RSS Feed

Monthly Archives: March 2012

March 24

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.

Ub and Walt after meeting at the Pesman-Ruben Commercial Art Studio

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 and Mildred Henderson, who met on a blind date in 1926; they married in 1927

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.

A caricature of Ub Iwerks and his creation, Flip the Frog

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.

Ub (R) and Walt after Ub rejoined the studio, studying methods for the World War II projects

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.

Ub (L) winning a special Academy Award for the sodium matte traveling process used successfully in Mary Poppins

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.

Ub and Walt, two parts of the whole that made up the success of the Disney Studios

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.

March 23

March 23, 2000 – The Musical Aida Premieres on Broadway

“This is the story of a love that flourished in a time of hate.”

On March 23, 2000, the musical Aida premiered on Broadway. The music was written by Elton John, with lyrics by Tim Rice, and was produced by Walt Disney Theatrical. Based on the opera by Giuseppe Verdi, it tells the story of a forbidden love between the Egyptian military commander Radames and the captured Nubian princess Aida. The original cast starred Heather Headley as Aida, Adam Pascal as Radames, and Sherie Rene Scott as Amneris. Aida would go on to win the Tony Award for Best Original Musical Score, Best Actress in a Musical (for Heather Headley), Best Scenic Design, and Best Lighting Design.

The film began as a possible animated feature for Disney, conceived as another vehicle for Sirs Elton John and Tim Rice after their great success with The Lion King, but John suggested that it was a better story for a full-fledged musical production. The first production of the musical took place in Atlanta in September of 1998. It was revised after the showing there and shown in Chicago in November of 1999. After more revisions and recastings, the show premiered on Broadway on March 23, and closed on September 4, 2004, as the 34th longest-running show in Broadway’s history with 30 previews and 1,852 performances. A recording was released with the original Broadway cast on June 6, 2000; it won the Grammy Award for Best Musical Show Album.

March 22

March 22, 1935 – The Silly Symphony, The Golden Touch, is Released to Theaters

“Is this the great man that bellowed, ‘Give me gold, not advice?’”

On March 22, 1935, the Silly Symphony, The Golden Touch, was released to theaters. Based on the tale of King Midas, it was directed by Walt Disney himself, who thought that this would be an easy task. Finding it was more work than he thought, Walt did not direct another short again. The music was written by Frank Churchill, and stars Billy Bletcher as the voice of King Midas.

Midas is shocked when Goldie easily turns his cat into gold

The short opens in the vaults of the kingdom, where King Midas is happily counting his gold. He introduces himself to the audience, stating that he never cared for women or wine, but instead loves and worships gold. He then wishes that he could have everything he touched turn to gold. No sooner has he made this wish when a strange creature appears named Goldie. Midas is afraid that Goldie is there to steal his gold, but Goldie tells Midas that he, Goldie, doesn’t want it, and shows Midas that he can turn things to gold with a single touch. Midas offers everything he owns for the golden touch, but Goldie warns Midas that this would be a curse rather than a blessing. Midas doesn’t want Goldie’s advice, so Goldie finally gives the king what he wishes.

Now armed with the golden touch, Midas is determined to test it out. He chases his cat up the stairs of the castle, and as Midas runs into a tree, the tree suddenly turns to gold, dropping 18K apples, and the 18K cat as well. Midas skips around gleefully, incredibly happy that he has the golden touch, and begins touching everything he can, from flowers to fountains.

The king becomes delusional from hunger and fear, seeing himself as a golden corpse.

Some time later, a hungry King Midas sits down to eat a hearty meal, only to find that he is unable to eat anything, as it all turns to gold. Angered, he begins to turn all of the food to gold, and seems to go mad over the fact that Goldie had been right about it being a curse. He moans that the richest king in the world must now starve to death, and is chased by illusions of death. He locks himself in his counting room and calls out for Goldie, who appears, laughing.

Midas, thrilled to see that Goldie has appeared, begs the creature to take away the curse, so he can eat once more. He offers everything he has, and even offers his kingdom for a hamburger. Goldie laughs and teases, “With or without onions?” The king begs for just a plain old hamburger, and Goldie finally agrees to take back the curse, in exchange for everything the king possesses.

"My kingdom for a hamburger!"

As Goldie disappears, Midas looks around wildly, before seeing his entire kingdom disappear before his eyes, as well as his clothes, save for his undershirt and boxers, with his crown now nothing more than a tin can. As promised, his hamburger appears in front of him, and as he sits down to eat it, he pauses, afraid that he still possesses the golden touch. He is relieved to find that it has indeed been taken away, and that Goldie also gave him onions.

