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.
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.