Saturday 9 August 2014

J.R. Bray Moves to Paramount

J.R. Bray was a newspaper cartoonist who didn’t just want to get into the animated cartoon business—he wanted to own it.

Bray applied for his first patent on the animation process in January 1914. By then, he had a deal in place with Pathé to produce six films in six months. He filed for a second patent in July and incorporated his studio in December, the same month Earl Hurd applied for a patent on the concept of animation using cels.

The two of them got together in 1915 but you’d never know there was an Earl Hurd the way Bray talked. Here’s an article published in the Glens Falls Post-Star on December 17, 1915. Bray had left Pathé and signed a contract with Paramount for a thousand feel of comedy film every week and a cartoon to be issued in a weekly news reel. That’s what this story was plugging, as well as outlining how an animated cartoon was made as 1915 was drawing to a close.

“Col. Heeza Liar” to Star with Mary Pickford at New Studio
J.R. Bray, his Creator, Captured by Paramount, Tells How Animated Cartoons Are Made and Has Something Up His Sleeve.

By Tarleton Winchester
New York (Special)
Following closely on the announcement of still further victories for the photoplay, comes the statement from the New York offices of the Paramount Pictures Corporation that “Colonel Heeza Liar,” most famous of screen comedians, will hereafter be seen as a star with such players as Mary Pickford, Marguerite Clark, Geraldine Farrar, Blanche Sweet and Dustin Farnum, since his “father,” J.R. Bray, originator of the animated cartoon has signed a contract with a big company, which adds the Bray Studios, Inc. to the important list of Paramount Producers already including the Famous Players Film Company, Lasky Feature Play Company, Oliver Morosco Photoplay Company and Pallas Pictures.
Fired by the success of its South American Travel Pictures the Paramount Corporation has just added to its program a News Weekly which, in the form of a celluloid magazine, numbers among its editors such organizations as the American Press Association, the Ladies’ World, the Dry Goods Economist, and such individuals as John A. Sleicher of Leslie’s Weekly, and Roger W. Babson, the noted statistician, each being in charge of a department. It is here that Mr. Bray will make his first contribute to the Paramount Program, though his contract calls for a thousand feet in addition to his cartoon for the Newspictures, and in the latter connection he promises an announcement in the near future which will surprise even those who know his work since he anticipates doing things with animated cartoons never before dreamed of much less attempted.
“The possibilities of the moving drawing,” he said when seen, “are unlimited. They are dependent only upon the imagination of the artist. “At the present time we have a staff of six cartoonists, twenty assistant artists and four cameramen constantly at work. An idea of the amount of labor entailed may be gained from the knowledge that there are thirty-four different processes to be undergone by each cartoon, and that there are from three thousand to four thousand cartoons in each thousand feet of completed film. Hence a week’s output involves from 102,000 to 136,000 processes.”
The accomplishment of this tremendous task is made possible only by a special method which Mr. Bray has invented and patented. As a result of his invention the work of preparing thousands of pictures is cut in half. When he has decided upon the desired scene for the antics of “Heeza Liar,” he first makes a background on a sheet of heavy paper, which background is then printed on many sheets of tracing paper. This done, it is necessary for the artist only to draw the parts which are to appear in motion on the screen. The result is evident. The background remains absolutely stationary throughout the scene, so that the work of the artist is reduced to a minimum. If a man is to be represented as standing still for any length of time, he is printed on the sheets. He does not have to be drawn again until he is supposed to move.
“This permanent background may be easily erased or drawn over,” Mr. Bray continued. “What is more, a large number of copies are printed with portions of the background omitted. This obviates the necessity of erasing to a great extent.
“In order that the movement may be both steady and continuous on the screen, great care must be taken in the drawing of the cartoons, a task greatly simplified by our use of tracing paper. The artist merely places a piece of paper upon the last drawing, so that the position last taken by the figures shows clearly through the paper. Thus he is able to draw in the next position carefully and easily.”
Mr. Bray supervises personally every stage of the work. He originates the plot and makes from six to a dozen sketches of the vital points of the story. Then the detail work commences. While the cartoonists do most of the sketching, Mr. Bray draws practically every movement. If a man, for instance, who has been motionless for some time, is required to raise his arm, the staff cartoonists draw the figure, but Mr. Bray draws the arm in the act of moving. When the sketches have been made, they are turned over to a staff of assistant artists who complete them, drawing them in ink and filling in the color.
To reduce the effect caused by the projection of too much white light on the screen, Mr. Bray has invented and patented a process for making a uniform background. By this method one painting of the background suffices for the entire reel.
“When the set of cartoons is completed four expert cameramen photograph them to obtain the negative film,” Mr. Bray said. “An important feature of my invention consists of a method for controlling the speed of action in the picture. This is done by varying the number of photographs taken of each cartoon. For instance, if the scene demands than an object shall move rapidly, then slowly, and finally come to a stop for a moment, the pictures representing the quick action would each be given one exposure. As the movement of the object diminishes in rapidity, each picture is given a correspondingly increasing number of exposures. When the action comes to a stop numerous photographs are taken of the same picture, the number being dependent upon the length of time that the action is suspended.”
J.R. Bray was born in Detroit, Mich., 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.” Three years ago he began producing animated cartoons, thus paving the way for imitators though it is said his patents protect him absolutely were he to take advantage of them.
His work has become consistently better and more widely known till he now occupies a place in his particular field corresponding to that held by his new confreres of the Paramount Corporation.
“I knew,” he said, “that Paramount Pictures have done more to raise the standard of film production than anything else, that the principles laid down by W.W. Hodkinson in the formation of the most important organization were right, and I resolved to find a place in the Paramount Program for my new school of art.”

Bray left Paramount in 1919 and signed a deal with Goldwyn. But, for whatever reason, he tired of entertainment cartoons. Instead, he focused on educational production and continued to try to enforce his patents into the 1930s until they expired.


  1. The article says Bray was born in Detroit. He was from Addison, Michigan. Another source says he was from Monroe. He did work for The Detroit Evening News before going to New York.

    1. Nice if he came from Monroe. I've been there a number of times before.

  2. When Bray went to Goldwyn, he made the mistake of contracting for more pictures than he could deliver. The associated pressures affected the qualify of production and the working conditions to the extend that his primary producers all left in 1921, the most important of them all, Max Fleischer.

  3. One VERY important thing here...:
    Hurd and Bray can also be seen on the opening titles for the Harman-Ising Looney Tunes and Merrie Melodies (1930-1933) ("Hurd-Bray Patent"). That in addition to the WB and Vitaphone credits.

    1. When sound came in, all of the studios made full use of the Cel Process and were "licensed" by Bray-Hurd Patents. This appears in small print on the main titles of cartoons between 1929 and 1931 until the Patents expired. The only major producer who did not display this credit was Fleischer Studios, even though they had the license.