March 21

March 21, 1947 – The Pluto Short Film, Rescue Dog, is Released to Theaters

On March 21, 1947, the Pluto short, Rescue Dog, was released to theaters. It was directed by Charles Nichols, with the story by Eric Gurney and Bill de la Torre, and music by Oliver Wallace. It features Pluto interacting with a creature smaller than himself, with comical results.

It’s a blustery winter day, and Pluto is seen peeking his head out from the Rescue Dog Doghouse, when he excitedly puts up the sign, “Dog on Duty.” He looks around for any signs of trouble, before he falls into a thick patch of snow on the side of a cliff. He falls through and skids on the ice-covered pond below, stopping just before an open patch in the ice, where his rescue barrel is floating.

Pluto is shocked to see this strange creature rise out from under the ice

As Pluto reaches in to grab his barrel, it suddenly disappears into the water, before splashing back up and hitting him on the nose. It rises out of the water, being perched on the head of a seal. The seal turns and sees Pluto, who is suspicious of this new character. It barks at Pluto playfully, although Pluto runs away and ducks behind a rock. The seal returns the barrel to Pluto, but Pluto’s reaction is to bark angrily at the seal, causing it to duck into the water with fear. Pluto begins to march away, only to find that the seal is holding on to his tail.

The seal claps his fins, wishing to play with Pluto, but the dog just pushes the seal away, sending him flying back into the water. Pluto laughs, but just before he grabs his barrel to continue on his way, the seal sneaks in and steals it. Pluto chases after it, only to miss and get stuck in a snow bank. The seal returns the barrel to Pluto, but Pluto ends up walking way, wanting nothing to do with it. The seal, however, is not done playing with Pluto, and ends up walking underneath him, before stealing the barrel again.

The seal watches as Pluto falls through the ice

As Pluto chases the seal, the seal drops the barrel onto the ice, and Pluto chases it into a cave, which turns into a game of keep-away with the seal holding on to the barrel. The game takes a bad turn when Pluto falls off the side of a cliff and breaks the ice below, falling into the water. Pluto is seen stuck under the ice, and the seal dives down to rescue the poor pup. Using the barrel to break a patch of ice, the seal dives in and pulls out the frozen dog, and warms him up with the brandy in the barrel. Grateful for the seal’s help, Pluto makes the seal an honorary rescue dog, and they end with the seal giving Pluto a huge hug.

March 20

March 20, 1930 – The Silly Symphony, Cannibal Capers, is Released to Theaters

On March 20, 1930, the Silly Symphony, Cannibal Capers, was released to theaters. Directed by Burt Gillett, it was a good representation of the humor and style of movies back in the ’30s. It was normal for people to see stereotypes not just in cartoons, but also in live action films. This is the only Silly Symphony that, when shown on the Mickey Mouse Club show in the ’50s, had its ending edited out. The plot description below is of the original full short.

The Silly Symphony opens with what appears to be trees swaying in the breeze. As the camera pulls out, we see that it isn’t trees, but four cannibals, dancing and singing. They perform a dance for the audience of other cannibals, and another is seen drumming on a drum, a shield, a set of human skulls, and even his own teeth. As he grabs two of the skulls and uses them as castanets, “Habanera” from the opera Carmen begins to play.

The cannibal and the turtle dancing together

The scene switches to another cannibal, who does a sort of hula, causing his grass skirt to fall to the ground. He pulls it up and begins to dance again, with the same result. Angered, he pushes his stomach to the ground, so that his skirt won’t fall anymore. He continues to dance merrily after that. The camera then moves to a turtle who is dancing to the music, and runs into a cannibal. The cannibal, using his shield like a shell, imitates the dancing of the turtle, which turns into a game of patty-cake.

In the main village, the chef is preparing the pot for a great feast, when he spots the cannibal dancing with the turtle. Although the turtle and cannibal retreat into their shells, the chef picks up the cannibal, intending to feed him to the village. The tribe cheers as the cannibal is thrown into the pot of boiling water, but are shocked when he calmly steps out and begins to cool himself down with the shield.

The lion preparing the cannibal for consumption

A lion roars at the edge of the village, and the cannibals flee into their homes. The cannibal that was in the pot continues to hide inside, thinking he’s safe. The lion, however, grabs a spoon, the salt, and the pepper, and begins to cook the cannibal to his liking. The lion tries to eat the cannibal, but the cannibal outsmarts him.

As the cannibal runs away, the lion pursues him. Once the lion bites down on the cannibal, however, he loses his teeth. Seeing this as an opportunity, the cannibal decides to wear the teeth and teach the defenseless lion a lesson. The cannibal chases the lion out of the village, and the cannibals are seen laughing.

