Ub Iwerks is a fascinating character in the history of animation and with Walt Disney Studios. Co-creator of Mickey and inventor of the xerox style of animation would be enough, but the personal drama with Walt makes the story more human, tragic, and interesting. Plus he built his own version of the MultiPlane camera out of car parts and scrap metal?!
The Walt Disney Family Museum has a biography and overview of Ub’s contributions to the company.
Ub Iwerks was a man of many talents. He was a prolific animator and a brilliant technical mind. He was Walt’s Swiss Army knife, a man who was to Walt whatever he needed him to be. He was as necessary to the beginning of Walt’s career as he was to the end. He left The Walt Disney Studios at a critical juncture to pursue his own career, but eventually found his way back to the company he had once animated into success to engineer it to new heights.
Kind of a lot glossed over in that “left…at a critical juncture…eventually found his way back”
Creative differences with Walt wore on Ub and when offered the chance for artistic freedom and financial backing to run his own animation studio in 1930, he took it. Unbeknownst to Ub, this deal was through Pat Powers, one of the co-founders of Universal Pictures who had a complicated relationship (to say the least) with The Walt Disney Studios. Powers distributed and provided sound equipment for Disney’s cartoons starting with the seminal Steamboat Willie, but soon after, Walt and Roy became suspicious of his business practices and hired their first company attorney, Gunther Lessing, to protect themselves and satisfy their remaining obligations to him.
Where Powers was the saving grace for Mickey Mouse and The Walt Disney Studios in 1928, by the next year he was in the middle of a legal quarrel with Walt over box office receipts, and then the following year, he had signed away Walt’s best friend and animator and ceded the right to distribute Walt’s cartoons to his company’s parent distributor, Columbia Pictures. Upon learning of his new employer, Ub went through Roy to explain to Walt that he did not mean to take a job from Powers, and had he known who he would be working for, “he would never have gone into this.”
So heartbreak for Walt who at the time was still trying to build a utopian studio. But not much on how Iwerks eventually ended up back at the studio. We get to see his name in the credits once again for Make Mine Music, which is a fun surprise if you’re following along in chronological order. Here’s what Neal Gabler has to say about the reunion:
Perhaps the most dramatic demonstration of his regard for the ghosts of his past was his treatment of the man who had committed what was, in Walt’s mind, one of the worst betrayals: his old partner, Ub Iwerks. After leaving the studio abruptly in 1930, lured by the blandishments of Pat Powers, Iwerks had fallen on hard times. His own studio had failed, forcing him to subcontract with Warner Bros. and then Columbia, but these arrangements were ultimately terminated too. “He was one of the first—if not the first—to give his characters depth and roundness,” animator Chuck Jones explained. “But he didn’t have any story capacity, and I don’t think he knew very much about humor; he wasn’t a funny man at all.” In 1940 he was teaching animation at a local vocational school and had gotten up the nerve to write Walt that July about the possibility of opening a school of his own, presumably to help train Disney animators. Walt referred the letter to Vern Caldwell in personnel, who dismissed the suggestion. Meanwhile Ben Sharpsteen, hearing about Iwerks’s plight, phoned him, said that starting a school would be “belittling,” and offered him a job checking animation, which Iwerks gratefully accepted. Sharpsteen was obviously trying to broker a rapprochement between Iwerks and Walt, and when he told Walt that he had asked Iwerks back, Walt said it was Sharpsteen’s prerogative to hire whomever he liked. But on August 9 Walt and Iwerks had lunch at the studio, over which, as Iwerks later told it, Walt asked him what he really wanted to do there. Iwerks, always more interested in technology than animation, said he answered, “Prowl around.” Overlooking their past dispute, Walt assigned him to help develop a new optical camera for special effects, illustrating both Walt’s commitment to anything that would help his studio regardless of his personal feelings and his attachment to his old colleagues now that he presided over an increasingly impersonal bureaucracy.
And “prowl around” he certainly did. Here’s a summary from Michael Ruocco at Cartoon Brew:
When Ub rejoined the Disney studio in 1940, Walt Disney gave his old partner free reign to do as he wished. With Disney’s resources, Ub developed special effects techniques for animation, live-action films and Disney’s theme parks, much of which is still in use today. He helped develop the sodium vapor process for live-action/animation combination and traveling mattes, which he won an Oscar for in 1965 after utilizing it in Mary Poppins. He adapted the Xerox process for animation, which eliminated the tedious task of hand inking every cel. For Disneyland, Ub designed and developed concepts for many of the park’s attractions, including the illusions in The Haunted Mansion and the animatronics for attractions like Great Moments with Mr. Lincoln and Pirates of the Caribbean. Disney even loaned him out to Alfred Hitchcock to help with the effects needed to create flocks of attacking birds in The Birds.
And Iwerks desert years weren’t a total bust either. His failed studio was a bit of a Forest Gump of the animation world :
Many animators got their start at Ub’s studio in the early 1930s, including UPA co-founder Steve Bosustow and Warner Bros. director Chuck Jones. Manga and anime pioneer Osama Tezuka was also greatly influenced and inspired by Ub’s work.