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The Ub Iwerks Story

The Ub Iwerks Story

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He was born in the midwest in 1901. While in Kansas City, he animated a series of cartoons called Laugh-O-Grams. Later in California, he was responsible for the creation of Mickey Mouse. Over the decades, he was recognized as a genius and innovator and was honored with Academy Awards. Even after his death, the company that bears his name provides entertainment at theme parks that delight millions of people every year.

If that description seems a perfect description of Walt Disney, then it may be surprising to learn that it is also a perfect description of a mysterious gentleman known as Ub Iwerks. For decades, he was merely a footnote in the history of the Disney Company and yet his life oddly paralleled that of his boyhood friend, Walt Disney.

"Walt was the producer, director, the idea guy," said John Lasseter, co-founder of Pixar Animation Studios and the force behind such computer animated films as TOY STORY. "But Ub was his hands. He's the guy who actually drew Mickey Mouse. It just is remarkable to me to think about his talent."

Ub Iwerks finally got some recognition in THE HAND BEHIND THE MOUSE: AN INTIMATE BIOGRAPHY by John Kenworthy and Iwerks' granddaughter, Leslie, which is a hardcover biography that explores Ub's amazing life in a way that has only been very briefly touched in the other books about Disney history. It is the perfect companion to Leslie Iwerks' critically acclaimed ninety-minute film documentary, THE HAND BEHIND THE MOUSE: THE UB IWERKS STORY which had a limited release at a variety of film festivals and is currently available on video but not DVD. Both the book and the video are still available at Amazon.com. which also offers the two volume DVD collection THE CARTOONS THAT TIME FORGET featuring cartoons from Iwerks' own animation studio.

Leslie was only one year old when her grandfather died but grew up hearing the stories of his contributions to the Disney empire yet found scant mention of these achievements in public records. As a fifth-grader, Leslie wrote a class report on the grandfather she barely knew but had heard about all her life. "When everybody was so amazed, I thought, 'Wow! I have a famous grandfather, but no one knows it'," Iwerks said.

To correct this situation, she eventually began the film documentary of her grandfather in 1990 as an independent project. However, the Disney Company was understandably reluctant to share material and images that might dim the bright spotlight on their founder and which featured valuable trademarked images. Roy E. Disney who has become something of a savior of animation interceded on her behalf and the film became a Disney production as well as opening the Disney vault for Leslie to have access to the company's material on Iwerks.

"Walt and Ub were a great team," Roy E. Disney said. "They had something special, those two. It just clicked."

As interesting as the documentary is, it still fails to penetrate the shadows surrounding a very shy and private genius. When the Disney Studio began in 1923, it was rumored that Iwerks was the "secret genius" behind the success of the studio. Over the years, top animators from Betty Boop creator Grim Natwick to Les Clark, one of the fabled Nine Old Men, described Iwerks as "a genius. He was like Walt." On the darker side, at times Ub's career offers a chilling Twilight Zone look into what Walt Disney's life might have been like without Walt's talent as a salesman and storyteller.

Ubbe Ert Iwwerks was born on March 24, 1901 in Kansas City, Missouri. It was not until he was in his twenties, that he shortened his name to "Ub Iwerks" which was still unusual enough to attract the audience's attention when his name appeared in screen credits.

Not fond of scholastics, he dropped out of Northeast High School in 1916 to work full time at the Union Bank Note Company. When he was eighteen, he got a job at the Pesmin-Rubin Commerical Art Studio where he was hired to do lettering and air brush work.

It was there he met another eighteen year old named Walter Elias Disney. The outgoing Walt and the unassuming Ub struck up a friendship and when both were laid off, they went into business for themselves as an independent art studio called Iwerks-Disney. (They decided that Disney-Iwerks sounded too much like an eyeglass company.)

Walt immediately leveraged friendships to get jobs for the fledging firm. When a job as an artist opened at the Kansas City Slide Company, Ub and Walt decided that Walt should apply for the position to get a steady paycheck to help support the struggling studio while Ub who was the stronger artist would keep their new business operating.

Unfortunately, Ub lacked Walt's salesmanship and was uncomfortable approaching new clients and was laconic when potential customers contacted him and the studio quickly closed for lack of work. Walt was able to get Ub a job at the Kansas City Slide Company which later changed its name to the Kansas City Film Ad Company. It was while they were with that company, that the two young men got their first exposure to animation.

When Walt left the company in 1922 to form his own company called Laugh-O-Gram, Ub joined him immediately and was the key animator in producing six modernized fairy tale animated cartoons like CINDERELLA. An unsuccessful distribution deal forced the young business into bankruptcy and Walt Disney went to Hollywood to seek his fortune in live action films while Ub returned to his old job at the Film Ad Company.

