comparison between the more realistic Ko-Ko, and the less realistic kid brother, who moves much more like characters would in most future cartoons, emphasizing the impossible which animation made believable. The Fleischers would indulge in this kind of experimentation throughout their careers, which Bray helped them begin.

 

For the first decade of its existence, the Bray Studio became the industry leader, providing hundreds of animated cartoons to theaters.  Bray himself tried to wipe out any competition through lawsuits, intimidation, and cheap product. The cartoons are often more like moving comic strips than the smoother, more radical animation developed in the Twenties. The animation is crude at best. But they were everywhere, and seen by more people than almost any other animated shorts during the period. By the early Twenties, though, Bray had lost his battle to control animation in America, and driven off Earl Hurd, Max and Dave Fleischer, and others to studios more welcoming – and more profitable. While his output continued for a few more years, his influence practically disappeared.

Sometimes, people do get what they deserve.

Bray eventually turned away from animation into educational shorts – and we all know how thrilling those were back in high school! He spent the rest of his long life producing those shorts until 1963, while the studio itself stayed open almost up until his death in 1978 at the age of 99.


Suggested Reading:

Michael Barrier, Hollywood Cartoons: American Animation in its Golden Age. Oxford University Press, 1999.

Donald Crafton, Before Mickey: The Animated Film, 1898-1928, Reprint Edition, University of Chicago Press, 1993.

Denis Gifford, American Animated Films: The Silent Era, 1897-1929, McFarland, 1990.

Leonard Maltin, Of Mice and Magic: A History of American Animated Cartoons, Revised and Updated Version, Penguin, 1990.

Animation History: Winsor McCay and Gertie

The Father of American Animation: Winsor McCay and Gertie the Dinosaur

by Robert James, Ph.D.

So who doesn’t love dinosaurs?

For a century now, American animators have used dinosaurs to entrance the eyes and minds of audiences. As a child, the dinosaurs in Walt Disney’s Fantasia left me with a love of Igor Stravinsky’s The Rites of Spring. The tyrannosaurus rex and stegosaurus from stop-motion animator Willis O’Brien’s King Kong still thrill me every bit as much as that big ape does. O’Brien’s disciple Ray Harryhausen brought more wonderful dinosaurs to life in One Million Years B.C. and The Valley of Gwangi, which are still very impressive. I’d rather be eaten by one of Harryhausen’s creatures than by the slick CGI work in Jurassic Park.

Heck, I’d rather be eaten by Dino from The Flintstones. My children probably feel the same way about Don Bluth’s kid dinosaurs from The Land Before Time franchise.

Well, not about getting eaten by them. They’re not that enthusiastic.

Winsor McCay 1906

Winsor McCay 1906

But the father of them all, and a man who deserves to be known as the father of American animation, is Winsor McCay, whose creation Gertie the Dinosaur was the very first dinosaur to be on the big screen.

McCay was one of those enormously important innovators who create whole new art forms. As important as Walt Disney and Chuck Jones are in the history of animation as the ultimate masters of the form, McCay was the man who brought together many of the technical innovations that animators still use today, as well as being the first to create characters with whom audiences fell in love.

Granted, McCay is not the first animator, American or otherwise (James Stuart Blackton and Émile Cohl tried the form sooner). But animation historian Michael Barrier, the author of the indispensible Hollywood Cartoons, calls McCay “the first American animator of consequence” because he “made films that people wanted to see.” McCay had already been instrumental in helping to originate the comic strip in newspapers. To this day, his Little Nemo in Slumberland has to be seen to be believed in all its baroque majesty.

McCay was also famous on the vaudeville circuit, where he supplemented his income as a cartoonist by doing what are still called “chalk talks.” With a large easel and a crayon, McCay would draw caricatures of audience members, or transform one picture into another while he kept up a comic patter. One of his favorite routines was based on Shakespeare’s monologue about “The Seven Ages of Man” from As You Like It. McCay would recite the famous lines “All the world’s a stage / And all the men and women merely players” while he drew the faces of a man and a woman – and then aged the pictures until he reached the final lines. McCay was a very popular entertainer, but every vaudeville act needed a new gimmick now and then to keep things fresh.

