"Iwerks is Screwy spelled backwards" -- Chuck Jones
August 31, 2012 11:00 PM   Subscribe

"Over the years in animation, there have been a lot of great animators. Ub Iwerks was one of those people. We know his work, but we don't necessarily know the man." The Hand Behind the Mouse: The Ub Iwerks Story (in 5 parts on DailyMotion: 1, 2, 3, 4, and 5) tells of the life of Ubbe Eert Iwerks, from the formation of the friendship with Walt Disney when they met at advertisement studio in Kansas City, their artistic collaborations and Ub's 20 years of animation, to Iwerk's technical creations that kept Disney animated pictures ahead of other studios.

Ubbe Iwerks was born in 1901 in Kansas City, Missouri, the son of an inventor, Eert Ubbe Iwwerks. The younger Iwerks would later go by Ub, or U.B. Iwerks, and on occasion Herbert. Iwerks met Walt Disney in Pesmen-Rubin Commercial Art Studio in their late teens. They formed two ill-fated companies, first the Iwerks-Disney Studio Commercial Artists, which lasted a month, then Laugh-O-Gram Studio, where Ub was chief animator, and they made 11 short films. That, too went under (tangent: the building remains, but it's seen some rough days, which might not yet be over). But one of the characters from Laugh-O-Gram lived on: Alice, the little girl in an animated world.

Walt moved to California, where he and his brother, Roy, pooled their resources and started a cartoon studio. Walt then convinced Virginia Davis, the live-action star of Alice, and her family to come to Hollywood, and invited Ub, too. "Remember what ol’ Horace Greeley said” ‘Go west young man – go west!’"

Ub did, and he worked on a new character, Oswald The Lucky Rabbit, in 1927. Disney went back to New York to re-negotiate the fees per short, but was greeted with the news that Universal Pictures owned the character, and Walt's animators had been hired out from under him. Walt was given the option to get less per short, or get nothing. Disney returned to California, where he had no main character, no animators other than Ub, who had turned down the offer for a higher salary.

Ub drew up a number of animals, but it was a mouse that replaced Oswald as Disney's new star. Mickey grew in fame, eclipsing Felix the Cat as the most famous cartoon character, and Felix faded as Mickey's cartoons with sound gained in number and popularity. Ub also animated Silly Symphonies for Disney, utilizing sound-syncing by Cinephone, thanks to business and technological backing of Pat Powers and his associates. Powers, realizing that the Disney magic was largely the work of Ub Iwerks, convinced Ub to open his own studio, with backing from Powers. Ub's studio released 40 Flip the Frog cartoons, about a dozen shorts featuring Willie Whopper 25 ComiColor Cartoons, most based on fairy tales. Iwerks Studio was a who's-who of early animation, including Ed Friedman and a young Chuck Jones, who started as a cel washer. Ub implemented some technical features he created on his own, including a multiplane camera made from an old Chevrolet sedan (Google books preview). When Iwerks Studio lost its financial backing and folded in 1936, Iwerks was contracted to direct Looney Tunes shorts and some shorts for Screen Gems.

Ub rejoined Disney in 1940, but as a animation technician instead of an animator, making animation faster and cheaper to meet the Wartime demands. Ub was head of Disney's Photographic Effects Lab. Iwerks and crew brought the animated Three Caballeros to the real world of South America, he helped cut out the entire ink and paint department with Xerox in 101 Dalmations, and brought the terrifying flock of birds to Hitchcock's The Birds. After two decades of exemplary animation, it would be his technical achievements that would win Iwerks awards, though he was posthumously awarded an Windsor McCay Award for his lifetime contributions in animation. In the summer of 1971, Ub Iwerks had a stroke, but kept on working. His left hand became limp and useless so he would use his right hand to maneuver it. His staff finally convinced him to go to the hospital where he died on the morning of July 7th 1971.

The memory of Ub Iwerks is honored with the 1999 addition of the Ub Iwerks Award for Technical Achievement to the Annie Awards.

