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The Ub Iwerks Story -- Part II

The Ub Iwerks Story -- Part II

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When I had the opportunity to interview Peter Ellenshaw, the Disney master of matte painting, who worked on several projects with Ub Iwerks about what Iwerks was really like, Ellenshaw very diplomatically answered "He was amazing. He was a genius. But it was obvious we had very different senses of humor." Even the easy going Ellenshaw obviously had some challenges dealing with the secret genius of the Disney Studio.

According to the book WALT DISNEY: A BIOGRAPHY by Barbara Ford, "In spite of his skills, Ub remained the same shy, inarticulate, serious young man he had been when Walt first met him. He was extremely nervous around young women. Ub's personality made him a natural foil for confident Walt's practical jokes. At Kansas City Film Ad Company, Walt would send Ub postcards signed with girls' names, lock him in the washroom so that he had to hammer on the door to get out, and smuggle animals into his desk and locker. Ub never complained."

Ub never complained not necessarily because he was a good sport but because he seemed to have difficult expressing emotion and it would sometimes bubble up in a temper to rival Walt's. So when an opportunity came up in 1930 to run his own studio his own way without any interference from Walt and at a salary double what he was currently making, Ub decided it was time to move on and avoid his growing frustration at Disney.

Walt, who was in New York at the time, was taken completely by surprise and felt betrayed by his longtime friend's decision to leave the Disney Studio. Even worse, Ub was going to be a competitor.

To be fair, Ub didn't feel his leaving would put the studio in jeopardy since a process had been established to produce the Mickey Mouse and Silly Symphony cartoons and the studio had expanded with more than enough other animators like Les Clark capable of doing the work. Roy Disney even sent a note to Walt explaining that there was no evidence of malice in Ub's action and that he was always a little naïve when it came to business dealings. The Disneys paid Ub less than $3,000 for his 20% partnership in the company which was a substantial amount in 1930. (That 20% would have been worth billions today.)

Under the banner of Celebrity Productions, Iwerks produced three cartoon series from 1930 to approximately 1936: Flip the Frog, Willie Whopper and the ComiColor cartoon fables.

After the first two cartoons, Flip was modified to be less froglike and with new short pants, white shoes and gloves, he resembled nothing more than one of the several Mickey Mouse wannabes like Warners' Foxy which were prevalent at the time. The cartoons did resemble the early Mickey Mouse cartoons with several similar plots like a dark house mystery and building a robot but although they featured strong animation, the stories meandered at a slow pace and never took advantage of the opportunities for gags.

The ComiColor Cartoon series were primarily adaptations of classic folklore stories like Jack and the Beanstalk, the Headless Horseman and Sindbad the Sailor. They were produced in Cinecolor, a two color process using a combination of red and blue hues . Many of the cartoons were filmed in a three dimensional effect using a crude multiplane camera Iwerks had built using parts from an old Chevrolet automobile for about $300. These technical improvements never compensated for the lack of a strong story and charismatic characters.

The Willie the Whopper series recounted the adventures of a pudgy young boy (voiced by a seven year old Jane Withers in one of her first professional jobs) who told tall tales known as "whoppers" and who at the end of each cartoon encouraged audiences to tell one of their own.

The studio was staffed by soon to be legendary animators like Grim Natwick, Shamus Culhane, Virgil Ross and Rudy Zamora as well as a young man just starting his career, Chuck Jones, who was employed to wash the ink and paint off cels so they could be re-used. (Chuck also got a chance to get to know Ub's secretary, Dorothy, who would later become Chuck's first wife.) However, while Iwerks was an inspiration as an animator, his laconic manner, often misunderstood by others as being sullen, was unable to provide the leadership needed to guide these talented individuals to creative heights.

It quickly became obvious that Iwerks was unable or unwilling to adapt his cartoons to changes happening in the cartoons of the Thirties which ironically were sparked by the rapid advances in Disney animation. Just as apparent was the fact that Ub was becoming less interested in animation and the day-to-day running of the studio and more interested in technology and was happiest when tinkering with mechanical problems.

Rich production values could not compensate for lead characters who were passive and lacked clear, charismatic personalities nor for unfocused stories so the studio laid off much of its staff in 1935 and shifted from independent production to subcontracting. Ub directed two Porky Pig cartoons and directed some of the Color Rhapsodies series for Columbia.