However, one final film done by the Laugh-O-Gram company entitled "Alice's Wonderland" which featured a mixture of live action with a little girl interacting with cartoon animals in a cartoon setting caught the attention of a New York distributor who offered Walt a contract for more cartoons in the same format. It was the beginning of the Disney Brothers Studio in 1923.

While Walt did much of the animation on the first few films himself, he quickly contacted Ub in Kansas City and persuaded him to come to California and become a vital part of the new studio. Almost from the beginning, Ub was paid more than anyone else on the staff including Walt. His salary quickly rose to $120 a week (over twice what Walt was making) and he was not only the key animator and informal teacher to the younger animators but was also drawing the lobby cards and theatrical posters. Walt never begrudged paying this huge salary because he was well aware of Ub's value when it came to handling these responsibilities.

These responsibilities continued even after nearly fifty Alice Comedies were produced and a new series for Oswald the Lucky Rabbit was begun. Ub began putting money in the business, having thirty-five dollars deducted from his salary each week to be applied toward a twenty percent interest in the partnership in the Disney Brothers Studio.

Disney's New York film distributor for the Oswald cartoons owned the rights to the character and in attempt to have greater control and greater profits hired all of Disney's animation staff except for Iwerks away from Disney to work for his own studio in producing new Oswald cartoons. According to legend, on the train ride back to California, Walt came up with the concept of Mickey Mouse to replace the loss of the popular Oswald.

"As far as I know, that's all publicity hype," said Dave Smith, Director of the Disney Archives.

It seems clear that while Walt may have originated the idea, it was working closely with Ub that the final design and approach to the character as well as the story situations were developed. In fact, Ub pretty much animated the first three Mickey Mouse cartoons single-handedly. It was documented that Iwerks could produce 700 drawings a day that were usable. Today, a good animator may turn out as many as 100 drawings a week if he is lucky.

Ub's loyalty and commitment and talent allowed Walt to save his studio. As before, Ub also trained young animators and would stop his own work to encourage others, did the lobby cards and posters and even illustrated the daily Mickey Mouse comic strip.

In later years, Ub's key contribution in the creation and early development of Mickey Mouse was downplayed even though the title card of the original cartoons as well as the comic strip prominently featured Ub's name and it was often in larger typeface than Walt's name.

Ub's sons, David and Donald who both ended up working at Disney, have insisted that their father never felt any resentment over this situation nor any proprietary interest in the character of Mickey. Many times in a variety of situations, Ub stated, "It was what Walt did with Mickey that was important, not who created him."

In early 1929, while in New York, Walt wrote a letter back to his wife that stated, "everyone praised Ub' art work...Tell Ub that the New York animators take off their hats to his animation and all of them know who we are." Walt would refer to Ub as "the greatest animator in the world."

As a forum for experimentation, Walt took the suggestion of the studio's musical director, Carl Stalling, and produced a series of cartoons synchronized to musical themes and entitled the Silly Symphonies. Ub once again almost single-handedly animated the first in the series, "The Skeleton Dance", and soon was promoted to a director on the series.

Happily married with two sons, respect and admiration from his peers, and a huge salary, it seemed as if Ub's life was close to perfect which made it all the more surprising when in January 1930, Ub went in to see Roy Disney and announced he was leaving the studio.

Iwerks had been offered the chance to have a studio of his own and a salary of $300 a week (double what he was getting at Disney). Obviously, the opportunity to operate his own studio and to provide greater financial security for his family were factors in Ub's desire to leave the Disney Studio. However, most historians agree that it was personal differences with Walt which was the major deciding factor in Ub deciding to go out on his own.

Being a boyhood friend of Walt and seeing his early struggles and realizing his weaknesses as an artist, Ub was less in awe of the head of the studio as were the new animators and the public. As a result, Ub was more resentful when Walt intruded in the animation process by re-timing Ub's exposure sheets or by insisting that Ub change his method of animating to produce only key drawings and allowing assistants to do the in-between drawings. Even more so, Walt had a reputation of having fun at others' expense and the shy Iwerks was an easy target for these remarks and pranks and Walt never realized that Ub's quietness in these situations hid embarrassment and anger that eventually bubbled up in this decision. Yet while the tension between the two men was apparent, not one person can ever recall Ub saying a negative word about Walt.

  Next: The world eagerly watches to see what triumphs the secret genius of the Disney Studio will produce and Ub returns to a new role at Disney.
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