The Epic Career of Ub Iwerks
1. Kansas City
The son of a German immigrant, Iwerks was born in 1901 in Kansas CIty, Missouri. While working for the Pesmen-Rubin Commercial Art Studio, he met a young Walt Disney and the two started a business called Iwerks-Disney Studio Commercial Artists. The business ended after a single month, but the two continued to work together at the Kansas City Slide Company.
2. Laugh-O-Gram Films
In 1922, Walt Disney began Laugh-O-Gram Studios. Iwerks served as the company’s chief animator. The studio produced a handful of films including: Little Red Riding Hood, The Four Musicians of Bremen, Jack and the Beanstalk, Goldilocks and the Three Bears, and Alice’s Wonderland, the first of the Alice Comedies. A year later, the studio went bankrupt.
3. The Alice Comedies
After Laugh-O-Gram’s bankruptcy, Iwerks joined Disney in California as part of the Disney Brothers Studio. He worked on the Alice Comedies, a series of films that combined live action and animation. A total of 57 were produced between 1923-1927.
4. Oswald the Lucky Rabbit
With the end of the Alice Comedies, Disney and Iwerks needed a new character. They created Oswald the Lucky Rabbit, with Iwerks animating the first cartoon “Poor Papa”. They attempted to sell the cartoon to Universal, who rejected the initial film. Disney and company (including Iwerks) went back to the drawing board and created “Trolley Troubles”. Universal bought the film and Disney had its first hit.
5. Charles Mintz
Film producer Charles Mintz executed an artistic coup on Disney in 1928, stealing away the majority of his animation staff and revealing that Universal held all intellectual property rights to Oswald the Lucky Rabbit. In the end, only Iwerks remained loyal to Disney.
6. Mickey Mouse
To replace Oswald, Disney created the character of Mickey Mouse. According to Walt, he created the character on a train ride ride New York to California after the loss of Oswald. Disney provided some preliminary concept sketches for the character, then named Mortimer, before Iwerks took those initial ideas and crafted Mickey (his new name provided by Lillian Disney). Iwerks also animated the first Mickey Mouse film “Plane Crazy”.
As an animator, Iwerks became known for his prodigious output, finishing as many as 700 drawings a day.
7. Silly Symphonies
Iwerks worked on a number of the early Silly Symphony films, including “Skeleton Dance”, “Springtime”, and “El Terrible Torreador”.
8. Iwerks Studios
After a falling out with Disney, Iwerks opened the Iwerks Studio. He created characters like Flip the Frog and Willie Whopper, but none had the same success as his Disney creations. The company went bankrupt in 1936, and Ub returned to Disney in 1940.
9. The Inventor
Upon his return to Disney, Iwerks began to focus on the technical side of studio work. He invented a multi-plane optical printer used to combine live action and animation, as seen in Melody Time and Song of the South. In 1960, he won an Academy award for “ the design of an improved optical printer for special effects and matte shots” and in 1965 he won an Academy Award of Merit for “the conception and perfection of techniques for Color Traveling Matte Composite Cinematography.” He also used his technical prowess in the development of “it’s a small world”, “Great Moments With Mr. Lincoln”, and “The Hall of Presidents”, in addition to providing technical innovations for the project that would become Walt Disney World.
10. A Disney Legend
In 1989, Disney posthumously named Iwerks to the list of Disney Legends.