Don Iwerks was born in 1929 and followed his father, the animator, special effect wizard, and Disney Legend Ub Iwerks, to Disney, joining the Company in 1950 as a laboratory technician. He worked briefly for the Company before being drafted into the Korean War, where he served for two years in the Signal Photo Corps. When he returned to the United States, he immediately went back to work at Disney, having decided to forgo formal education.
He soon transferred to the fabled Studio Machine Shop, where he was eventually offered a camera technician position and went to work on his first film for the Studio, 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. He eventually headed both the Machine Shop and Camera Service Department, as well as the Technical Engineering and Manufacturing Division.
Along the way he displayed his father’s flair for technological innovation by developing cameras, projectors, and other systems for Disneyland, Walt Disney World’s Magic Kingdom, and Epcot Center.
Among his many accomplishments were helping to develop the 360-degree CircleVision camera that was first used in Circarama, U.S.A.; building the film equipment used at the 1964-65 New York World’s Fair; Captain EO, a Disney park attraction featuring a 3-D film and in-theater effects; and the projection system for the wildly popular Star Tours attraction. Don also aided his father in the development of the sodium traveling matte process, including the creation of specialized cameras and optical printers that could combine painted backgrounds, traditional animation, and live-action foregrounds to create the unforgettable cinematic experience that was the Academy Award®-winning Mary Poppins.
For his part, Don often cited his work at the New York’s World Fair and Epcot Center as defining moments in his career. “In my career, Epcot was most outstanding,” he once said. “The theaters included two nine-screen CircleVision theaters plus the French Pavilion—which was like CircleVision, except that it was a sit-down theater with five screens and a 200-degree wrap. The American Adventure was a huge rear-projection theater with set pieces in front of it. The film and scenics served as the background that helped to tell the story of America. It remains one of the most powerful experiences at Epcot.”
In recognition of contributions to the movie industry made by his large-format and simulated film innovations, Don received the Gordon E. Sawyer Award from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences’ Board of Governors in 1997.
After a 35-year career at Disney, Don formed his own company, Iwerks Entertainment, Inc., in 1986. The maker of giant-screen theaters and 3D-projection-based theme park attractions was acquired by SimEx, Inc. in 2001.
Don credited Walt Disney and his father for the success he enjoyed throughout his career. From them, he learned that keeping a keen eye on detail and quality is the key to success. “There was a ‘can-do’ attitude I learned from Walt and my father,” he once said. “If you’re doing a really first-class job, you don’t need to worry about the money. It will come. Walt gave everyone a feeling that they were creating things that others had never thought of before, of being a part of history.”