And that’s where Gertie the Dinosaur lumbers into the picture in 1914.

Winsor McCay 1911

Winsor McCay 1911

McCay had already made a cartoon version of his famous Little Nemo in 1911, releasing it to both movie theaters and then using it in his vaudeville act. The original idea came from his son playing with flipbooks, in which a child rifles the pages of a book rapidly with his finger, thus causing the individual drawings to appear to be in motion. McCay realized the same principle could be used on separate film frames. McCay proceeded to use four thousand pieces of rice paper for his original cartoon, inventing the idea of numbering each drawing to maintain the sequencing. He mounted the rice paper on cardboard to facilitate shooting, then used a rotary machine to flip the cards so he could check the animation (another innovation, which can be seen in the short). When the black and white release proved successful, McCay then hand-tinted the frames to further reproduce the look of the original Little Nemo comic. Little Nemo is still worth watching, from the quaint ridicule that meets with McCay’s announcement that he can make pictures move to the somewhat silly behind the scenes creation of the cartoon. The animation itself only lasts about four minutes, and is largely a demonstration of stretching and squashing two of the characters at the behest of Nemo. The ending is more charming, as Nemo and the Princess are carried away in the mouth of a friendly dragon, which has become a kind of throne.

 

McCay decided to try another short for his vaudeville act the next year, going for the gross-out with How a Mosquito Operates. The mosquito is rendered with comic exaggeration, but with realistic details. McCay provides the insect with a personality and a narrative, unlike Little Nemo, which really didn’t tell a story as McCay relied on the fame of the characters and the novelty. A man tries to sleep; a mosquito enters, and proceeds to drink its fill (until the gruesome end). McCay made six thousand drawings this time; the final scene was hand-tinted in red. McCay introduced the idea of repeated cycles of animation loops, an economically necessary step for someone animating by themselves, but one which has been used ever since to cut corners. Nothing like How a Mosquito Operates had been seen before. With its success, McCay was emboldened to go all out with a new idea: Gertie the Dinosaur.

 

McCay realized that he could not produce longer, more elaborate animations without assistance, so he brought in an assistant, John A. Fitzsimmons, to draw the backgrounds. McCay then produced one of the critical techniques in animation by doing the transitional points of animation (called key frames) first, to help lay out the overall action of the cartoon. He then went back and did what is called “inbetweening” or “tweening.” In the future, animation studios would use secondary artists to do these intermediary drawings, so as to allow their master animators to focus on the creative aspects of animation. McCay also invented the use of registration marks in the corners of the paper, so as to help maintain stability of the image when the actual photography took place (the paper and marks were later replaced as an industry practice with animation cels with registration pegs to do the same stabilization more effectively). With these new tools and Fitzsimmons, McCay was able to create Gertie the Dinosaur, his most innovative, interactive, and enduring cartoon.

McCay would enter the stage, cracking a whip, and calling forth Gertie. The cartoon would then roll, and McCay would put Gertie through her various “tricks” as if she were real and he was her trainer. McCay also inserted himself into the cartoon, thus combining live action and animation (imitated by the Fleischer brothers in their Out of the Inkwell series and by Walt Disney in his Alice in Wonderland silents). The version we still have is the one released later in movie theaters, with a frame story largely cloned from the one that introduced Little Nemo three years earlier, and McCay’s patter reproduced by title cards. Walt Disney and his animators produced a loving recreation of the vaudeville version in 1955 for his television show Disneyland, with the help of McCay’s son Robert. Today, a large version of Gertie acts as an ice cream stand in Disney World. In the cartoon, Gertie eats pretty much everything she can. She’d probably eats the ice cream too. On reflection, I’d rather eat the ice cream too, than get eaten by Gertie. I’d probably give the poor thing indigestion.

 

Suggested Reading:

Michael Barrier, Hollywood Cartoons: American Animation in its Golden Age. Oxford University Press, 1999.

John Canemaker, Winsor McCay: His Life and Art (Revised ed.). Abrams Books, 2005.

Winsor McCay, The Best of Little Nemo in Slumberland. Edited by Richard Marschall. Stewart, Tabori & Chang, 1997.

Photos from Wiki Commons

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