Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Disney Legend ~ Ub Iwerks ~ Part 1

Biography Wednesday

Disney Legend ~ Ub Iwerks
Ub Iwerks
Part 1 ~ 1901 ~ 1928 and the creation of Mickey Mouse

       I could think of no better person to officially start Bio Wednesdays off with than Up Iwerks. He worked with Walt the longest and stood beside him when others left. He had such a long and rich career I am splitting it into two parts so I don’t skimp on the good parts.

Ub Iwerks was born Ubbe Ert Iwwerks March 24th, 1901 and died July 7th, 1971. He was considered to be Walt’s oldest and closest friend. The two met in Kansas City, Kansas in 1919 at the Pesmen-Rubin Art Studio and for a good portion of his life Ub worked with Walt. Their creative abilities drew them together. They were two parts of a whole.

The two young men could not have been more different. Walt was gregarious and always playful were Ub was more reserved and quiet. Walt would play jokes on his friend and Ub would stoically accept being the butt of Walt’s joke. I guess it was a part of their ethnic heritage and upbringing that made them so different. Walt is Irish and Ub is Dutch from a small area in Germany. What they both had was a love for drawing and the new art form of animation.

Shortly after the two met they created a animation studio the Iwerks~Disney studio. After a month they ran out of money and went to work at the Kansas City Slide Newspaper Company (which would later be named The Kansas City Film Ad Company).

In 1922 Disney started Laugh~O~Graham Studios. Walt convinced Ub to follow him and became a partner with him once again. There they came up with the creative idea of bringing a live little girl into the cartoon world. Others had already put cartoon characters into live action. The Alice Comedies were born! Only one episode of Alice was made in Kansas. By 1923 they were once again broke. Ub went back to work at the Kansas City Slide Newspaper Company and Walt, with his brother Roy moved to Hollywood, California.

It did not take long after Disney’s move to Hollywood for Walt to realize he needed Ub’s graphic abilities to continue his Alice Comedies at the quality he demanded and build his studio. Walt contacted Ub and asked him to move to California with him. Ub did follow Walt to the Golden State. Walt made Ub a partner and gave him a 20% share in the company. The Alice Comedies were in production from 1923-27 and 57 of the combination live action/cartoon shorts were made.

Oswald the Lucky Rabbit
When the Alice Comedies were nearing an end Walt tasked Ub to create a new cartoon character to focus on. Oswald the Lucky Rabbit was the result. Oswald enjoyed a large following of fans and was very popular. Universal Studio agreed to distribute Oswald.

In 1928 Walt made a trip to New York to sign a new distribution contract for Oswald. When he got there he found not only had he lost the rights to Oswald he also lost all his animators except two! He was told accept a lower portion of the profits and do more or walk away. Walt chose to walk away. Ub Iwerks and Les Clark, an apprentice animator who became the first of Walt’s 9 Old Men, were the only ones to stay loyal to Disney. Ub Iwerks was the only seasoned animator Universal could not lure away from Disney. Universal had hired the animators to come over and continue producing Oswald for them thinking that if they had the animators they could continue the cartoon series. Oswald’s popularity slipped shortly after that and production of Oswald stopped because it did not have the “Disney touch”. Here is where the Disney Company ~ Family story and the Iwerks Family story of events differ.

For years Walt and the Disney Company has said Walt created Mickey Mouse on the train ride home from that infamous meeting in New York. This is what Leslie Iwerks shared in her book and documentary film, “The Hand Behind the Mouse”. Walt sent a telegram to Ub telling him about the loss of Oswald and giving him instructions to come up with ideas for a new character and tell no one about it. When Walt got back to the studio Ub had several new characters ready for him to look at. There was a male horse, female cow, frogs, dogs and cats along with a little mouse. All but the mouse were rejected. (The horse and cow were later used. They are Horace Horsecollar and Clarabelle Cow.) Ub gave Mickey his looks and Walt contributed the personality.

There were several months left on the contract with Universal and the animators were still working for Disney. Disney gave them all busy work while Ub, Walt and their wives, Lillian and Mildred (both wives worked at the studio as Ink & Painters) set to work on the newest Disney star Mickey Mouse in secret.

With Ub doing the main animation, drawing as many as 700 pictures a day and Walt, Lillian and Mildred doing the inbetween, clean up and inking and painting worked behind closed doors it took just two weeks for this amazing team to finish Mickey’s first staring roll in “Plane Crazy.” Just as they finished “Talkies” came out and Walt decided he just had to add sound to Mickey’s next short. They quickly turned around with the same team of four and again in just two weeks they had “Steamboat Willie” completed. Ub did the majority of the work and without him these shorts would have never been done. Walt acknowledge this in later years.

Ub was often called the fastest animator around and Walt called him the best animator ever. High praise from such a uncompromising man as Walt Disney. His speed at drawing Mickey Mouse proves how fast and good an animator he was.

Because of the way Walt lost Oswald and his animation team he was less trusting. Where he use to treat the entire staff as family and would have them over at his house to swim and BBQ on the weekends. After words he limited who he opened up to. He became more demanding and distrustful of people. Walt often took his frustration out on Ub demanding more of him and not listening to ideas as he had. This drove the two friends apart.

I will continue to explore the life and contribution to the Disney Studio and filming in general of Ub Iwerks next Wednesday.

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