Pioneers of Animation: Ub Iwerks (The Later Years)

After leaving Disney Brothers, Ub Iwerks’ own self-named animation venture, the Iwerks Studio, opened in 1930. Backed by Celebrity Pictures, with a distribution deal from major studio MGM, Iwerks was in an enviable position right out of the gate, making more money than he had ever made working with Walt Disney. He hired a group of fresh animators to work with him (a group that briefly included a young Chuck Jones). His first creation under his own banner was an anthropomorphic musical frog named Flip, who debuted in the six-minute short Fiddlesticks.

Fiddlesticks is noteworthy for being the first synchronized-sound two-strip Technicolor cartoon (it’s interesting to note that, when the three-strip color process was perfected a couple of years later, Disney produced the first cartoon in that mode, 1932’s Flowers and Trees–which would go on to win the first Academy Award for Animated Short Subject). Fiddlesticks also appears to feature a thumb to the nose of Disney, as one of Flip’s animal co-stars is a violin-playing mouse who strongly resembles the early concept sketches of Mickey Mouse.

After the success of Fiddlesticks, most of Flip’s future adventures were shot in black-and-white as opposed to the costly, time-consuming Technicolor process. And over time, at the behest of MGM, Flip’s design changed from amphibious to a more obviously human-like characterization, all in an effort to challenge the notably more human-like qualities of Mickey Mouse and crew. In all, Flip the Frog cavorted his way through just over three dozen shorts in the period between 1930 and 1933. When the public (and MGM) grew tired of the character, Iwerks retired Flip and debuted a new creation, Willie Whopper.

As his name implies, young Willie is a big fat liar, spinning tall tales for anyone who will listen. In his first appearance, 1933’s The Air Race, Willie tells his schoolyard chums the story of “the time I won the National Air Race.” The short even features a brief animated cameo by aviatrix Amelia Earhart, who crowns Willie the winner at the end. However, The Air Race was never released in public because MGM did not care for the final version. The story was reworked as Spite Flight, which would become the second Willie Whopper short distributed to theaters.

As with his predecessor, Flip, Willie Whopper went through several design changes over the course of the production of the shorts. Whereas in The Air Race Willie is a relatively thin young boy, in later cartoons he is drawn as much more rotund. Still, the changes did not result in longevity for Willie Whopper: while the character enjoyed a brief moment of popularity, ultimately only fourteen shorts were produced between 1933 and 1934.

Iwerks’ next endeavor was a series of shorts called ComiColor Cartoons, which his studio produced between 1933 and 1936. The ComiColor series ultimately represented the best of the Iwerks Studio’s output in the 1930s. The shorts were based on fairy tales and classic stories from literature ranging from Jack and the Beanstalk (the first ComiColor produced in 1933) to Don Quixote to the controversial Little Black Sambo cartoon (which was eventually banned). One particular short, 1935’s Balloon Land, gained a new audience in the 1980s after being featured on the popular children’s show Pee Wee’s Playhouse.

The ComiColor series was created using the Cinecolor process. Throughout most of the 1930s, Walt Disney held an exclusive contract with Technicolor, and no other studio could use that (infinitely better) process to make their own cartoon shorts. Cinecolor was the next best option, and was widely utilized by the lower-budget Hollywood studios. Many of the shorts were filmed by Iwerks himself using a multi-plane camera he had built from random parts of an old Chevrolet. The use of this camera allowed Iwerks to implement a sort of three-dimensional effect in some of the ComiColor cartoons–an impressive technique for the time (and one that would soon be replicated by Disney for the production of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs).

As innovative as some of the ComiColor shorts were, they marked the end of the Iwerks Studio. After MGM declined to continue distributing Iwerks’ products in 1934, distribution of the shorts fell to Celebrity Pictures. The arrangement would only last until 1936, and Iwerks was forced to close the studio that bore his name. For the next couple of years, Iwerks was a sort of freelance animator, producing several Looney Tunes shorts at Warner Bros. and working briefly for Columbia Pictures’ animation division.

It’s doubtful that the loss of the studio was particularly heartbreaking for Iwerks. Despite the initial success of the Iwerks Studio, the animator was never particularly happy in his new venture. By the end of the decade, he had to acknowledge to himself that his interests lay not in crafting new characters and stories, but in experimentation with the technology of the time, trying new, heretofore unseen tricks with the camera to better enhance the illusion at play. In 1940, Iwerks once again joined the Disney studio, albeit in a new capacity: as a special effects wizard.

