Animator and Special Effects Technician. Nationality: American. Born: Ubbe Ert Iwerks in Kansas City, Missouri, 24 March 1901. Education: Attended Ashland Grammar School, Kansas City, to age 13. Career: Worked for a bank; 1919–20—worked for commercial art firm; 1920–23—formed two artwork companies with Walt Disney, both of which failed; 1923–30—joined Disney's successful company in Hollywood as an animator; 1930–36—directed his own Ub Iwerks Studio, releasing through MGM; 1937–40—worked for Columbia and Warner Brothers; 1941—reconciled with Disney, and became special effects director; also designed several Disneyland attractions. Awards: Academy Technical Award, 1959, 1964. Died: 7 July 1971.
Films as Animator:
The Gallopin' Gaucho; Steamboat Willie
Plane Crazy; The Barn Dance; The Opry House; When the Cat's Away; The Skeleton Dance; The Barnyard Battle; The Plow Boy; The Karnival Kid; Mickey's Follies; El Terrible Toreador; Mickey's Choo-Choo; Springtime; The Jazz Fool; Hell's Bells; Jungle Rhythm; The Haunted House
Fiddlesticks; Flying Fists; The Village Barber; The Coocoo Murder Case; Puddle Pranks; Laughing Gas; Ragtime Romeo; Little Orphan Willie; The Village Smitty; The Soup Song; Movie Mad; The New Car
Jail Birds; Africa Squeaks; The Village Specialist; What a Life; The Milkman; Fire! Fire!; Spooks; Puppy Love; Stormy Seas; School Days; The Bully; The Office Boy; Room Runners; Circus; The Goal Rush; The Phony Express; The Toy Parade; The Music Lesson; Nurse Maid
Funny Face; Technocracked; Bulloney; A Chinaman's Chance; Pale-Face; The Soda Squirt; Play Ball; Jack and the Beanstalk; Spite Flight; Stratos-Fear
Davy Jones' Locker; Hell's Fire (Vulcan Entertains); The Little Red Hen; Robin Hood, Jr.; Insultin' the Sultan; The Brave Tin Soldier; Reducing Creme; Rasslin' Round; Puss in Boots; The Cave Man; The Queen of Hearts; Jungle Jitters; Aladdin and the Wonderful Lamp; A Good Scout; Viva Willie; The Headless Horseman; The Valiant Tailor; Don Quixote; Jack Frost
Little Black Sambo; Bremen Town Musicians; Old Mother Hubbard; Mary's Little Lamb; Summertime; Sinbad the Sailor; The Three Bears; Balloonland (The Pincushion Man); Simple Simon; Humpty Dumpty; See How They Won
Ali Baba; Tom Thumb; Dick Whittington's Cat; Little Boy Blue; Happy Days; Leave It to John; Two Lazy Crows
Skeleton Frolic; Merry Mannequins; The Foxy Pup; Porky and Gabby; Porky's Super Service
The Horse on the Merry-Go-Round; Snowtime; The Frog Pond; Midnight Frolics
The Gorilla Hunt; Nell's Yells; Crop Chasers
Blackboard Revue; The Egg Hunt; Ye Olde Swap Shoppe; The Wise Owl
Stop That Tank
Films as Special Effects Technician:
The Reluctant Dragon (Werker and others)
The Three Caballeros (Ferguson)
Make Mine Music (Kinney and others); Song of the South (Foster)
Fun and Fancy Free (Kinney and others)
Melody Time (Luske and others)
Ichabod and Mr. Toad (Kinney, Algar, and Geronimi); Cinderella (Jackson, Luske, and Geronimi)
The Living Desert (Algar)
The Vanishing Prairie (Algar); 20,000 Leagues under the Sea (Fleischer)
Lady and the Tramp (Luske, Geronimi, and Jackson); The African Lion (Algar)
Secrets of Life (Algar); Westward Ho the Wagons! (Beaudine)
Lapland (Sharpsteen); Johnny Tremain (Stevenson); Perri (Kenworthy and Wright)
White Wilderness (Algar); Sleeping Beauty (Geronimi)
Toby Tyler, or Ten Weeks with a Circus (Barton); Jungle Cat (Algar)
Pollyanna (Swift); Ten Who Dared (Beaudine); One Hundred and One Dalmations (Reitherman, Luske, and Geronimi)
The Parent Trap (Swift)
The Birds (Hitchcock); The Three Lives of Thomasina (Chaffey)
On IWERKS: book—
Holliss, Richard, and Brian Sibley, Walt Disney's Mickey Mouse: His
Life and Times, New York, 1986.
On IWERKS: articles—
Film Fan Monthly, January 1968.
Brosnan, John, in Movie Magic, New York, 1974.
The Velvet Light Trap (Madison, Wisconsin), Spring 1978.
Maltin, Leonard, in Of Mice and Magic, New York, 1980.
Lenburg, Jeff, in The Great Cartoon Directors, London, 1983.
Banc-Titre (Paris), September 1983.
Classic Images (Muscatine, Iowa), August 1984.
Griffithiana (Gemona, Italy), December 1986.
Dobbs, G. Michael, "Cartoons That Time Forgot Series," in Video Watchdog (Cincinnati), September-October 1993.
