Before There Was Disney There Was John Bray
Walt Disney takes all the credit with animation mostly because he did it better than anyone else, but he wasn’t the first. Heck, even John Bray wasn’t the first. He was, however, the first guy to submit a patent for animation on August 11, 1914.
The patent office denied Bray’s patent, opening the door for guys like Walt to clean up later, but not with patents. Disney had better animations.
Bray was a clever guy, though. Robert Osborne of Turner Classic Movies once called Bray, the “Henry Ford of American animation.”
If he meant how Ford “borrowed” the idea previously conceived by Ransom E. Olds (Oldsmobile) and made it better, then agreed. All the greatest names in history borrowed ideas or stole them if you will.
William Shakespeare is famous for stealing from his contemporaries. The prize goes to the one who can pull off those ideas best.
Bray might have been a thief of ideas in this way, but he was a determined and innovative one, as he revolutionized the ways of animation.
Bray the Thief
When Bray created his first animation in 1913, it was after he’d gilled another animator, Winsor McCay.
Bray convinced McCay that he was a reporter. He interviewed McCay, recording every detail of McCay’s process, then duplicated those processes in an assembly line format to maximize production.
He even submitted the animation process as his own idea to the patent office at the same time as he opened Bray Studios. That was in 1913 in Manhattan, New York, far from Hollywood but not the talent. We’ll come back to that.
McCay wasn’t the first animator this world had seen either. He’d borrowed a few ideas himself, but he was the first to bring together the best ideas into one method of animation.
He created three-dimensional characters with his animations, like the most famous one, Gertie the Dinosaur.
Bray might have stolen everything he could from McCay’s techniques, but like any imitator, he couldn’t steal the artistic soul of McCay’s work.
Bray the Innovator
What Bray did was scale McCay’s operation. Instead of trying to produce everything himself, even McCay later hired an assistant, Bray enlisted a team of animators.
Bray’s studio was the only studio dedicated entirely to creating animations at the time. He had four teams, all working at the same time to turn out work under his brand.
The four teams would crank out one animation per team every month, dropping four shorts into to rotation bearing the Bray name. Nobody had that kind of coverage at the time.
To keep his brand influence constant, he would stagger the productions so that it seemed like there was a new animation by Bray Studios all the time.
At first, like other animators, they produced paper stills, a complete and new still for each frame of the action.
Bray created the celluloid process, where animators could create a single back from for scene on paper, then crop characters into the background with celluloid paper, which was see-through.
This sped up production, and cut his costs, which meant more profit.
Bray the Influencer
The most well-known animation was Bray’s Colonel Heeza Liar, a character based on Theodore Roosevelt, who would go on adventures. Bray Studios produced animated shorts with the Colonel from 1913 to 1917.
The other mainstay was Bobby Bumps, a sort of precursor to Dennis the Menace. None of these animations themselves have stood the test of time, not outside of animation circles, not like McCay’s Gertie.
What Bray did do, was create a downline of up and coming animators who went on to work on other projects which lasted.
The creator of Woody Woodpecker, Walter Lantz, started at Bray Studios. The creators of Betty Boop, Popeye, and Superman were the Fleischer Brothers, also born out of Bray’s Studio. Paul Terry, who created Heckle and Jeckle, and Mighty Mouse came out of there too.
They all set the bar, which Walt Disney would eventually best when he created Steamboat Willie, starring a little mouse operating a boat.
Bray takes credit for trying, even if he tried to patent something un-patentable, even if it was something he didn’t create. He had the guts to even try.
Like him or hate him for it, without Bray, who would Disney had to beat?