Saturday, 11 July 2015

Heeza Bray

I suppose it’s a matter of debate whether J.R. Bray was more of a businessman than a cartoonist. His film career began in animation, but he quickly sewed up patents that forced newly-created studios to pay him royalties, and he eventually jettisoned cartoons and entertainment films altogether to concentrate for many decades on educational films.

Whatever his motivation, Bray can be credited with bringing the first regular starring cartoon series to the screen around the start of World War One, though Colonel Heeza Liar was eclipsed in the 1920s by Felix the Cat, Koko the clown and a variety of newspaper comic characters.

Like a future cartoon mogul named Walt Disney, Bray knew the power of promoting his name. Animated cartoons were a novelty in the mid-1910s, and Bray took advantage of it by giving a number of newspaper interviews (Bray was based in New York City, where there was seemingly no end of daily papers).

I suspect this was a syndicate piece. It’s been pulled from the St. Johnsville News of Wednesday, June 16, 1915. The pictures accompanied the article. Bray raises some interesting points, one of which is still debated today by fans who wonder why studios want to do live remakes of old cartoons. Bray rightly points out that cartoon characters can do things that humans cannot. Why bother with live action? Oh, right. It’s all about profits. Bray would probably appreciate that.

By the way, for a guy supposedly responsible for comedy cartoons, why is it Bray never smiled?

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Interesting Description of Tedious Process—Thousands of Drawings Required for One Film- Latest Idea in World of Motion Photography Explained, in Interview, by Originator J. R. Bray

Mention the name "Colonel Heeza Liar" to almost anyone and you'll see his or her face light up and a smile spread all over it. Who doesn't know the funny little Colonel—who hasn't laughed at his antics as he hunted wild beasts in Central Africa, outwitted cannibals on the River of Doubt, cultivated his farm with the aid of some strange assistants, and hunted ghosts in Castle Clare? The Colonel's friends are legion—probably no films made have as large a following young and old alike as these, and speculation has been wide as to how these pictures are made—what gives the drawings those life-like motions, and who is the genius who creates them.
J. R. Bray is the originator and creator of these drawings, and he was the first to put motion into the drawing itself. That there is no royal road to success is again proven by the fact that Mr. Bray started his experiments over seven years ago, and that was when motion pictures were still very young. Years of careful, arduous work were necessary before the results satisfied him. Today he is the head of an organization devoted to making his pictures, has a corps of artists working under his supervision and has patents on his process which cover the use of transparent material or material made transparent by any agency whatever in the making of animated drawings.
Mr. Bray was found in his sunny New York studio engaged in conducting Heeza Liar through another series of escapes. Tall, slender and blond, he looks more like a successful business man than an artist. Mr. Bray readily consented to talk about his work.
"The public," he said, "demands drawn illustrations which reveal the personality of the artist. The newspapers and magazines all prove that. It is easily seen that to illustrate fiction, for instance, a photograph rarely can be well used. The artist's drawings, on the other hand, can be idealized to fit the situation. This value of the illustration was recognized in everything but motion pictures, and now there too it has found its place. It is well to remember that an artist can draw that which is a physical impossibility for an actor to enact before a camera. The artist's possibilities are unlimited. The opportunity for real humor may be seen when one reflects that the humorous is almost invariably the unusual.
"Very few artists have the ability to make drawings that move. An extraordinary imagination is absolutely essential, as is also a perfect knowledge of the science of motion. Problems come to the artist in this work that never arise in ordinary art. I have employed some very able artists to assist me in this work, and find that very few of them can get the knack. For instance, one of the hardest things in the world to handle in these animated drawings is perspective. To have a figure come from the far horizon straight toward the observer—to have it grow from a dot to the proper size and preserve the 'balance'—makes an almost insurmountable problem. I think I am correct in saying that not one artist in a thousand can put motion into drawings."
Few people would have the patience to do Mr. Bray's work. It takes between four and five thousand drawings to make 1,000 feet or one reel of film. In addition to the colossal toil of the art work it takes a week to photograph the drawings one at a time. Great speed united with unvarying accuracy is essential. Every stroke of the pen must count. Mr. Bray works so fast that he is able to keep four trained artists "inking in" the outline drawings which he makes. The necessity for accuracy is evident when it is learned that the drawings are magnified on the screen at least 25 times.
Mr. Bray spent years in study he attempted to make an animated cartoon film. For months he haunted the Bronx Zoo in order to study the animals there and analyze their motions. He even bought a large farm across the Hudson from Poughkeepsie and stocked it with various animals in order to further extend his knowledge of animal anatomy. The result of these studies finds expression in the life-like motions of the various animals which move across his films.
He was born in Detroit, Michigan and has lived in New York since 1901. He was for seven years a newspaper artist, being also a steady contributor to the humorous weeklies, such as "Life," "Puck," and "Judge." He took his ideas to Pathe Freres over three years ago, since he felt that such a house, with its many foreign branches, could give him a larger international circulation than any other. The Pathe officials at once saw the value of his work, and from that day to this he has dealt only with Pathe. Millions of persons have laughed and are laughing at the "Heeza Liar" and "Police Dog" series, and his political cartoons in the Pathe News, the motion picture weekly, have attracted widespread newspaper comment Mr. Bray has truly originated a new school of art.

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Heeza’s popularity was rather short-lived. The Colonel appeared in the 81st release of the Paramount-Bray Pictograph in August 1917 in a cartoon spoofing temperance lecturers and that was it until he was revived for a brief time in the ‘20s. Bray’s “corps of artists” continued on other things, such as Bobby Bumps (Earl Hurd), Goodrich Dirt (Wallace Carlson), Farmer Al Falfa (Paul Terry), a new tramp character called Otto Luck and a duck called Quacky Doodles (who starred in a September 1917 cartoon also involving the temperance movement) created by Johnny Gruelle, the man responsible for Raggedy Ann.

If you want to learn about Heeza Liar, you can do no better (other than finding a copy of Donald Crafton’s book Before Mickey) than to go to Tom Stathes’ website devoted to J.R. Bray. Tom’s devotion to silent cartoons and the Bray studio is unflagging, and he should be congratulated and appreciated for trying to keep these 100-year-old cartoons in the minds of animation fans worldwide.

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