Who Was Ub Iwerks?by Jim Korkis, contributing writer
I recently added to my personal library a copy of Walt Disney's Ultimate Inventor: The Genius of Ub Iwerks by his son Don Iwerks.
Today, the name of Ub Iwerks is fairly well known to most Disney fans but there was a time when he was at best just a small footnote in most histories of the Disney Studio. Even today, some people are unclear about his many significant contributions to the Walt Disney Company.
Ub Iwerks finally got some wider recognition in the book The Hand Behind the Mouse: An Intimate Biography by John Kenworthy and Iwerks' granddaughter, Leslie.
It is the perfect companion to Leslie Iwerks' critically acclaimed 90-minute film documentary, The Hand Behind the Mouse: The Ub Iwerks Story.
Leslie was only 1 year old when her grandfather died, but grew up hearing the stories of his contributions to the Disney empire yet found scant mention of these achievements in public records.
As a fifth-grader, Leslie wrote a class report on the grandfather she barely knew but had heard about all her life. She said, "I thought, 'Wow! I have a famous grandfather, but no one knows it'."
At one point, the now well-known Ub Iwerks was just a small footnote in Disney history.
To correct this situation, she eventually began the film documentary of her grandfather in 1990 as an independent project. However, the Walt Disney Company was understandably reluctant to share material and images that might dim the bright spotlight on their founder and which featured valuable trademarked images.
Roy E. Disney who became something of a champion of animation history interceded on her behalf and the film became a Disney production as well as opening up the Disney vault for Leslie to have access to the company's material on Iwerks.
"Walt and Ub were a great team," Roy E. Disney said. "They had something special, those two. It just clicked."
When the Disney Studio began in 1923, it was rumored that Iwerks was the "secret genius" behind the success of the studio. Over the years, top animators from Betty Boop creator Grim Natwick to Les Clark, one of the fabled Nine Old Men, described Iwerks as "a genius. He was like Walt."
Ubbe Ert Iwwerks was born on March 24, 1901 in Kansas City, Missouri. It was not until he was in his 20s, that he shortened his name to "Ub Iwerks" which was still unusual enough to attract the audience's attention when his name appeared in screen credits.
Not fond of scholastics, he dropped out of Northeast High School in 1916 to work full time at the Union Bank Note Company. When he was 18, he got a job at the Pesmin-Rubin Commercial Art Studio where he was hired to do lettering and air brush work.
It was there he met another 18-year-old named Walter Elias Disney. The outgoing Walt and the shy, unassuming Ub struck up a friendship and when both were laid off, they went into business for themselves as an independent art studio called Iwerks-Disney. (They decided that Disney-Iwerks sounded too much like an eyeglass company referencing "eye works".)
Walt immediately leveraged friendships to get jobs for the fledgling firm. When a job as an artist opened at the Kansas City Slide Company, Ub and Walt decided that Walt should apply for the position to get a steady paycheck to help support the struggling studio while Ub who was the stronger artist would keep their new business operating.
Unfortunately, Ub lacked Walt's salesmanship and was uncomfortable approaching new clients and was laconic when potential customers contacted him and the studio quickly closed for lack of work.
Walt was able to get Ub a job at the Kansas City Slide Company which later changed its name to the Kansas City Film Ad Company. It was while they were with that company, that the two young men got their first exposure to animation.
When Walt left the company in 1922 to form his own company called Laugh-O-Gram, Ub joined him immediately and was the key animator in producing six modernized fairy tale animated cartoons. An unsuccessful distribution deal for the cartoons forced the young business into bankruptcy and Walt Disney went to Hollywood to seek his fortune in live action films while Ub returned to his old, safe job at the Film Ad Company.
However, one final film done by the Laugh-O-Gram company titled Alice's Wonderland that featured a mixture of live action with a little girl interacting with cartoon animals in a cartoon setting caught the attention of a New York distributor who offered Walt a contract for more cartoons in the same format. It was the beginning of the Disney Brothers Studio in 1923.