March 19

March 19, 1928 – The Oswald the Lucky Rabbit Short Film, Bright Lights, is Released to Theaters

On March 19, 1928, the 16th Oswald the Lucky Rabbit short film, Bright Lights, was released to theaters through Universal. The short itself is very different from the style of the Mickey Mouse shorts that were to follow: although Mickey Mouse cartoons contained the elements of stretching limbs and comical japes, the Oswald shorts were more brash in their day (as seen with Mlle. Zulu’s dancing), and the characters seem as if they were made out of clay with the way they can split themselves in two and wrap other characters’ limbs around solid objects.

The short opens with a bright light marquee parody of Vaudeville called “Vodvil,” advertising Mlle. Zulu, the Shimmy Queen, performing at a theater. The theater is packed with spectators, watching as a line of cats performs a variety of dances on stage. After a bit of the performance, most of the girls dance offstage, leaving Mlle. Zulu behind in the spotlight.

Oswald, dreamily staring at the picture of Mlle. Zulu

Outside, we see Oswald staring at a picture of Zulu, clearly smitten, with his heart beating right out of his chest. Oswald gets a shock, however, when he sees that the price of admission to the show is 50 cents, and he is saddened to realize he doesn’t have any money. He spots the stage entrance around the corner, and comes up with a plan to just walk right in. The guard stops Oswald at every turn, although Oswald is able to slip out of his grasp so he can try again. Comically, Oswald manages to tie the guard up to a lamppost with the guard’s own foot, and walks in confidently – only to be chased out a second later by other guards and thugs.

There’s a quick shot to Zulu still performing on stage, and then we go back to Oswald, who comes up with another plan to sneak inside: hiding under the shadow of a man in an oversized fur coat. The coat is taken away to reveal both the thin man inside it and Oswald. As the guard looms over the rabbit, Oswald scampers out on the stage in the middle of a performance, with the guard chasing him.

Oswald realizes that the box was not the best place to hide

Backstage again, Oswald jumps inside a box to hide, missing the clear sign on the side that says “Danger – Keep Away.” When the guard can’t find Oswald, and and continues searching in another direction, Oswald, thinking he’s won, laughs—until he discovers the cheetah in the box with him. Oswald escapes from the box, with the cheetah in pursuit, determined to eat the rabbit. Oswald once again rushes out onto the stage in the middle of a pole-balancing act and scrambles up the pole, with the cheetah jumping up, mouth wide open to catch his snack.

The performer and Oswald climb all the way up to the rafters, holding onto a backdrop for dear life. The performer, who had been holding on to Oswald’s shorts, falls as the cheetah waits for his prey. The performer is able to fly his way back up to where Oswald is dangling and grabs his foot, pulling the limb out several feet. With the use of a nearby mallet, Oswald gets rid of the performer, but realizes a bit too late that he’s lost his hold of the backdrop and falls to the stage, landing on the head of the cheetah.

Everyone stampedes out of the theater, pursued by hungry lions

The audience and orchestra run for their lives as the cheetah goes on the rampage. Backstage, the lions break free from their cage and join the chase, scaring the performers out into the empty theater. The audience is seen breaking down the door and fleeing the theater, with the lions in close pursuit. Oswald finally appears in a nearby building, with the last lion spotting him and chasing him into town.

March 18

March 18, 1967 – The Disneyland Attraction, The Pirates of the Caribbean, Opens

“We’re devils and black sheep, we’re really bad eggs, drink up me hearties, yo ho.”

On March 18, 1967, Disneyland opened its newest attraction in New Orleans Square, The Pirates of the Caribbean. It contains the use of many Audio Animatronic figures, with scenes ranging from jailed pirates trying to get the keys from the guard dog, to a Caribbean town being looted by a pirate gang, all while passengers travel past these scenes by boats. The attractions beginnings were seen in the Disneyland 10th Anniversary episode of the Disneyland show. Although Walt worked at length on this attraction, he sadly passed away before its opening. The song for the attraction is “Yo Ho, Yo Ho; a Pirate’s Life for Me,” and was written by George Bruns and Xavier Atencio.

The updated attraction, with Jack Sparrow from the films hiding in the barrel

In 2003, a film based on the attraction was released, starring Johnny Depp as Captain Jack Sparrow and Geoffrey Rush as Captain Hector Barbossa. After the success of the film series, changes were made to the original attraction to include the characters of Jack Sparrow and Captain Barbossa. Other revisions have been made to the ride, including a huge refurbishment of the ride, which reopened in November 2011. The attraction has been considered one of the most popular of all of Disney’s parks, with versions opening in Walt Disney World on December 15, 1973, Tokyo Disneyland on April 15, 1983, and Disneyland Paris on April 12, 1992.