Not a lot of people know the name Ub Iwerks but he was an important innovator in the film industry who not only co-created Mickey Mouse but was also a brilliant animator, designer, inventor and technician.
Born in Kansas City, Missouri in 1901 as Ubbe Ert Iwwerks before he simplified his name to Ub Iwerks, Iwerks’ path to Hollywood began when he first met Walt Disney in 1919 while they were both working at the Pesmen-Rubin Art Studio in Kansas City. But it was while the two ambitious young artists were working as illustrators for the Kansas City Film Ad Company that Walt Disney fell in love with animation, which led to Disney founding the Laugh-O-Gram cartoon series in 1922, with Ub Iwerks as his chief animator.
The Laugh-O-Grams were largely unsuccessful and the studio went bankrupt in a year, but Iwerks followed Disney to Los Angeles to work on the Alice comedies starring Virginia Davis as a live-action girl in a world of cartoon characters beginning in 1923 with the short Alice’s Wonderland.
These cartoons were successful enough to last a few years until high costs and technical restrictions caused Disney to discontinue the Alice shorts in 1927. Fortunately that was the year Charles Mintz hired Walt Disney to produce an original animated cartoon series for Universal Pictures. Walt came up with the idea to make his next cartoon star a rabbit as he observed cats like Felix and Krazy Kat were being overdone in the world of animation. Walt chose Ub Iwerks to design the character who would come to be known as Oswald the Lucky Rabbit.
Trolley Troubles (1927), the first Oswald cartoon to be sold to Universal, was both Disney and Universal’s greatest success to date and Oswald became a major star who rivaled Felix the Cat and the Fleischers’ Out of the Inkwell series in terms of popularity.
Disney had a hit and made a big profit from Oswald but Charles Mintz decided to continue the Oswald series without renewing Disney’s contract while at the same time hiring away much of his animation team, except Ub Iwerks who was faithful to Walt, to work on Oswald, a character who future Woody Woodpecker creator Walter Lantz took over.
Disney and Iwerks worked on creating a new cartoon star with Iwerks designing everything from cats, dogs and frogs (a process that led to the creation of the characters who would become Clarabelle Cow and Horace Horsecollar) but none of the ideas for animal characters appealed to Walt until he came up with the idea for a mouse while riding the train, thus handing the idea off to Ub Iwerks who refined Walt’s sketch with the design of the character who would go on to be known as Mickey Mouse.
The first Mickey Mouse cartoon to be produced was Plane Crazy and Ub Iwerks animated it single-handedly over the course of three weeks completing 700 drawings a day. Iwerks was also responsible for animating the first few Mickey Mouse and Silly Symphonies cartoons to be released, including Steamboat Willie and The Skeleton Dance which were both huge successes in movie theaters across the world.
It was at this period in the late 1920s that a rift came between Walt Disney and Ub Iwerks when Iwerks felt underappreciated as the one responsible for all the success Walt Disney was claiming. Iwerks also didn’t like how Walt was feeling less like a partner and more like a controlling dictator. This led to a falling out in 1930 and Ub Iwerks founding his own animation studio with the films to be distributed by Pat Powers who had previously distributed the Mickey Mouse cartoons through Celebrity Pictures until Disney shifted his distribution partnership to Columbia (later United Artists, RKO Radio and his own Buena Vista).
The Iwerks studio opened in 1930 with most of its financial backers banking on the assumption that Iwerks was the man responsible for all of Walt Disney’s success. Unfortunately, while Disney rebounded from the departure of Iwerks by having a good eye for finding talented animators and artists, Ub Iwerks’ studio was never a major commercial success, despite attempts by Iwerks to create stars like Flip the Frog and Willie Whopper.
MGM distributed the majority of Iwerks’ cartoons but Iwerks also independently produced a series of Cinecolor animated shorts in the mid-1930s called the ComicColor Cartoons which consisted mainly of fairy tale one-shots like Jack and the Beanstalk, The Little Red Hen, Puss in Boots, Aladdin, Jack Frost and many others throughout the thirties.
Iwerks even continued to show his inventive nature by experimenting with the animation process but backers withdrew financial support for his studio when his cartoons failed to reach Disney or Fleischer level fame. While Flip the Frog was not a bad character and not all of Iwerks’ cartoons lacked creativity, what Iwerks did lack was Walt Disney’s polish when it came to story and characters, as well as lacking a sense of humor according to frequent collaborator and Looney Tunes director Chuck Jones who said Iwerks did not know what was funny.
Speaking of Looney Tunes, in 1937 Looney Tunes producer Leon Schlesinger actually hired Iwerks to produce four cartoons starring Porky Pig and Gabby Goat with Iwerks directing the first two and Bob Clampett directing the other two. Following that short stint at WB, Iwerks directed several Color Rhapsodies for Columbia’s cartoon division Screen Gems, but his lack of huge success since leaving Disney eventually led Iwerks back to the Disney studio in 1940 where from that point forward he worked mainly in special effects and technical roles.
As Disney’s resident tech wizard from the 1940s to the 1960s, Iwerks is credited as the person who developed the live-action, animation hybrid process used in The Three Caballeros (1944) and Song of the South (1946), a process that he previously used in the Alice Comedies and would later refine in these films as well as other films that blend live action and animation like Fun & Fancy Free and Melody Time.
Iwerks also worked on all of Disney’s animated films from the 1950s, helped develop the Xerographic process for cel animation first used in One Hundred and One Dalmatians (1961), developed a clearer printing process for nature photography in Disney’s True Life Adventures series, worked on the special effects for 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, Darby O’Gill and the Little People and Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds and even worked on Disneyland attractions as an Imagineer for things like It’s a Small World, Great Moments with Mr. Lincoln (for which he developed the stage projection technology), Pirates of the Caribbean (flameless candles), The Haunted Mansion (the floating head of Madame Leota and the singing headstones) and the 360° viewing experience known as 360° Circarama (later known as Circle Vision 360) which Iwerks made possible when Walt Disney asked him if it could be done.
Iwerks devoted his last few years to creating innovations for Walt Disney World until his death of a heart attack in 1971, the same year that the Magic Kingdom opened. Based on how Iwerks started his career and how he ended his career, it would seem that no studio knew how to implement Ub Iwerks’ skills like Disney did. Their working relationship seems like it was destined to be. Although I’m still happy Iwerks went on his own and did what he felt he needed to do to get out of Disney’s shadow. Not only because he was the first person in the animation industry to hire Chuck Jones (yes, Iwerks was actually the first person in the animation industry to hire Chuck Jones out of Chouinard Art Institute when Jones became a cel-washer on Flip the Frog cartoons, and if Ub Iwerks had stayed with Disney, there is a very real possibility Chuck Jones may have never gotten hired to work at Warner Bros. on Looney Tunes, which is a scary thought!) but because in the process of going it alone, Ub Iwerks learned where his skills were best needed and most appreciated. More than just the hand behind the mouse, he was one of Hollywood’s greatest technical geniuses and he deserves recognition for that.