Pioneers of Animation: Ub Iwerks (The Early Years)

Strange to think that a dinosaur eventually gave birth to a talking mouse … but that is essentially what happened when two young animators named Walt Disney and Ub Iwerks met in 1919.

Disney is, of course, a legendary name in the history of animation, having arguably done more for the field than any other figure in the history of film. But Iwerks’ contributions to the very foundations of the Walt Disney Company are not as well-known. Iwerks was, for many years, Walt’s closest friend and confidant, and he was instrumental to the creation of Disney’s most beloved character.

Disney and Iwerks met when both were teenagers, working for an art studio in Kansas City, Iwerks’ hometown. The two young men had been greatly impressed by Winsor McCay’s groundbreaking 1914 animated short, Gertie the Dinosaur, and in 1920 formed their own short-lived company, Iwerks-Disney Commercial Artists. When that failed, first Disney and then Iwerks took up work at the Kansas City Film Ad Company, where the aspiring animators began to study the process of film animation.

Two years later, Disney formed the Laugh-O-Gram Studio and signed a contract to produce six short animated fairy tales. Iwerks was hired to assist on the animation, but soon went back to the ad company, as Disney barely had enough money to keep the studio open, let alone pay his animators (on that note, Laugh-O-Gram employed several animators who would later find their own measure of fame, including Rudy Ising and Hugh Harman, eventual founders of both Warner Bros. and MGM’s animation divisions, and Looney Tunes stalwart Friz Freleng). Still, Iwerks continued to work on the Laugh-O-Gram shorts, often for little or no pay.

Laugh-O-Gram only lasted for a little over a year before Disney was forced to file for bankruptcy. The company had produced ten short films (all of which have since fallen into the public domain). The first of these, Little Red Riding Hood (1922), was lost for decades and only rediscovered and restored in 1998.

The only credited name on Red Riding Hood is Disney’s own, though Iwerks was the chief animator for this and other Laugh-O-Gram productions.

When Laugh-O-Gram failed, Disney decided to try his luck in California, leaving Iwerks behind in Kansas City. But in 1924, Disney offered Iwerks a position in his new company, Disney Brothers Productions. Disney gave Iwerks 20% ownership of the new company, and the two embarked on the creation of a series of short films inspired by Lewis Carroll’s novel Alice in Wonderland.

These “Alice comedies” had gotten their start at Laugh-O-Gram, where in 1923, the first short, Alice’s Wonderland, had been produced. The Alice shorts were notable for featuring live-action combined with animation, much in the same vein as Gertie the Dinosaur. In 57 shorts, Alice, initially played by young Virginia Davis (and later played by Margie Gay, Lois Hardwick, and a young Dawn O’Day–who would eventually rechristen herself Anne Shirley), interacted with the animated creatures on screen in various adventures.

Disney directed the shorts, while Iwerks took charge of the animation. The Alice comedies were popular, and the pair continued to produce them through 1927. By then, the conceit had grown tired, and Disney and Iwerks had moved on to the creation of new character: Oswald the Lucky Rabbit, who made his premiere in the 1927 short Trolley Troubles.

The first two dozen Oswald shorts were, by and large, animated by Iwerks, with contributions from other animators like Harman and Freleng (who, like Iwerks, had been brought to California by Disney after the failure of Laugh-O-Gram). Sadly, many of those initial Oswald cartoons have been lost over time, and the original versions of many of the existing shorts are missing.

Oswald presented Disney with his first true animated success. Whatever joy Disney felt at this, however, was soon tempered by the realization that his contract with the distributor of the cartoons, Universal, dictated that the studio now owned the rights to the Oswald character. When Disney asked for a budget increase for the Oswald shorts, he was told that he would instead have to accept a drastic pay cut himself, and was further informed that most of his animators had signed with Universal, something Disney saw as a horrible betrayal. In the end, Universal went on to produce several dozen Oswald shorts under the auspices of Walter Lantz (who would go on to create Woody the Woodpecker in 1940). Disney and Iwerks lost control of their creation, and found themselves without an animated star for Disney Brothers Studio.

In the wake of the Oswald fiasco, Disney was determined to protect his future characters. He turned to Iwerks to create a new face for the Disney company. Iwerks was inspired by some sketches of mice that fellow animator Harman had jotted on a photograph of Disney in 1925 (Walt had had a pet mouse in Kansas City of which he was particularly fond). Iwerks modified the original Oswald design (so as to avoid any accusations of copyright infringement) and created a simplistic, rounded body design for the new mouse character, featuring the iconic rounded ears that even today remain an instantly recognizable symbol of the Walt Disney Company. Walt originally intended to name the new character “Mortimer Mouse,” but his wife Lillian thought “Mortimer” to be too pretentious a name, and the new creation was instead christened “Mickey” (incidentally, the name “Mortimer” would reappear about a decade later, used as the name for Mickey’s rival for Minnie Mouse’s affection).

Iwerks served as the main animator for the first two years of Mickey’s existence, a daunting job that was made no easier by the shared sense of perfectionism between Iwerks and Disney. While Walt composed the stories for the Mickey shorts, Iwerks was almost solely responsible for the animation, which required his producing an average of seven hundred drawings every day before each short could be completed. With this unheard-of level of production, the first Mickey cartoon was completed in a mere three weeks.

That first cartoon, the 1928 silent short Plane Crazy, did not manage to attract a distributor, much to Disney’s disappointment. A second silent short, The Gallopin’ Gaucho, also failed to attract notice from studios. But the third time was the charm: in November 1928, Disney secured a distribution deal with Celebrity Productions, and Steamboat Willie was released to almost instant acclaim.

Steamboat Willie is often credited as the first sound cartoon, but this is not exactly true: several sound cartoons had been released by Fleischer Studios earlier in the decade under the Song Car-Tunes title (these shorts are notable for the innovation of a “bouncing ball” to help audiences keep track of the melody). But the sound on these shorts was not fully synchronized to the action onscreen. To avoid this problem in his own cartoons, Disney utilized a click track, which helped the studio musicians maintain exact timing during recording. Because of this, Willie is widely considered to be the first commercially successful animated short to feature precisely synchronized sound. After its warm reception, Plane Crazy and The Gallopin’ Gaucho were both synchronized to sound and released on their own, again to much praise.

While Mickey became a huge hit, the friendship between Disney and Iwerks began to disintegrate under Disney’s growing demands. Iwerks believed that he was not receiving all of the credit he should have gotten as Disney’s proverbial right-hand man, and he chafed at Disney’s notoriously temperamental attitude. Disney, for his part, was frustrated by his distribution deal with Pat Powers, the owner of Celebrity Pictures, who was not paying Disney everything he was owed through the deal. Walt took out his frustration on his animators, and Iwerks bore the brunt of his displeasure. Angry and tired of the fractious working relationship, Iwerks signed a deal with Powers to leave Disney Brothers Studios and found an animation company under his own name.

It was the end of an era. Walt was infuriated at Iwerks’ perceived betrayal. Their friendship–and the prolific partnership that had given the world one of its most beloved animated creations–was over … at least for the time being.

Next week: the continuation of Ub Iwerks’ contributions to the history of animation.

4 thoughts on “Pioneers of Animation: Ub Iwerks (The Early Years)

  1. Terrific post, with a lot of great information. I’d heard of the ambiguous authorship of Mickey Mouse, but your post has clarified it a lot. It make me wonder how the auteur theory can be applied to animation, particularly because so many artists are involved in so many varied tasks.

  2. Pingback: The Roundup: 18 Feb 2012 | The Frame

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