Q&A – The Genius of Ub Iwerks

by Jody Duncan

Don Iwerks’ book, Walt Disney’s Ultimate Inventor: The Genius of Ub Iwerks, is a fascinating account of the decades-long collaboration between his father and Walt Disney, and the many technical and artistic innovations that arose from that partnership. It is a must-read for anyone with an interest in the ‘good old days’ of filmmaking and effects, when ingenuity, hands and gears, rather than strokes on a keyboard, put spectacular images on the big screen.

Don spoke with Cinefex about his book and the legacy of his father, Ub Iwerks.

Walt Disney’s Ultimate Inventor: The Genius of Ub Iwerks

Your father was both an artist and a self-taught mechanical engineer — disparate skillsets not often found in a single person. Which was dominant? Was Ub Iwerks a mechanical guy with some artistic ability, or an artistic guy with a bit of mechanical ability?

It’s hard to choose one over the other, but I think his technical skills were the most important. He was very good at animation, drawing and painting, but there’s no question about his excellent technical skills. 

Where and how did your father’s relationship with Walt Disney begin?

They met in Kansas City, Missouri, when they were both working for the Pesmen-Rubin Commercial Art Studio. They became friends and worked together on many projects there.

There’s an interesting story in the book about Universal cheating Walt Disney and your dad out of a successful cartoon character, Oswald the Rabbit, and how that led to increased secrecy surrounding their early work with Mickey Mouse. Was Ub also protective and secretive about his technical innovations?

Well, he wasn’t going to tell the whole world, and Walt was the same way. They didn’t patent anything early on, because they didn’t want to disclose what they were doing. But for the most part, he wasn’t that worried about secrecy when it came to technology. He’d find a better way to do something, and then just do it.

Mickey Mouse was initially your father’s design and animation. Did he ever resent Walt’s getting so much of the credit for that character?

People would ask him about that, and his answer was always: ‘It’s not the original creation that matters, it’s what you do with it that counts. You can draw pictures all day long, but Walt did something with it.’ So he gave Walt full credit for that.

You tell the story about Walt coming in at night, after Ub had gone home, and changing his animation for Steamboat Willie. There must have been some tension over that.

From what I understand, my dad got upset that Walt was changing the timing of his animation. He confronted Walt about it, and they had a little bit of head knocking over it. Walt relented, but then it happened again. Around that time, my dad got an offer to set up his own studio, and he decided to do that.

He returned to the Disney organization ten years later, in 1940. Not long afterward, war broke out, and they began making training films for the U.S. military. You mention in the book that those films required a combining of live-action and animation. Why?

Well, they had to make them on the cheap, so they had to come up with what they called ‘gags’ – things that would allow them to convey what they were trying to say very simply.

That led to Ub’s development of the aerial image optical printer. Explain what that was.

In the early days, they would combine mattes and images by bi-packing the film. But the difficulty was that mattes could shrink, resulting in matte lines around characters, and there would often be dirt and scratches – all because they were coming into physical contact. My dad reasoned that he could build a printer that had two heads, one for the primary image, and a second for the matte, which would be projected onto the primary image. The lens projecting it had east/west. north/south and in/out controls so he could adjust size and placement, which eliminated matte lines, and since the matte was suspended in space, rather than on a surface, it eliminated dust and scratch problems.

Another innovation Ub introduced to the studio was the sodium traveling matte process. Explain what that was.

It was actually a J. Arthur Rank patent that my father became aware of. It involved photographing principal characters against a screen that was yellow in color, but was illuminated with sodium lamps. On the color spectrum, that was a very narrow band that could be removed and allow you to make a matte. That allowed him to photograph two films and create a matte at the same time, at 24 frames per second. It was a big breakthrough.

Tell me about how wet-gate printing contributed to the nature films Disney began making.

Walt bought a lot of film shot by nature photographer Alfred Milotte and his wife, and he made it into a film called Seal Island. That ended up winning an Academy Award, and that encouraged him to make more of those kinds of films. The problem, though, was that the nature footage was shot on Kodak’s commercial Kodachrome, which shoots a low-contrast original and created very grainy prints. There was also a consumer Kodachrome available, which had virtually no grain at all and beautiful color and contrast, but it was an end-use film, meaning what you shot in your camera is what you projected.

So it wasn’t designed to be duplicated.

Correct. In the course of duplicating it, the contrast almost doubled and the blues and greens went very dark. Details were lost in the shadows, and highlights all washed out. So that was the bad news about this consumer Kodachrome, and my dad set out to fix that. He devised a masking system that reduced the contrast so significantly that by the time you duplicated it, you were back to normal again. He found a way to fix the color shift as well. To fix scratches on 16mm film that showed up when it was projected onto a big screen, he printed it while it was submerged in a solution, which made the scratches disappear. That allowed Walt to make his nature films.

In your book, you talk about the animation department’s being in peril in the early 1950s. Why was that?

Walt’s brother, Roy, took care of the financial part of the business, and he mentioned to my dad one day that he was going to recommend to Walt that they quit making animated films because they were so costly. They didn’t make much money, either, and what money they did make was tied up for a long time. So my dad began thinking about a way to make animated films more efficiently, and he realized that hand-inking cels was a part of the process that was very expensive and time consuming. About that time, Xerox machines came on the market, so he bought one and began experimenting with xerography as a way to mass-produce inked cells.

One Hundred and One Dalmatians was the first animated feature to use the process, wasn’t it?

That’s correct. They’d used it on a fifteen-minute short called Goliath, and for a crowd scene in Sleeping Beauty, but One Hundred and One Dalmatians was the first time they used it for a full-length picture.

You worked for Walt Disney Productions for 35 years, starting in 1950. What did you do there?

Mostly I was in the machine shop, where most of the inventions my dad came up with were fabricated. I was eventually promoted to foreman of that shop, and then manager, and my task was to make sure that my dad’s work was getting done.

Ub Iwerks died in 1971. What was he working on when he died?

He was working on the Hall of Presidents for Walt Disney World. That was a show Walt had always wanted to do, but couldn’t get a sponsor for because it was going to be so expensive. It was going to involve a huge 250-foot-wide screen and my dad devised a way to put five 70mm projectors side-by-side to project film onto that screen. Then he had to figure out how to do the photography, and so he designed a special animation type camera that would photograph an aperture that is the same proportions as the screen.

It’s clear from your book that Ub Iwerks was a really ingenious guy, but also humble about it.

That’s true. His character was such that he always looked ahead. If he figured out how to solve a problem, he didn’t boast about it and keeping thinking about what he’d done – he just moved on to the next problem. That’s the way he was.

Thank you, Don.