March 24, 1901 – Birth of Disney Legend, Ub Iwerks
“Ub helped make this art form of animation grow from a novelty, something in the penny arcades, to the art form we know of today. He really laid the groundwork for a lot of the work we do today. Walt and Ub recognized that you could make animation truly three dimensional, and a hundred percent believable.”- John Lasseter
There is so much that there could and should be said about Ub Iwerks. He was a true animation renaissance man, dabbling in all forms of the art form, from creating Mickey Mouse to developing the Xerox Process. Sometimes, however, Ub is overlooked by those who are only casually aware of Disney history. However, you could not have had Walt and Walt’s success without Ub’s hand. As Ub Iwerks is one of my heroes, I hope that this post does him justice – there is a lot more that could be said about this truly remarkable man.
Ubbe Ert Iwwerks was born on March 24, 1901, as an only child of Dutch and German descent. His father, Eert Ubbe Iwwerks, was an amateur inventor, whose inventions no doubt left an impression on young Ub. In the age of progress of his youth, Ub was fascinated with the new idea of bringing moving pictures to life. When Ub was 14, his father abandoned the family, and Ub had to take on the new responsibility of providing for his mother. Ub would never speak of his father again. He worked odd jobs to support the family, and drew in his spare time. At age 18, he enrolled at the Fine Arts Institute, determined to become an artist.
While working at the Pesman-Ruben Commercial Art Studio, where Ub’s unique skills as a draftsman were gaining attention, Ub met a young man named Walt Disney. Ub and Walt became fast friends, sharing a similar background and a passion for animation, and decided to set up shot for themselves. Unfortunately, they quickly found that they weren’t going to be successful on their own, and business closed down after a month. They then decided to work at the Kansas City Slide Company, where they were able to learn more about motion picture production, particularly animated images. Although an innovative idea at the time, animation wasn’t a profitable business. Walt and Ub decided to try their hand at an animated commercial. They were commissioned to create cartoons known as Laugh-O-Grams, which helped the pair create their own company again, this time known as Laugh-O-Grams, Incorporated. Ub’s draftsmanship proved to be one of the keys to the studio’s success, and they soon came up with the idea for the Alice comedies. But before they could develop the idea, their money ran out, and Ub got a job back at the Kansas City Film Ad Service, while Walt decided to go out to Hollywood.
Ub had been promoted to the head of the art department at the Kansas City Film Ad Service when Walt invited him out to Hollywood, and he decided to take the trip out there with his mother. Once he arrived, he became the top animator of the Disney Brothers Studio, and the highest paid employee, even above Walt. The two began their production of the Alice Comedies, which became very popular. After the Alice Comedies had worn out their welcome, Ub and Walt were tasked by Charles Mintz to design a new character, which would become Oswald the Lucky Rabbit, Universal’s first cartoon series. The cartoon was a huge success, and Ub was finally able to have a social life after working so hard for so long. In 1926, he met Mildred Henderson on a blind date, and in January 1927, Ub and Mildred married.
In 1928, Charles Mintz offered Ub a job, in hopes of stealing Oswald away from Walt. Though Ub turned the offer down, he learned that the other artists in the studio had agreed to join with Mintz. He warned Walt, but Walt couldn’t believe it. When Walt came back from the loss of Oswald in New York, the two decided secretly that they needed a new character. Although the story of how Mickey Mouse came to be is still shrouded in mystery, it was very clear that Ub was the one who first drew Mickey, and in two weeks, Ub completed the first Mickey Mouse cartoon, Plane Crazy. Ub’s work led to a growth of personality animation, rather than just straight character animation, as had been seen before. Ub said in an interview that Mickey was based on Douglas Fairbanks Sr., making him heroic and dashing, never a sissy. After the creation of Steamboat Willie, the first synchronized sound cartoon, Mickey’s popularity soared.