While Walt did much of the animation on the first few films himself, he quickly realized his artistic limitations and contacted Ub in Kansas City and persuaded him to drive to California and become a vital part of the new studio.
Almost from the beginning, Ub was paid more than anyone else on the staff, including Walt. His salary quickly rose to $120 a week (over twice what Walt was making) and he was not only the key animator and informal teacher to the younger animators but was also drawing the lobby cards and theatrical posters.
These responsibilities continued even after nearly fifty Alice Comedies were produced and a new series for Oswald the Lucky Rabbit was begun. Ub began putting money in the business, having thirty-five dollars deducted from his salary each week to be applied toward a twenty percent interest in the partnership in the Disney Brothers Studio.
Disney's New York film distributor for the Oswald cartoons owned the rights to the character and in attempt to have greater control and greater profits hired all of Disney's animation staff except for Iwerks who remained loyal to Walt and had warned his brother Roy that something was up with the other animators before the deal was revealed.
According to legend, on the train ride back to California, Walt came up with the concept of Mickey Mouse to replace the loss of the popular Oswald.
"As far as I know, that's all publicity hype," Disney Archivist Dave Smith told me when I was researching an article on early Mickey Mouse. "I talked personally with Ub and he was clear how it really happened."
While Walt may have originated the idea, it was working closely with Ub that the final design and approach to the character as well as the story situations were developed.
In fact, Ub pretty much animated the first three Mickey Mouse cartoons single-handedly. It was documented that Iwerks could produce 700 drawings a day that were usable. Today, a good animator may turn out as many as 100 drawings a week if he is lucky.
Ub's loyalty, commitment and talent allowed Walt to save his studio. As before, Ub also trained young animators and would stop his own work to encourage others, did the lobby cards and posters and even illustrated the daily Mickey Mouse comic strip.
In later years, Ub's key contribution in the creation and early development of Mickey Mouse was downplayed even though the title card of the original theatrical cartoons as well as the comic strip prominently featured Ub's name and it was often in larger typeface than Walt's name.
Ub's sons, David and Don who both ended up working at Disney, have insisted that their father never felt any resentment over this situation nor any proprietary interest in the character of Mickey. Many times in a variety of situations, Ub told them, "It was what Walt did with Mickey that was important, not who created him."
In early 1929, while in New York, Walt wrote a letter back to his wife that stated, "everyone praised Ub' art work…Tell Ub that the New York animators take off their hats to his animation and all of them know who we are." Walt would refer to Ub as "the greatest animator in the world."
As a forum for experimentation, Walt took the suggestion of the studio's musical director, Carl Stalling, and produced a series of cartoons synchronized to musical themes and entitled the Silly Symphonies. Ub once again almost single-handedly animated the first in the series, The Skeleton Dance, and soon was promoted to a director on the series.
Happily married with two sons, respect and admiration from his peers, and a huge salary, it seemed as if Ub's life was close to perfect which made it all the more surprising when in January 1930, Ub went in to see Roy O. Disney and announced he was leaving the studio.
Iwerks had been offered the chance to have a studio of his own and a salary of $300 a week (double what he was getting at Disney at the time). Obviously this opportunity to oversee his own studio and to provide greater financial security for his family was a significant factor in Ub's desire to leave the Disney Studio.
However, most historians agree that it was personal differences with Walt which was the major deciding factor in Ub deciding to go out on his own.
Being a boyhood friend of Walt and seeing his early struggles and realizing his weaknesses as an artist, Ub was less in awe of the head of the studio as were the new animators and the public.
As a result, Ub was more resentful when Walt intruded in the animation process by re-timing Ub's exposure sheets or by insisting that Ub change his method of animating to produce only key drawings and allowing assistants to do the in-between drawings.
Even more so, Walt had a reputation of having fun at others' expense and the shy Iwerks was an easy target for these remarks and pranks and Walt never realized that Ub's quietness in these situations hid embarrassment and anger that eventually bubbled up in this decision. Yet while the tension between the two men was apparent, not one person can ever recall Ub saying a negative word about Walt.