Selected filmography:
posted by filthy light thief (14 comments total) 35 users marked this as a favorite
* A short post on the animation of Ub Iwerks, with some different links on Ub and a couple video clips
* Oswald, Mickey, and Mortimer, featuring more clips from Mikey's early days, but no mention of Ub.
* It all started with Alice, a post on Virginia Davis' history as the little girl Alice in the Alice Comedies.
posted by filthy light thief at 11:04 PM on August 31, 2012

Final tangent: In 1996, NBC acquired ABC sportscaster Al Michaels to do play-by-play for Sunday night NFL games. In return, ABC gets rights to broadcast the Ryder Cup on ESPN, increased access to Olympic highlights and ... Oswald the Lucky Rabbit, who returned to Disney almost 80 years after he was created.
posted by filthy light thief at 11:11 PM on August 31, 2012 [1 favorite]

Holy crap. I have been lost down the interweb rabbithole all afternoon/evening, looking up Iwerks stuff, having discovered a car parked at a neighbor's with vanity plate "UBWERKS".

You are the best. This is glorious.

That Hand Behind the Mouse documentary? Directed by his granddaughter Leslie.
posted by ApathyGirl at 11:26 PM on August 31, 2012 [2 favorites]

Holy crap. That is the best vanity plate ever.

Many years ago, I was at a friend's house. He was watching some cartoons with his son- something I had never seen before, I swear, and not one of his well-known characters.

I walked in, looked at the screen for maybe a second, and said "Ub Iwerks."

"Nerd," my friend replied.

"Yes," I accepted.
posted by louche mustachio at 1:01 AM on September 1, 2012 [2 favorites]

Ha, Fryslân represents. Excellent post.
posted by MartinWisse at 1:31 AM on September 1, 2012

Excellent post. I love early animation and didn't know much about Iwerks, so I'm glad to see this.
posted by immlass at 7:05 AM on September 1, 2012

In other words, Ub Iwerks was the Steve Wozniak to Disney's Steve Jobs--the guy who did all the technical work that made somebody else massively rich.
posted by jonp72 at 7:08 AM on September 1, 2012 [2 favorites]

Thank you, filthy light thief, outstanding post! The Daily Motion doc was great...now to get to these other bits.
posted by rmmcclay at 8:14 AM on September 1, 2012

jonp72, I think that's fairly accurate. Woz made the beginnings, which Jobs took farther. Ditto Iwerks and Disney. As old animators have commented, according to animation historian Charles Solomon, "Ub designed Mickey's physical appearance, but Walt gave him his soul."
posted by filthy light thief at 8:28 AM on September 1, 2012

You can see one of the three remaining original multiplane cameras at the Walt Disney Family Museum in San Francisco. He's a real throughline to the galleries, and it's amazing the things he came up with.

(self-disclosure: I'm a contractor for the museum)
posted by smirkette at 11:03 AM on September 1, 2012 [1 favorite]

smirkette, are any of them built from Chevy parts, or is there any explanation about how Iwerks used car parts to build a camera? This factoid is tossed around, but I haven't found any explanation of it, let alone pictures of the camera in question.
posted by filthy light thief at 1:39 PM on September 1, 2012

jonp72, I think that's fairly accurate. Woz made the beginnings, which Jobs took farther. Ditto Iwerks and Disney. As old animators have commented, according to animation historian Charles Solomon, "Ub designed Mickey's physical appearance, but Walt gave him his soul."

I think it's a little too metaphysical to take about Mickey Mouse's soul, but I think the other similarity to the Wozniak/Jobs relationship is that both Jobs and Disney created grand intellectual property empires, but that the initial components of the intellectual property were not developed by them.
posted by jonp72 at 2:13 PM on September 1, 2012

He would have been sainted for Skeleton Dance alone. Probably the first cartoon that ever truly blew my mind as a young 'un.
posted by mykescipark at 3:08 PM on September 1, 2012 [1 favorite]

Thanks for this. Derail: I read one of Jones' autobiographies (Chuck Amuck) and it was pretty interesting stuff. Johnson the cat, trolling the Warner Brothers managers and executives in the studio, the hacked-together cell projection system made of spare parts, duct tape and baling wire..I loved that book. I've lived that book.
posted by ostranenie at 8:17 PM on September 2, 2012

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