Iwerks was more than up to the challenge. Within the first decade of his return to Disney, he invented a multi-head optical printer, a device which allowed for the realistic-looking combination of live-action and animation in 1940s package films such as The Three Caballeros and Song of the South. Never satisfied, Iwerks continued to tinker with his printer, improving its capabilities exponentially (and eventually winning the first of two technical Academy Awards for his efforts). Iwerks also conceived the idea of color traveling matte composite photography, the technology that made possible such sophisticated live-action/animation scenes as the penguin dance in 1964’s Mary Poppins.

Another innovation used in Mary Poppins that Iwerks helped to develop was the use of yellowscreen technology, in which actors were filmed in front of a white screen while being lit with sodium vapor lights. This process allowed for matte shots to be inserted into live-action shots, permitting live-action elements and animated scenes to blend together almost seamlessly. When Iwerks worked on the production of Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds in 1963, he used the yellowscreen technology to compose the shots of the attacking birds (for his efforts, Iwerks was nominated once more for the Oscar for Special Effects, though he ultimately lost to Cleopatra, for some reason unbeknownst to yours truly).

Iwerks also took the existing technology of xerography and adapted it to the field of animation. He tinkered with a Xerox camera and eventually was able to design a device that would transfer animators’ drawings directly onto the animation cels as opposed to having each one individually hand-inked. This process was first used for the production of One Hundred and One Dalmatians, and it reportedly saved the Disney studios quite a bit of money that would have been spent trying to animate all of those multi-spotted dogs!

Not all of Iwerks’ time was spent working on films, however. In the 1960s, he joined what would later become the Disney Imagineering department, working on Disney theme park attractions such as “Pirates of the Caribbean” and “It’s a Small World.”

From animator to studio head to technical wizard, Ub Iwerks had a long, productive, and innovative career. By the time he passed away in 1971, at the age of seventy, he had secured his position as one of the true pioneers of modern animation. In recent years, his contributions have become even more well-known, and his role in elevating the House of Mouse to its storied heights has been recognized by the Disney company itself, which inducted Iwerks into its “Legends” hall of fame in 1989. Ub’s son, Don Iwerks, followed in his footsteps as a technical wizard in his own right, working for Disney for more than thirty-five years (and becoming a Legend himself in 2009).

Even though Walt and Ub’s friendship never recovered from Ub’s move towards independence in 1930, the two men truly comprised a partnership that was made in cinematic heaven. Each respected the other for what he could do, and each allowed the other to aspire to greatness. Though Iwerks was content to remain in the background in his later years, leaving the showmanship to Disney, his contributions were nonetheless vitally important to the development of the Walt Disney Company as a force to be reckoned with.

5 thoughts on “Pioneers of Animation: Ub Iwerks (The Later Years)

  1. Really a great article on Iwerks contribution to animation and other techincal aspects of film making. It is a shame he is not as well known by the American people as Walt Disney is.

    • Thanks, Kim! I hope that with the growing attention toward old-school Disney characters like Oswald the Lucky Rabbit, the contributions of Iwerks will receive renewed attention.

  2. Love that notion of Iwerks creating a camera from used car parts – he sounds like he was a real DIY-er!

    One thing I’ve noticed about early 30s sound cartoons is how much more musically-based they are; they incorporate music quite closely with their action, with dance-like movements and more of a sense of how fluid and changeable the animation shapes are. Later cartoons seemed to rely more on the wisecrack and violence. Wonder what effected such a shift.

    • I don’t really have a “real” answer to that, but I would venture to guess that, as animation grew more sophisticated, and film styles shifted to more witty and screwball types of comedy, the animated shorts evolved to reflect the themes of the popular films at the time. When sound films first debuted, the filmmakers really focused on the spectacle–as in, “Let’s cram as many musical numbers as we can into this 80-minute film and choreograph elaborate dance numbers to highlight the fact that we can HEAR the MUSIC!” Interactions between the characters weren’t as important as the “show” aspect. But that didn’t last, because audiences wanted to see more than that–and maybe the same thing happened with animation? Like, “How many times can we show dancing trees and skeletons swaying to the music and still keep the audience’s attention?”

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

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