In the book Walt Disney: A Biography by Barbara Ford: "In spite of his skills, Ub remained the same shy, inarticulate, serious young man he had been when Walt first met him. He was extremely nervous around young women. Ub's personality made him a natural foil for confident Walt's practical jokes. At Kansas City Film Ad Company, Walt would send Ub postcards signed with girls' names, lock him in the washroom so that he had to hammer on the door to get out, and smuggle animals into his desk and locker. Ub never complained."
Ub never complained not necessarily because he was a good sport but because he seemed to have difficult expressing his feelings and it would sometimes bubble up in a temper to rival Walt's. One time Walt secretly filmed Ub being awkward on a date from behind a potted palm and then showed the film to the animators at the studio with Walt making amusing remarks.
So when an opportunity came up in 1930 to run his own studio his own way, Ub decided it was time to move on and avoid his growing frustration with Walt.
Walt, who was in New York at the time, was taken completely by surprise and felt betrayed by his longtime friend's decision to leave the Disney Studio. Even worse, Ub was going to be a competitor.
To be fair, Ub didn't feel his leaving would put the studio in jeopardy since a process had been established to produce the Mickey Mouse and Silly Symphony cartoons and the studio had expanded with more than enough other animators like Les Clark capable of doing the work. Clark became the main animator on Mickey Mouse.
Roy Disney even sent a note to Walt explaining that there was no evidence of malice in Ub's action and that he was always a little naïve when it came to business dealings. The Disneys paid Ub less than $3,000 for his 20% partnership in the company which was a substantial amount in 1930. (That 20% would have been worth billions today.)
Under the banner of Celebrity Productions, Iwerks produced three cartoon series from 1930 to approximately 1936: Flip the Frog, Willie Whopper and the ComiColor cartoon fables.
After the first two cartoons, Flip was modified to be less froglike and with new short pants, white shoes and gloves, he resembled nothing more than one of the several Mickey Mouse wannabes like Warners' Foxy which were prevalent at the time.
The cartoons did resemble the early Mickey Mouse cartoons with several similar plots like a dark house mystery and building a robot but although they featured strong animation, the stories meandered at a slow pace and never took advantage of the opportunities for gags. Flip did not have a sense of personality like Mickey.
The ComiColor Cartoon series were primarily adaptations of classic folklore stories like Jack and the Beanstalk, the Headless Horseman and Sindbad the Sailor. They were produced in Cinecolor, a two color process using a combination of red and blue hues .
Many of these cartoons were filmed in a three dimensional effect using a crude multiplane camera Iwerks had built using parts from an old Chevrolet automobile he had bought for about $300. These technical improvements never compensated for the lack of a strong story and charismatic characters.
The Willie the Whopper series recounted the adventures of a pudgy young boy (voiced by a seven year old actress Jane Withers in one of her first professional jobs) who told tall tales known as "whoppers" and who at the end of each cartoon encouraged audiences to tell one of their own.
The studio was staffed by soon to be legendary animators like Grim Natwick, Shamus Culhane, Virgil Ross and Rudy Zamora as well as a young man just starting his career, Chuck Jones, who was employed to wash the ink and paint off cels so they could be re-used. Chuck also got a chance to get to know Ub's secretary, Dorothy, who would later become Chuck's first wife.
However, while Iwerks was an inspiration as an animator, his laconic manner, often misunderstood by others as being sullen, was unable to provide the leadership needed to guide these talented individuals to creative heights.
It quickly became obvious that Iwerks was unable or unwilling to adapt his cartoons to changes happening in the cartoons of the 1930s which ironically were sparked by the rapid advances in Disney animation.
Just as apparent was the fact that Ub was becoming less interested in animation and the day-to-day running of the studio and more interested in technology and was happiest when tinkering with mechanical problems.
Rich production values could not compensate for lead characters who were passive and lacked clear, charismatic personalities nor for unfocused stories so the studio laid off much of its staff in 1935 and shifted from independent production to subcontracting. Ub directed two Porky Pig cartoons and directed some of the Color Rhapsodies series for Columbia.
