Ub Iwerks was known at Disney for his animation genius and technical wizardry—as well as his unusual name. In February 1929, Walt Disney and his New York distributors were extremely pleased with Ub’s animation on the Mickey Mouse cartoons, about which Walt wrote a letter to his wife, Lilly: “Everyone praises Ubb’s artwork and jokes at his funny name,” he wrote. “The oddness of Ubb’s name is an asset—it makes people look twice when they see it. Tell Ubb that the New York animators take off their hats to his animation…”
Ubbe Eert Iwerks was born to Dutch-American parents on March 24, 1901, in Kansas City, Missouri. In 1919, he met fellow employee Walt Disney at the Pesmen-Rubin Commercial Art Studio. Both were 19 years old when, after being laid off, they decided to open their own business. Called Iwerks-Disney Studio Commercial Artists (“Disney-Iwerks,” they decided, sounded too much like an eyeglass manufacturer), the enterprise lasted only a month before they both accepted jobs at the Kansas City Slide Company.
In 1922, when Walt formed Laugh-O-gram Films, Ub joined him as chief animator. The studio went bankrupt, however, and, two years later, Ub followed Walt to Hollywood. There, he joined the Disney Brothers Cartoon Studio to help produce the Alice Comedies series.
Ub is credited with sketching Mickey Mouse for the first time, and he served as chief directing animator for the Silly Symphony series before branching out on his own in 1930.
As an animator, Ub worked at record-breaking speed. He animated the first Mickey Mouse silent cartoon, Plane Crazy, entirely by himself within a three-week period, completing as many as 700 drawings a day. (Today, the average animator produces 80 to 100 drawings a week.)
After 10 years, Ub returned to the Studio, where he focused on technical development. As Disney’s resident technical wizard, Ub invented technology that would revolutionize feature animation. One of his creations was the multi-head optical printer, used to combine live action and animated footage in Melody Time and Song of the South. He later won two Academy Awards® for designing an improved optical printer and for collaborating on the perfection of color traveling matte photography. It was primarily due to Ub’s innovations that the Disney Studio moved to the forefront of photographic effects.
During the 1960s, Ub contributed his genius to the development of Disney theme park attractions, including it’s a small world, Great Moments with Mr. Lincoln, and The Hall of Presidents. Towards the end of his life, he devoted his time to the creation of innovations for the upcoming Walt Disney World project.
Ub Iwerks passed away on July 7, 1971, in Los Angeles.