Meet the Man Who Helped Invent Disney's Magic

June 13, 2020, 2:23 PM · The late Marty Sklar often said about working for The Walt Disney Company, "there's only one name on that door... and it ain't yours."

But The Walt Disney Company became The Walt Disney Company due to the hard work of many, many more people than one Walter Elias Disney. And the first among those was Walt's original partner in creativity, Ub Iwerks.

Ub's son Don Iwerks has published a tribute to his father's life and work in Walt Disney's Ultimate Inventor: The Genius of Ub Iwerks, a beautiful 224-page volume that details many of Ub's inventions while telling the story of how his father and Walt came to work so well together.

"I just felt that the world really didn't know about all of these very important, significant inventions that he came up with that helped Walt to be a success," Don told me in a phone conversation this week. Like his father, Don is an official "Disney Legend," enshrined by the company 20 years after Ub was honored posthumously alongside Disney's "Nine Old Men" in 1989. Don also is a winner of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences' Gordon E. Sawyer award.

Ub is probably best known among dedicated Disney fans as the co-creator and original animator of Mickey Mouse. Ub parted with Walt early in their careers, going off to start his own animation studio. But he didn't find the same success on his own, so he returned to Disney several years later - not as an animator, but as an inventor, creating an aerial image optical printer, an electronic editing machine for television production, advanced techniques for the use of forced perspective in film, and the Circarama and Circle-Vision camera systems. He also won an Oscar for helping advance the system for combining animated and live-action elements in a motion picture.

"I don't know what inspired him; I think it was just part of his DNA. He was born a creative person. And he just couldn't sit still without creating something," Don said of his father. "He was a perfectionist. He wasn't going to give up. He would just dedicate himself to solve the problem."

Don begins the book with an overview of his father's life, including his meeting with Walt.

Walt Disney and Ub Iwerks
Walt Disney and Ub Iwerks. Photo courtesy Walt Disney Archives Photo Library

"Back in Kansas City, they were a couple of teenagers working together," he said. "Walt moved out to California and then he wrote a letter to my Dad, urging him to come out and go to work in his studio, which he did."

"Walt was always astute enough to know that success has a lot to do with surrounding yourself with people that are as good as yourself or better, maybe even better. He knew right away that my Dad had a lot of abilities and could help him."

Don's narrative of his father's life illustrates Ub's natural curiosity and need to master challenges... and once mastered, to move on to the next.

"During the wartime, he was the on a bowling team and would bowl once a week," Don said. "On this particular Saturday, he thought he would go down and throw a few games. And then he bowled a perfect game. So when he came home, he put his ball in the closet, and that was the end of it. He was the person who felt that if he achieves the ultimate goal, 'Why spend any more time doing that? I'll go on to something else.' He had so many hobbies, so many interests. So the ball went into the closet, and that was it."

"He was always restless from the standpoint that he wanted to be building something or making something. So there could be photography, archery, various sports, shooting with these old time muzzle-loader gun. He wasn't interested in going out and killing things. He was more interested in seeing how how good he could get at it. And once the once could achieve the ultimate - like the old 300 bowling game - he'd move on to something else, because there was always something more of interest that he wanted to get into."

The majority of the book details Ub's many inventions for Disney, illustrating the growth and development of The Walt Disney Company - and the broader entertainment industry - through technological advancement.

"One of the challenges of writing this book was trying to put this into words that a lot of people would understand, even though they're not technically oriented," Don told me.

Don succeeded. Do you know that scene at the end of Great Moments with Mr. Lincoln and Hall of Presidents, when the sky's clouds and sunset turn into a stylized American flag? You might dismiss that as just another computer animation effect, but remember that much of the Disney theme parks' "magic" was created before computers. In the book, Don describes how Ub used slide projectors to initially create the visual effect.

