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5 Reasons Why Mickey Mouse Co-Creator Ub Iwerks Was Awesome

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

Ub Iwerks
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, Norm Ferguson, 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 1930s, 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.

To learn more about Iwerks’ life and work, read the biography The Hand Behind the Mouse.

Ub Iwerks drawing by Grim Natwick. (Collection of Stephen Worth.)
Ub Iwerks drawing by Grim Natwick. (Collection of Stephen Worth.)

  • JodyMorgan

    I love Ub’s early Mickey Mouse shorts, and his later ComiColor shorts, though usually weak in the story department, are still fun to watch for their sheer artistry. Thanks for this reminder of one of cinema’s unsung heroes.

    And yes, I heartily recommend The Hand Behind the Mouse as well.

  • Vincent Alexander

    “Room Runners”, by itself, is all the reason I need for why Ub Iwerks was awesome.

    • Yeah, Flip the Frog’s earlier cartoons may have been a bit bland, but some of the later stuff from the ill fated character’s career was really fun and imaginative. Another personal favorite of mine is “Spooks”.

  • Who reports that he averaged 600-700 drawings per day?

    I had read once that 600 drawings in one day was a personal best but not that it was a mere average.

    Thesis #5… to say that others “fleshed out” Iwerks’ ideas… they added a hell of a lot of flesh to something that didn’t even have all the bones there.

  • I’m so glad that Ub continues to get recognition as one of the important figures in animation! Thanks for posting this!

  • Uli Meyer

    Ub Iwerks was an amazing man and deserves our respect for all his achievements. But saying that he created 600-700 drawings per night sounds like one of those stories that have become exaggerated over decades. Think about it. Let’s assume he put in six hours every night (after a full day at the office) which equals 360 minutes. Even if he didn’t have even one break, he would have had to draw almost two animation drawings per minute. 40 seconds for one drawing, continuously, all through the night. Mickey Mouse’s design was simple and based on circles but that just sounds ridiculous.
    Still, it is important to remember a man who has done so much for animation. Adapting the Xerox process made 101 Dalmations possible, thank you Ub Iwerks!

    • Skent

      Maybe during the nights he was just adding on the Mickey ears to the ‘Oswald’ drawings.

    • Tvlman

      Ub did 600-700 animations per day by doing rough sketches that were cleaned up & inked in by staff.(The Man Behind The Mouse)

  • wallyballou

    The Hand Behind the Mouse is also the title of the accompanying documentary film about Iwerks, directed by Leslie Iwerks. It is hard to find, but it is available as an extra feature on this “Disney’s Treasures: Adventures of Oswald the Luck Rabbit” release:

  • Teepo Sheik

    OsamU Tezuka

    • I would go there, but I wouldn’t call him an “animator” simply because he acted more as a producer most of the time with some touches of script, storyboarding and direction.

      • Yes that’s true. Tezuka was mainly a manga artist and established his own animation studio, Mushi, were other directors tended to adapt his work.

  • jmahon

    “He adapted the Xerox process for animation, which eliminated the tedious task of hand inking every cel.” I had no idea, I never thought about it until now… that’s amazing, the whole Xerox era of Disney animation is amazing. I can’t remember where I read it, perhaps here, that Xeroxing animator’s drawings allowed them to remove the middle man when it came to inking, and you’d wind up with animators drawings right on the screen. So cool!

  • Ness

    I recently watched the documentary based on that book- he is such an incredible person. Pioneer of character animation doesn’t even begin to describe him.

  • Mark Walton

    One of my favorite CB posts so far. Well done, sir!

  • Tvlman

    “The Perfect American” by Peter Jungt is another view of Disney. It was made into an opera by Philip Glass & performed in Madrid & London.Would love to see this story on film. Book at Amazon.