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Most animation fans know that Ub Iwerks co-created Mickey Mouse. But he contributed a lot more to animation than people think.
1. Ub Iwerks was a workhorse
While the rest of Disney’s studio was toiling away on the last few “Oswald the Lucky Rabbit” shorts that they were contractually obligated to finish for Universal, Ub animated the first Mickey Mouse cartoon, Plane Crazy, alone and in complete secrecy. During work hours, Ub would place dummy drawings of Oswald on top of his Mickey drawings so nobody would know what he was doing. At night, Ub would stay late and animate on Mickey. He animated the entire six-minute short singlehandedly in just a few weeks, reportedly averaging between 600-700 drawings a night, an astounding feat that hasn’t been matched since. When the success of Mickey Mouse propelled the Disney studio to new heights, Ub continued his efficient streak by animating extensive footage on Silly Symphonies shorts like The Skeleton Dance and Hell’s Bells.
2. Ub Iwerks was a mechanical marvel
When not animating with a pencil, Ub loved to build and create inventions. He was intrigued by the inner workings and mechanics of machines, and loved to delve into what made things work. Supposedly he once dismantled his car and reassembled it over the course of a weekend. With this mechanical knowhow, Ub invented devices that incorporated new techniques into his cartoons. After Iwerks opened the Iwerks Studio in 1930, he heard that Disney was attempting to develop what later became the multiplane camera. Ub one-upped his old partner and made his own version from car parts and scrap metal, and incorporated the multilane technique into his cartoons, like The Valiant Tailor:
3. Ub Iwerks was a jack of all trades, and a master of every one
Besides being a skilled animator, mechanic and machinist, Ub constantly expanded his creative and intellectual pursuits through hobbies and sports. Being the ultimate challenge-seeker, he excelled at every single thing he attempted. And when he felt that he had mastered something and it was no longer a challenge to him, he’d quit. When Ub bowled a perfect 300 game, he put his bowling ball in the closet and never bowled again. When he took up archery, he became such a skilled archer that he got bored of getting bulls-eyes and quit that too. Even as an animator, Ub felt he perfected his craft and after his studio closed in the mid-1930s, he never animated again.
4. Ub Iwerks created movie magic
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.
5. Ub Iwerks made animation what it is today
If Winsor McCay laid he foundation for character animation, then Ub Iwerks built a castle on top of it. He took the didactic rigidness of what animation was in his era and made it loose, organic, appealing and fun. Building upon what Otto Messmer did before him with Felix the Cat, the characters Ub animated were packed with personality. Characters like Oswald the Lucky Rabbit and Mickey Mouse were creations that audiences could relate to as no characters before. They thought, breathed, emoted and were infused with life.
What Iwerks designed and animated in shorts like Steamboat Willie and Skeleton Dance contained the principles (squash and stretch, appeal, anticipation, etc.) that became the genesis of the “Disney style”, which animators like Fred Moore and Milt Kahl later fleshed out. His work reached out and influenced animators all over the world, and they took the ball and ran with it. Rudolph Ising and Hugh Harman, who worked under Ub at Disney, brought his sensibilities to Warner Bros. and developed the Merrie Melodies and Looney Tunes series. Many animators got their start at Ub’s studio in the early 30′s, 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.
Who needs the Disney Company! We’ve already got the movie poster for a biopic about Walt Disney so we may as well go ahead and cast the movie. That’s what Cartoon Brew reader Ron did in the comments section yesterday. Below are his novel casting choices for the likes of Roy Disney, Ub Iwerks, Margaret Winkler, Fred Moore, Bill Tytla, Art Babbitt, Frank Thomas, Ollie Johnston and others. Share your dream cast in the comments.
Roy O. Disney :: Joel David Moore
Ub Iwerks :: Tarran Killam
Charles Mintz :: Jeremy Piven
Margaret Winkler :: Samantha Morton
Fred Moore :: Sam Huntington
Ward Kimball :: Chris Diamantopoulos
Bill Tytla :: Kevin Dillon
Art Babbitt :: Don Swayze (Apparently, Swayze has already committed to this non-existent film. Ron wrote in the comments, “I’ve met him in person and he looks just like a young Art Babbitt. I told him that in fact and said he should try to play Art Babbitt in a biopic. He seemed open to the idea once I explained who Art Babbitt was and his contribution to history.”)
