The Disney Years
of a three part series
Joe Tracy) Ub Iwerks was born in Kansas City, Missouri on March
24, 1901. While that's when his life started, the real adventure
began in 1919 when at the age of 18, Iwerks got a job working for
a company called Pesman-Rubin Commercial Art Studio. His job was
to use the artistic skills he had mastered while growing up to produce
work for Pesman-Rubin clients. Soon more people were being hired,
including a young man named Walt Disney. It wasn't long before Iwerks
and Disney formed a bond. Iwerks was a highly talented artist that
was shy and reserved while Disney was a visionary idea man who was
very outgoing and business minded.
a year after meeting, Iwerks and Disney joined together and formed
a company, in 1920, called Iwerks-Disney Commercial Artists. The
venture was short lived, however, as Walt went to work for the
Kansas City Film Ad Company for more money. It wasn't long before
Disney had convinced Kansas City Film Ad Company that it also
needed the talents of Ub Iwerks. Iwerks was hired.
time period, both showed a strong interest in animation, which
was still in its early stages. The work of Winsor
McCay's Gertie the Dinosuar really caught their attention
and inspired Iwerks and Disney to study animation techniques further.
that Iwerks and Disney shared, while working for the Kansas City
Film Ad Company, often led to practical jokes instigated by Disney
at Iwerks expense.
to the book Walt Disney: A Biography by Barbara Ford, "In
spite of his skills, Ub remained the same shy, inarticulate, serious
young man he had been when Walt first met
him. He was extremely nervous around young women. Ub's personality
made him a natural foil for confident Walt's practical jokes.
At Kansas City Film Ad Company, Walt would send Ub postcards signed
with girls' names, lock him in the washroom so that he had to
hammer on the door to get out, and smuggle animals into his desk
and locker. Ub never complained."
showed the fun and innocent times that Iwerks and Disney shared
not only as coworkers, but also as close friends. Each person's
strengths complimented the other one's weaknesses. Both were close
enough that deals between them were sealed with a handshake instead
of a written contract.
need to try a new challenge led him to form a company called Laugh-O-gram
Films and he was able to convince Iwerks to join the team. But
the money didn't come in with Disney's new venture, so Iwerks
left Laugh-O-gram Films and returned to Kansas City Film Ad Company.
Iwerks still helped Disney out on projects, but when Disney was
forced to declare bankruptcy, Iwerks was left with very little
payment for his services. Disney decided to take his talents to
California and Ub, being Disney's closest friend, saw him off
at the train station.
went off on new adventures, Iwerks remained in Kansas City faithfully
working for the Kansas City Film Ad Company. But it wasn't long
before Iwerks received word from Disney that his services were
needed in California.
In 1924, Iwerks
moved to California to join forces again with Disney who had formed
Disney Brothers Productions (later changed to Walt Disney Studios).
Iwerks was paid less money, but received 20% ownership in Disney
Brothers Productions as additional compensation.
put in charge of a cartoon that quickly became very popular for
its time "Oswald the Lucky Rabbit." The popularity
of the Oswald series and greed of the distributor, Charlie Mintz,
led to a dispute over ownership rights. Charlie Mintz won. In
addition, nearly all of Disney's animators deserted him for Mintz.
One of the few to remain was the faithful Ub Iwerks. Iwerks loyalty
created a bond of trust that very few people ever held with Disney.
the Oswald rabbit events, Disney came up with a new character
idea Mickey Mouse. Together, Disney and Iwerks developed
the idea and personality for Mickey Mouse. Iwerks was then given
the task of bringing Mickey Mouse to life. Suddenly a new Hollywood
star was born.
was Disney's right hand man in the creation of the early Mickey
Mouse cartoons. Disney would come up with the ideas, stories,
and motivations, then Iwerks would bring it to life. Bringing
Mickey Mouse to life, however, was no easy task and it required
Iwerks to spit out 600 drawings every single day. Iwerks
dedication, however, would soon payoff for him and Disney. The
third Mickey Mouse cartoon that Disney directed and Iwerks animated,
"Steamboat Willie," would be the one that would catapult
Mickey and Disney into stardom and household names.
didn't get the public credit he deserved, but that didn't stop
him from continuing as a master animator and the best artist at
Disney Brothers Productions. Even Frank Thomas and Ollie Johnston
say in the book, "The Illusion of Life" that Iwerks
was "in a class by himself" when it came to animating.
It wasn't long before Iwerks was put in charge of training new
animators. This was both a blessing and curse for him and those
he was training. It was a blessing because Iwerks demanded perfection
and was able to help breed some of Disney's best animators. It
was a curse because Iwerks had a short temper and it showed often
against those who didn't give projects 110% or for those
that didn't fully appreciate the art of animation. But the result
was better animators.
Iwerks were a perfect match. Disney was the story expert and visionary
while Iwerks was the master animator who breathed life into Disney's
was about to happen that would forever alter their relationship.
with a man named Pat Powers who negotiated a one year distribution
deal with Disney in which Powers would pay Disney Brothers Productions
$2,500 per Mickey Mouse cartoon and would receive 10% of the gross
earnings. Ub Iwerks continued to be the lead animator for Mickey
Mouse and worked long hours, with several other artists, in order
to get cartoons made so that Powers could sell them. During these
long sessions, Iwerks often received the brunt end of Disney's
anger and frustration. The situation deteriorated further when
Powers failed to deliver full payment to the Disney Brothers Productions,
claiming that expenses were eating it all. This frustrated Disney
more and the tension was showing. For Iwerks, the job was less
enjoyable. And now Iwerks had a secret that would break his bond
with Disney forever.
had signed a secret pact with Powers.
Disney was absolutely devastated.
bond and trust the two had shared since the age of 18 was now
a contract with Pat Powers, Iwerks went to work for the man who
had withheld money from Disney Brothers Productions.
In the meantime,
Disney Brothers Productions bought out Iwerks 20% ownership. Disney
refused to renew the contract with Powers and he parted ways with
rewarded those who burned him or broke his trust, even if it meant
losing a lot of money. It is estimated that Disney lost close
to $150,000 in his one-year contract with Powers money
that Powers said he would pay if Disney extended his contract.
Disney wouldn't budge, even though he no longer had Iwerks.
it was too late for second thoughts. He was no longer a part of
Disney's inner circle and he was no longer in charge of Mickey
But this wasn't
the end of Iwerks career. He was determined to show the world
that there was more to his name than a famous mouse
This is a three part series. Part two will appear in April 2001.
is the publisher of Digital
Media FX and former publisher of Animation Artist Magazine.
He is also author of the book Web
a printable version of this feature.
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