In most books of the history of modern anmation, the name John Randolf Bray usually appears, although a search of the internet reveals no reference to this famous pioneer. In the books there is a brief reference to his popular "Colonel Heeza Liar" series and his cel process patents (with Earl Hurd). This meager information is bad history, for it does not do justice to a carrer that was as important to the first wide acceptance of animation as Walt Disney's career was to the "second phase" of the art's development.
A proper listing of some of J.R. Bray's accomplishments would include the first presentation of animated carttons as a practical form of entertainment and business: Bray's The Artist's Dream (or The Daschund and the Sausage) (1910), released in June 1913, became the first animated film distributed commercially in theaters. Bray's second cartoon, Col. Heeza Liar in Africa, a lampoon on ex-president Teddy Roosevelt, started a series which ran uninterrupted for about five years, was discontinued for a short time, and was then revived in 1922.
During his "experimental period" of 1913-16, J.R. Bray was granted several patents for the technical processes involved in making animated cartoons. One of the first, granted January 14, 1914, describes a method of registration using crosses printed in the upper corners of each sheet of drawing paper through which pins are inserted.
But the most important part of this patent embraced a system of drawing the background on a translucent sheet placed over character drawings, thus eliminating the need to tediously redraw the background every frame. This was a radical departure from the methods used up to that time. Bray also devised the "stationary" drawing, which uses separate sheets of a transparent substance when a moving part of the character is motionless while other parts are in motion.
Earl Hurd was granted a patent in June, 1915, for his use of a transparent (glassine paper) for his action drawings which were then placed over the background. In 1917, Bray and Hurd combined their patents and formed the Bray-Hurd Process Company. For about 17 years they issued licenses to anyone who wanted to make animated cartoons using the "cel" method they developed.
J.R. Bray produced the first commercial animated film in color: The Debut of Thomas Cat, a hand-colored film released in 1917. It attracted wide attention, but coloring frames one at a time was found to be too expensive and impractical.
Bray pioneered the use of motion pictures to aid in the training of a draft army starting in 1916. He received a citation from the Department of the Army in 1956 for "...outstanding patriotic civilian service...The impetus given the training film program by Mr. Bray constitutes a major continuing contribution to the national defence."
J.R. Bray in 1914 organized the second studio capable of producing animated cartoons in quantity. (Raoul Barre was the first to organize a studio one year earlier.) Bray Studio, Inc. closed down recently, in the seventies they were making industrial and military instructional films under the direction of J.R. Bray's grandson, Paul Bray, Jr. (Paul Bray, Sr. ran the company until his death in May, 1971.)
J.R. Bray sought out and hired several young artists who first learned the rudiments of the art of animation in Bray's studio and subsequently went on to major careers of their own in theatrical, television, and educational animated films: Max Fleischer, Paul Terry, David Hand, Shamus Culhane, and Walter Lantz.
Born in Addison, Michigan, in 1879, Bray began drawing as a youngster and in his early twenties got his first job as an artist working for the Detroit Evening News (1901). He then moved to New York where he free-lanced for a year and then took a job with The Brooklyn Eagle. After two years there, he again free-lanced, successfully contributing to Life, Puck, and Judge magazines.
Did Winsor McCay influence Bray in getting into animated film? "Oh no, I didn't know Winsor McCay was doing anything. I just got the idea that I wanted to animated cartoons for the movies. Winsor McCay never thought of that, McCay had made two cartoons, I think, before I did, and he had good animation. But he used them only in the vaudeville skit he used to do in the summertime. They didn'y have any backgrounds. He had one, finally. A diplodicus (Gertie the Dinosaur) stood on the edge of a cliff, and each movement of the diplodicus had a different drawing of the same background. He tried to trace it, you know. James Stuart Blackton had charge of a motion picture company located in Brooklyn. He photographed Winsor McCay's drawings for him, and they worked together that way." Paul Bray, Jr believes it was completely original how his grandfather came to animated film: Winsor McCay was so close in bringing out Gertie the Dinosaur to my grandfather that I don't think McCay influenced him." (From an interview by John Canemaker, 1975). Here is Bray's description of the plot of his first animated film The Artist'sDream, the 1910 cartoon that was to profoundly influence the future of animation: "I drew a picture of a dog (Bray appeared live in the film) lying on the floor along the baseboards and there was a cabinet beside him. The cabinet was about four stories high and had a plate on top. I drew this picture, drew the plate, and put a sausage in the plate, Then somebody rapped on the door, so I went out to see who it was. While I was gone, the dog came to life, stood up, and smelled the sausage. He pulled the drawers out to make steps for himself, and ate the sausage. Then he came down and by that time I came back. He heard me coming, so he lay down again in the same position." (This action is repeated two times more and the dog's stomach gets larger as he eats the extra sausages drawn by the artist each time.) "Finally the dog ate the three sausages and then he exploded! Then I woke up - it was all a dream, and that was the end of it.
"Well, it was pretty good. That was the first thing I made that I got the patents with. It was only 450 feet long. Everything was 35mm at that time. It was in 1908 or 9 that I began working on that. Then I got the cartoon ready in 1910 and had it photographed up in the Bronx. The owner of the studio said, 'If you want to get that going with the biggest concern in the business, you might take it over to Charles Pathe.'