Marc Davis :: David Cross
Frank Thomas and Ollie Johnston :: Jason Bateman and Jon Cryer
Mike Van Eaton is in the midst of compiling and co-producing a mammoth animation art-and-artifact auction with Profiles in History (run by Joe Maddalena) with over 1,500 lots, set to happen May 14th and 15th at the Saban Theater in Beverly Hills. Day one will feature 700 lots containing some of the most coveted items in Disney Animation history, including a handwritten letter written in 1924 by Walt to his former colleague and soon-to-be designer of Mickey Mouse, Ub Iwerks (1901-1971). This is the letter – which has been quoted in such books as Mike Barrier’s The Animated Man, Bob Thomas’ Walt Disney: An American Original, and Leslie Iwerks/John Kenworthy’s The Hand Behind The Mouse – in which Walt convinces Ub to come to Hollywood and join the studio… the rest, as you know, is history. Mike has graciously allowed me to post the letter exclusively on Cartoon Brew for all our readers to enjoy.
Note the envelope (above) and letter (thumbnails below, click to enlarge) is on Disney Bros. Studio letterhead, and addressed to his “Dear friend Ubbe,“. Disney pens (transcription in full):
“Dear friend Ubbe,
I’ll say I was surprised to hear from you and also glad to hear from you. Everything is going fine with us and I am glad you have made up your mind to come out. Boy, you will never regret it – this is the place for you – a real country to work and play in – no kidding – don’t change your mind – remember what ol’ Horace Greeley said” ‘Go west young man – go west!’
We have just finished our sixth comedy for M. J. Winkler and are starting tomorrow on the seventh of the first series of twelve. Miss Winkler is well pleased with them and has given us some high praise – she is leaving New York for here June 1st, and I believe we will be able to start a twice a month schedule, instead of our monthly schedule.
I can give you a job as artist-cartoonist and etc. with the Disney Productions, most of the work would be cartooning. Answer at once and let me know what you want to start and I will write more details. At the present time I have one fellow helping me on the animating, three girls that do the inking, etc. while Roy handles the business end. I have a regular cast of kids that I use in the picture and little Virginia is the star.
Write and tell me how soon you want to come out – if you can leave before the first of the month all the better – of course you would sell all of your furniture and also your car? Wouldn’t you? I believe it would be best if you did. Anyways, write and let me know all the details. Give my regards to everyone at the Film Ad and the boys at the Arabian Nights, and also to your mother. As ever your old friend.
Don’t hesitate – Do it now – !
– P. D. Q. –
P.S. I wouldn’t live in K.C. now if you gave me the place – yep – you bet –
Hooray for Hollywood – !!”
Mike says, and I agree, “One could argue that had this letter not been exchanged, the world would never have known Mickey Mouse, and Disney himself might have ended up as little more than a footnote in Hollywood history.” Photos of Iwerks driving the Davis family’s seven-passenger Cadillac across the U.S., as mentioned in the letter, are posted below (click thumbnails to enlarge). The winner of this lot gets these photos and a letter of authenticity from Ub’s son, David Iwerks. More info is at Profiles In History websi
Inspired by black and white cartoons from the 1920s and 1930s, Paris-based web designer Tracey Polyflavor has been creating decorative millefori jewelry and fashion accessories using polymer clay. Here’s how she does it. Some of her designs are based on imagery from Ub Iwerk’s 1929 Silly Symphony, Hell’s Bells (see below). A perfect gift for that early-talkie cartoon girl in your life… Check out her whole line at polyflavour.com.
Dallas Poague of Monkey in a Dryer and Pally Pal paper toys has recently put his love of the great 1930s where his internet is! Although the site is currently under construction, his tribute to Ub Iwerks is chock fulla interesting facts, comical cartoons and a 90-minute biography of the man behind the man who swiped The Mouse right out from under him (citation needed)! So go pop some corn, grab a sarsaparilla and while away the day watching cartoons in living blackened white – just the way your grandparents like ‘em!