Hogan, D. J., "Cartoons That Time Forgot—The UB Iwerks Collection: Things That Go Bump in the Night," in Filmfax (Evanston), February-March 1994.
Reid, J.H., "Tom Thumb," in Reid's Film Index (Wyong, New South Wales), no. 27, 1996.
Kaufman, J.B., "The Transcontinental Making of The Barn Dance," in Animation Journal (Orange), vol. 5, no. 2, 1997.
* * *
Along with Tex Avery, Ub Iwerks is certainly one of the most neglected artists who worked in the field of classical animation. Long associated with the animator Walt Disney, Iwerks never received the public or critical acclaim which rightfully should have been his, simply because, unlike Disney, Iwerks was an animator first, and a businessman second.
Iwerks met up with Disney in Kansas City, Missouri, in 1919, while both were working at a small commercial art house. In 1920, Iwerks and Disney left that company to try their luck as an independent organization, but they met with little success. Disney struck out on his own, and soon had a prosperous studio in Los Angeles. In 1923 Disney asked Iwerks to rejoin him and assist in animating his early live action/cartoon series, Alice in Cartoonland. This led to the first Mickey Mouse cartoons, including the silent Plane Crazy and the ground-breaking Steamboat Willie (the first theatrical cartoon with a synchronized sound track). Iwerks was credited on these productions with a "Drawn by" logo, and indeed, Iwerks's animation of these early Disney cartoons makes them fresh, imaginative, and funny, characteristics that Disney's later assembly-line style would almost totally obliterate.
P.A. Powers, an independent producer, offered Iwerks the chance to set up his own shop, and, much to Disney's chagrin, Iwerks accepted the offer. The move proved a milestone in Iwerks's career: he was given the chance to create his own cartoons, which were far more sophisticated and faster-paced than the Mickey Mouse cartoons. But Powers simply lacked the financial base to adequately launch the Iwerks studio, and although Iwerks created a series of excellent cartoons in the Flip the Frog series (1931–33) and some good, if unremarkable, entries in the Willie Whopper series (1933–34), the public was clearly not ready for Iwerks's advanced attempts at comic animation.
Flip the Frog, as he evolved into a mature character in such films as The Goal Rush, What a Life, The Phony Express, The Coocoo Murder Case, Technocracked, Movie Mad, and many others, displayed a cheerfully cynical, almost nihilistic attitude toward the world he inhabited. Iwerks packed the Flip cartoons with non-stop action, surrealist sight gags, decidedly adult double entendre jokes (many with frankly sexual overtones), and episodes of unprovoked violence which Disney would never have tolerated. Flip was far from the cuddly world of Mickey Mouse, and he made no attempt to cater to mainstream sensibilities. In many ways, Flip was much like Chaplin's tramp: abused, rejected, unlucky in love, triumphing only occasionally, and then usually through devious means. Many of the gags in the Flip cartoons still bring a gasp from contemporary audiences. In The Goal Rush, for example, a flute player in a marching band is summarily shot by the band-leader when he proves unable to play in key. In The Coocoo Murder Case, Iwerks displays his surrealist bent in a sequence near the end of the cartoon where Flip comes face to face with the Grim Reaper. Attempting to escape Death's clutches, Flip runs frantically down a hallway, opening one door after another in blind panic, until the hallway finally ends in a black pit. After a split second's hesitation, Flip dives into oblivion, and the cartoon ends in complete darkness. In all of the Flip cartoons, Iwerks's protagonist emerges as a real and delightfully complex character, in sharp contrast to the one-dimensional "antics" of the Disney stable, or the early Harman-Ising cartoons, with their cuddly mice and singing squirrels. But the humor was simply over most people's heads, and after a half-hearted attempt in the Willie Whopper series to play down to his presumably juvenile audience (the best Willie Whopper cartoon being Spite Flight), Iwerks went back to Disney, hat in hand. Disney took him back. He was too good a businessman to ignore Iwerks's value as an animator, but on a personal level he apparently never forgave Iwerks for his abortive bid for creative independence.
Iwerks took over the function of animation special effects supervisor full time. He worked extensively on Disney's multiplane camera, which lent a remarkable sense of depth to animated scenes (the camera was used spectacularly in the opening shot of Disney's Pinocchio). In the early 1960s perfected a method of transferring pencil drawings used in animation directly to plastic transparencies, or "cels," using a Xerox process. This advance eliminated the "inking" stage, where pencil drawings are traced in ink on the cels, and later gave such Disney features as One Hundred and One Dalmations a freshness and flexibility in characters' movements that was hitherto unattainable. Iwerks also worked to improve the "blue matte" process, which Disney used to combine live action with animation in many of his 1960s films. Alfred Hitchcock borrowed Iwerks from Disney to supervise the special effects in his 1963 production of The Birds.
Iwerks won two Academy Awards, in 1959 and 1964, for his accomplishments as an animator, and for the many innovative techniques he brought to the art form. By all accounts, he was much liked and respected within the industry and generally regarded as the supreme technical innovator of his day in the animation field. However, his skill remained an industry secret, and when he died in 1971 the obituaries, except in Variety, were brief. Iwerks certainly deserved better than that, not only for his own remarkably wry sense of humor as displayed in the Flip films, but also as the man who really brought Mickey Mouse to life. Without Iwerks, the Disney story would probably be quite different.
—Wheeler Winston Dixon