So many visual effects we take for granted today because they can be executed with a few clicks in Photoshop or Premiere Pro, but those effects exist only because creative geniuses such as Ub Iwerks (and yes, Don, too) first envisioned them and then found practical ways to express them - not with computers but with film, motors, lenses, and a lot of what we know would consider primitive mechanics. It's a revelation to witness that process happen through Don's descriptions of Ub's work.

Art is the product of inspiration and perseverance. Don's book pays the ultimate tribute to his father's life by helping readers to see, understand and appreciate what Ub accomplished in that life.

"I just didn't want my dad to be forgotten. Having worked with him for years, right alongside him and helping get his work done with him, I felt I was the only one that could write that, and if I didn't write it then it would not be known."

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Walt Disney's Ultimate Inventor: The Genius of Ub Iwerks is available from Amazon and other retailers, including at The Walt Disney Family Museum in San Francisco. For another look at Ub Iwerks' life and work, watch The Hand Behind The Mouse: The Ub Iwerks Story, directed by Don's daughter Leslie Iwerks, who also directed The Imagineering Story on Disney+.

Replies (5)

June 13, 2020 at 7:56 PM

I think Ub Iwerks, and Roy Disney, and many of the other classics show where Walt's genious lied.

Walt wasn't the worlds greatest animator. He wasn't the worlds greatest story man. He couldn't run a business. He wasn't an engineer.

But Walt's genious was in his ability to dream, and his ability to recognise the strengths of others and put them exactly where they needed to be.

it looks like the book is a bit pricey at the moment, but I look forward to getting a copy when the price goes down.

June 13, 2020 at 9:01 PM

It’s a huge, coffee-table-style book, filled with archive photographs and drawings. Definitely a museum book, but also unique in style and focus.

June 14, 2020 at 11:23 AM

Ub used slide projectors to transform the sky into an American flag - but they must have been special slide projectors that he developed, because the transformation is very gradual.

I've always been fascinated by Ub Iwerks, I heard that Walt was a prankster and perhaps a bit of a bully, and Ub was a quiet man, and that's partially why they parted ways in the early years.

I always wondered why Ub wasn't able to make it on his own, but when I watched the Ub Iwerks documentary by Leslie Iwerks, I sort of understood. Ub had an unusual sense of humor, and it showed with 'udder' jokes in the early Mickey cartoons. He continued to push that envelope with his Flip the Frog cartoons, and some of his jokes were definitely risque. Not to belittle his genius, but I understood why he didn't make it without Walt.

June 14, 2020 at 3:37 PM

Don said that the breaking point between the two was Walt changing timing sheets for Ub's cartoons... but that sounds to me like one of those "final straw" incidents rather than the sum of conflict. But Don also said that the two worked well together professionally when they reunited.

Also, inferring from the bowling anecdote, I suspect that Ub was ready to move on from animating cartoon characters and to try playing with new forms of media. Walt provided him with that opportunity, while running his own studio was going to be more of the same old, same old... with limited success. As a fan of Disney, theme parks, and film, I am grateful that Ub returned to TWDC.

June 14, 2020 at 12:54 PM

When an organization becomes successful and the money starts rolling in that's when the personality conflicts are exposed, not uncommon at all. Jobs-Wozniak, Gates-Allen etc. Usually it involves a guy with the personality and people skills to create, manage, and run the business and a workhorse behind the scenes who is more involved with the day to day details of creating the products. Then when the money starts pouring in the guy who built the company gets the credit in the press and most of the equity and this continues on until the other guy gets mad and thinks his work is good enough to better for himself. Then the guy goes out on his own and usually bombs because while he is great at his job, ultimately running a business is running a business, not just one aspect of it.

Some people have the self awareness and know they are better off taking a back seat and doing what they are good at (Frank Wells, Charlie Munger), some people think they can do it on their own when they are really better off staying with their partner (Ub Iwekrs, David Ellefson), and some people are just flat out born entrepreneurs and while they may have been really successful in their job it is not sustainable long term for them to work for some else (Jeffery Katzenberg, Harris Rosen)

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