Ub included a lot of barnyard humor when he created many of the Mickey Mouse shorts. Due to the udder jokes he liked to use, the censorship board asked that the cows be given modest skirts to wear. And while Mickey’s popularity grew, another animated series began to take shape, known as the Silly Symphony. The first short film, The Skeleton Dance, was drawn by Ub, who seemed to be thoroughly inspired by the music for the short. The entire film, minus one or two scenes, was animated by Ub, who experimented with many elements of perspective and shape. Ub’s animation skills were praised by the animation community, and Ub continued to experiment with each new short he animated.
In 1929, tensions grew between Ub and Walt, as Walt began to take control of the artistic direction of the company, which caused Ub some concern. When Walt, who was getting all the attention for Mickey Mouse, began to interfere with Ub’s artistic ideas, Ub was tempted to leave Walt to set up his own studio. Ub finally decided that it was time for him to leave Walt and explore his own opportunities. He created his own new character, known as Flip the Frog. The animation style was very different than what he had done at the Disney Studio, with new kinds of gags and a distorted realism. Another character created by Ub was Willie Whopper, a chubby boy who had surrealistic adventures. His studio was a success, and Ub continued to push the envelope artistically, to the delight of audiences.
Ub created his own cartoon series known as the ComiColor series, in which he was able to use his technical and inventive skills to create new areas of techniques in animation. His created his own version of the three-dimensional camera, with $300 and parts from a 1920s Chevrolet, around the same time the Disney Studios were inventing their multi-plane camera. Unfortunately, while Ub was starting to make great strides with his animation technique, the Hays code was passed, and many of the adult jokes that were contained in his cartoons had to be cut. Also, Ub’s characters imitated life a little too much for Depression audiences, who wanted an escape from their troubles, not a reminder of them. MGM, Ub’s cartoons distributor, was a little disturbed with the cartoons that were being sent to them. The distribution contract with MGM was dissolved in 1934, and Ub was forced to close the studio in 1938, and retired from animation, deciding to venture into the challenge of technical innovations in the arena of animation.
Finding that Ub was now available, Walt asked Ub to come back to the studio. Ub agreed, returning to the studio in 1940, and welcoming the chance to collaborate with Walt in an entirely new way. At this point, the studio was helping the war effort, which put a tight strain on the budget. Disney needed to come up with new technological advances to make the production of animated films more cost effective. Named as the head of the Photographic Effects lab, Ub received one of his first assignments, to expand upon the idea from more than twenty years ago in the Alice Comedies – combining live action and cartoon – for the movie The Three Caballeros.
Ub’s most recognized technical achievement was for the film One Hundred and One Dalmatians, where he changed not only the style of Disney animation, but also the speed at which things were animated, thanks to the Xerox Process (see January 25th article for more information). The process adapted the Xerox method to animated cells, displacing the inking process altogether and allowing the animator’s intended lines to appear directly on the screen. This process helped the Disney films’ success all the way into the 1980s.
In 1956, Ub invented a sodium traveling matte process, which helped pave the way for creating live action animation combinations, and was first successfully used in Mary Poppins. Ub went on to win a special Class One Scientific Academy Award for the sodium matte traveling process. Not only was Ub recognized for his work at Disney, but Alfred Hitchcock also asked him to create the effects in the movie The Birds with the sodium matte process. John Lasseter once remarked on Ub’s technical advancements, “A lot of the work that Ub did was to take people’s suspension of belief to another level, to where they never thought they were looking at drawings anymore.”
Ub’s advances were numerous, ranging from technical achievements in films (like the split screen technique in The Parent Trap), to creating a quicker editing system for television. Much of his work in the Disney parks, including bringing to life the audio animatronics found throughout the parks, is still used today.
Walt’s death greatly affected Ub, as the two were lifelong friends and collaborators, although their relationship was not an easy one at times. Don Iwerks, Ub’s son, remarked that, upon hearing of Walt’s death, Ub remarked, “That’s the end of an era.” The following five years after Walt’s death, Ub continued to push the boundaries of the field. In July on 1971, Ub passed away of a heart attack at age 70. He was honored as a Disney Legend in 1989 for all of his achievements.