Iwerks became progressively more and more unhappy about his situation and on September 9, 1940, he returned to the Disney Studio and became Walt's creative technical director for the studio's new Optical Print Department. Iwerks stayed at the studio for the next three decades as a technical troubleshooter until his death in 1971 and his credit of "special processes" appears on numerous Disney films.
Ub's rehiring was done through Ben Sharpsteen and Walt pointedly did not want to know the details even though it was highly unusual for the Walt Disney Studio to rehire someone who left to become a competitor. Walt dealt with Ub at a professional distance with no revival of the social connections of the past. They respected each other and publicly praised each other but a definite chill existed that was sensed by all who worked at the studio.
However, Walt recognized how valuable Ub was to the Studio and left him alone to explore his own instincts regarding technological matters. He improved the Disney multi-plane camera. Ub designed and built the first multi-head optical printer which made possible the combination of live action and animation in The Three Caballeros (and later modifications he made on this device were responsible for the more intricate combinations of live action and animation in Mary Poppins).
He assisted in the development of a xerography process that allowed animator's artwork as in 101 Dalmatians (1961) to be transferred directly to xerox cels and thus eliminated the costly and time-consuming inking process.
Although Ub was no longer involved in animation, Dave Smith of the Disney Archives told me that Ub slipped in at least one drawing in every picture he worked on.
For example, he did the art work for a coral reef in a process shot in the live action feature 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea and he did a lot of uncredited artwork in the training films that the studio did for the military during World War II as well as animated an unused segment for Danny Kaye's film, Up In Arms.
He designed many of the effects for such Disneyland attractions as "it's a small world", Pirates of the Caribbean, Haunted Mansion and did the design for the film presentation for the Hall of Presidents attraction for Walt Disney World. In 1962, Ub was loaned out to Alfred Hitchcock and put in more than three hundred hours on special effects for the film The Birds.
Ub was a collector of mechanical things, firearms and early cameras and related material like glass slides. He also had a fascination with cars. Professionally, he was a member of several organizations including the Motion Picture Research Council, the American Society of Cinematographers, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences and the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences.
In 1959, Ub received an Academy Award for the design of an improved optical printer for special effects and matte shots. He received another Oscar in 1964 on the conception and perfection of techniques for color traveling matte composite cinematography.
Iwerks and his staff perfected the traveling matte system in Mary Poppins to create the scenes where characters danced with animated penguins and the "Feed the Birds" sequence in which hundreds of pigeons flocked around St. Paul's Cathedral. It was so seamless most in the audience never realized it was an animated effect.
He also received the Herbert T. Kalmus Gold Medal Award for his outstanding contributions to the industry.
"My granddad was a quiet man. His house in Sherman Oaks was studious and modern, with Mozart playing all the time. Grandma Mildred liked flower-arranging - simple designs like ikebana," commented Kathie Iwerks Stark, another of Ub's granddaughters.
According to Stark, her grandfather taught himself to bowl but stopped once he'd bowled 300, a perfect game. He also abandoned archery once he'd perfected that sport. To relax, Ub Iwerks played poker with Ben "Bugs" Hardaway, one of the creators of Bugs Bunny (Bugs' Bunny) and Woody Woodpecker.
Ub died in 1971, five years after Walt Disney. Don Iwerks, one of Ub's sons, spent 35 years at the Walt Disney Company and some of that time working with his dad. Don and his team designed and manufactured unique film systems for both Disneyland and Walt Disney World.
Ub's other son, David, also worked at the Walt Disney Studios in special effects. In 1986, Don left Disney to help start Iwerks Entertainment which became one of the world's leading providers of location-based entertainment attractions with over 250 installations operating or contracted worldwide. It continues Ub's spirit of innovation in technology.
Iwerks was able to develop and perfect technical processes that supported Walt's creative ideas and was content to remain in Walt's shadow even after Walt's death. Many felt he might have been able to follow the same path as Walt but their paths diverged yet eerily remained parallel. He was posthumously named a Disney Legend in 1989.