Iwerks became progressively more and more unhappy about his situation and on September 9, 1940, he returned to the Disney Studio and became Walt's creative technical director for the studio's new Optical Print Department. Iwerks stayed at the studio for the next three decades as a technical troubleshooter until his death in 1971 and his credit of "special processes" appears on numerous Disney films.

Ub's rehiring was done by Ben Sharpsteen and Walt pointedly did not want to know the details even though it was highly unusual for the Disney Studio to rehire someone who left to become a competitor. Walt dealt with Ub at a professional distance with no revival of the social connections of the past. They respected each other and publicly praised each other but a definite chill existed that was sensed by all who worked at the studio.

However, Walt recognized how valuable Ub was to the Studio and left him alone to explore his own instincts regarding technological matters. Ub designed and built the first multi-head optical printer which made possible the combination of live action and animation in THE THREE CABALLEROS (and later modifications he made on this device were responsible for the more intricate combinations of live action and animation in MARY POPPINS).

He assisted in the development of a xerography process that allowed animator's artwork as in 101 DALMATIANS (1961) to be transferred directed to xerox cels and thus eliminated the inking process.

Although Ub was no longer involved in animation, Dave Smith of the Disney Archives has revealed that Ub slipped in at least one drawing in every picture he worked on. For example, he did the art work for a coral reef in a process shot in 20,000 LEAGUES UNDER THE SEA and he did a lot of uncredited artwork in the training films that the studio did for the military during World War II as well as animated an unused segment for Danny Kaye's film, UP IN ARMS.

He designed many of the effects for such Disneyland attractions as "it's a small world" and "Pirates of the Caribbean" and did the design for the film presentation for the "Hall of Presidents" attraction for Walt Disney World. In 1962, Ub was loaned out to Alfred Hitchcock and put in more than three hundred hours on special effects for THE BIRDS.

Ub was a collector of mechanical things, firearms and early cameras and related material like glass slides. Professionally, he was a member of several organizations including the Motion Picture Research Council, the American Society of Cinematographers, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences and the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences.

In 1959, Ub received an Academy Award for the design of an improved optical printer for special effects and matte shots. He received another Oscar in 1964 on the conception and perfection of techniques for color traveling matte composite cinematography. (Iwerks and his staff perfected the traveling matte system in MARY POPPINS to create the scenes where characters danced with animated penguins and the "Feed the Birds" sequence in which hundreds of pigeons flocked around St. Paul's Cathedral.) He also received the Herbert T. Kalmus Cold Medal Award for his outstanding contributions to the industry.

"My granddad was a quiet man. His house in Sherman Oaks was studious and modern, with Mozart playing all the time. Grandma Mildred liked flower-arranging - simple designs like ikebana," commented Kathie Iwerks Stark, Ub's granddaughter.

According to Stark, her grandfather taught himself to bowl but stopped once he'd bowled 300, a perfect game. He also abandoned archery once he'd perfected that sport. To relax, Ub Iwerks played poker with Ben "Bugs" Hardaway, one of the creators of Bugs Bunny and one of the creators of Woody Woodpecker.

Ub passed away in 1971, five years after Walt Disney. Don Iwerks, one of Ub's sons, spent thirty-five years at the Walt Disney Companies and some of that time working with his dad. Don and his team designed and manufactured unique film systems for both Disneyland and Walt Disney World. Ub's other son, David, also worked at the Disney Studios in special effects. In 1986, Don left Disney to help start Iwerks Entertainment which became one of the world's leading providers of location-based entertainment attractions with over 250 installations operating or contracted worldwide. It continues Ub's spirit of innovation in technology.

Walt and Ub were a great team. Iwerks was able to develop and perfect technical processes that supported Walt's creative ideas and was content to remain in Walt's shadow even after Walt's death. Ub was a quiet and unassuming man who many felt could have followed the same path as Walt but their paths diverged yet eerily remained parallel and now decades later, thanks to his granddaughter's book and film documentary, Disney's secret genius is beginning to receive some belated recognition for his many accomplishments. He was posthumously named a Disney Legend in 1989.

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