Monday, March 28, 2005

Masters of Animation: Bray & Barre

JOHN RANDOLPH BRAY (1879-1978)
As an entertainer, Bray isn’t very special, but as a technical pioneer, animation might not exist without him. Bray made a fortune on patents and licensing fees between 1914 and 1932 (when they began to expire). Instrumental to the animation boom, Bray created the transparent animation cel so that backgrounds need not be endlessly redrawn from frame to frame. With his partner, Earl Hurd, he developed several advances that made the process faster.

Bray made an impressionistic, pretty short in 1913 called The Artist’s Dream which was strong enough to get him a deal with Charles Pathe. His next cartoon, released in the same year, was Colonel Heeza Liar in Africa, which is regarded as the first commercial cartoon ever released; unlike every film that preceded it, it was specifically meant to be the first in a series. They told the story of an old man, a combination of Baron Munchausen and Teddy Roosevelt, who tells tall tales.

Before long, Bray created the assembly line style of production that is still in place at Disney and other animation studios. By breaking up the parts of the process (i.e., someone draws the backgrounds, someone draws the animation, someone colors and shades, someone photographs, etc.), animation became even faster. Pleased with this innovation and confident that his animators could handle the job, Bray–like Max Fleischer and Walt Disney after him–gave up animation to handle the business end. He soon added another series, Earl Hurd’s Bobby Bumps, a rip-off of Buster Brown.

Bray didn’t reap the rewards of recognition; though he created the Paramount-Bray Pictograph, a weekly magazine feature of newsreels and cartoons, he carried the original Out of the Inkwell cartoons from the Fleischers, but Bray was not much of an entertainer. He essentially created the process, and then others copied it, stepped in, and went on to greater glory. Even the people who worked for him did their best work later for other studios: Paul Terry started at Bray, and Walter Lantz worked there for a time before going to Universal. The Fleischer brothers, too, had more success working directly for Paramount than for Bray. He did not have Disney’s innate sense of story, and the series created at Bray Studios rarely lasted longer than 10 episodes; he just didn’t know what worked.

Though he could be a penny-pincher, Bray does have the distinction of releasing the very first color film. Many people had hand-colored or hand-tinted black and white films in the past, but The Debut of Thomas Cat (1920) was the first to be shot on genuine color film. It was a delightful innovation, but the film was more expensive and scratched too easily, so Bray never pursued it.

In 1924, Colonel Heeza Liar’s Romance became the last film in that series. In 1927, Bray abruptly closed his studios and abandoned animation completely. He never had a chance to innovate sound, which would come a year later. His deal with Goldwyn Studios had expired, and Bray decided to get out of the game, live a life of leisure, and live off his patents. Which is exactly what he did, dying in 1978, just a few months short of his hundredth birthday.

His cartoons may not be well-remembered today, but without them, there might never have been an animation industry to speak of.
RAOUL BARRE (1874-1932)
Barre’s life is something of an enigma, but his career in animation is well documented. With his friend Bill Nolan, Barre developed what can be called the first animation studio. They also developed the system of hanging cels from pegs so that animation could be maintained at the same level and uniformity, as well as an early version of the matte system (involving holes in drawings so that only a part of the screen need be animated), and a technique of background movement to give the illusion of an endless canvas. Barre and Nolan effectively took important steps to modernize animation and speed up the process.

Barre opened an advertising studio in 1914, but, working with Nolan and Gregory La Cava (later to direct the classic William Powell film My Man Godfrey), he quickly moved to commercial animation with The Animated Grouch Chaser (1915). This was a series of cartoons that ran about 13 or 14 minutes, stringing together impressionistic little bits and gags that either told complete stories or little single-joke sketches. They are quite affecting, wildly experimental, and little-seen classics.

That same year, William Randolph Hearst opened International Film Services, his own animation studio, and hired Gregory La Cava to run it. Nolan went with him, but subcontracted a lot of the work to Barre, especially the Phables series. These told little moral tales for modern times. Cooks vs. Cooks: The Phable of Olaf and Louis (1916) told the story of a cook and a chef who compete for respect. The Phable of a Busted Romance (1916) ponders cheapness and kindness. Perhaps these charming cartoons are too cozy for today’s audience.

Raoul Barre got his next break by directing the Mutt & Jeff series, created by Bud Fisher based on his comic strip (Fisher took the credit for directing). Barre’s studio was filled with animators, including future Disney animators Ben Sharpsteen, Burt Gillett, Bill Tytla, and Dick Huemer. Walter Lantz also worked there. But the producer, Charles Burns, was a crook, and after directing several cartoons Barre left them behind in 1918. The Mutt & Jeff cartoons, such as Cramps (1916), were decent, but nowhere near as good as the Animated Grouch Chasers cartoons had been. They were pretty cut-and-dried in terms of story, and there was no room to experiment with technique.

Barre didn’t do much else in animation; he worked on Pat Sullivan’s Felix the Cat series from 1925 to 1927, including the fun Felix the Cat Trumps the Ace (1926). He returned to his native Montreal and died in 1932. Or did he? Social Security lists a Raoul Barre that died in Los Angeles in 1969, so who knows?

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