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Remembering UB IWERKS

Geo. talks with Leslie Iwerks and John Kenworthy, authors of

The Hand Behind the Mouse

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Walt Disney called him "the greatest animator in the world" and with good reason. Ub Iwerks could knock out more drawings faster than anybody in the world. He drew the first Mickey Mouse cartoon all by himself in just two weeks. It was he who first designed that rodent, soon to be the mascot of an empire. And he would go on to do many things more: he animated The Skeleton Dance, Disney's first foray into marrying music to animation. He would run his own studio creating the ever randy Flip The Frog and perpetual prevaricator Willy Whopper. But some of Ub Iwerk's most important work was done behind the scenes: developing the sodium vapor traveling matt and improving the optical printer both of which earned him Oscars. His is the history of the animated cartoon; he was there almost from the beginning an worked in film until the day he died.

2001 was the centennial year for both Walt Disney and Ub Iwerks. His granddaughter Leslie Iwerks created a documentary on his career and a more in depth book to go with it called The Hand Behind the Mouse" published fittingly by Disney Editions. This April she will be presenting the film and hosting a special evening of Ub Iwerk's work at the Philadelphia Film Festival in conjunction with their salute to animation division of the Disney Studios.

Earlier last year Geo. Stewart, host of public radio's Crazy College, talked separately with Leslie Iwerks and her co-author John Kenworthy about Ub Iwerks, Walt Disney and the early daze of animation. Here is their combined conversation:

>GEO: For the longest time I had heard many pronunciations of Ub Iwerks' name. "Ub Iwerks. Ub. Ewerks " It's pronounced "Ub Eye' Works". What is the derivation of the name?

John Kenworthy: It is a very unusual name. There are Iwerks in Germany or Iwwerks as it was spelled back then; there are Iwwerks in Holland. A lot of history books refer to it as being of Dutch derivation, but in this case it's actually from a small village on the far western side of Germany called Abbingwehr. It turns out that this place was neither Dutch or German in its history but Friesian [Friesland was a small province in Holland - Editor]. They had their own language.

>GEO: What do you know about Ub Iwerks 's childhood?

John Kenworthy: Researching Ub Iwerks childhood was one of the hardest parts for us when we were putting together the book because he didn't like to talk about it.

Leslie Iwerks: He grew up in Kansas City, Missouri. His father, Eert Ubben Iwwerks, was from a place called Uttum, right on the boarder of Germany and the Netherlands and married Ub's mother, Deborah Pierce in 1880 after he immigrated to Decorah, Iowa. Unfortunately he was a bit of a philanderer. Soon he abandoned the family and married Laura Wagner who had Ub on March 24th, 1901.

John Kenworthy: That would prove to be as a recurrent pattern throughout his life: to start a family and then just pack up and go and move on.

Leslie Iwerks: By 1914 Ub's father had left his new wife and it fell on Ub to take care of the family. He was fourteen at the time and never spoke to his father again. So Ub had to drop out of school and support his mother at a very early age.

John Kenworthy: That was one of the biggest events in Ub's life; when his father left. Ub went very quickly from being a child to becoming the head of the household.

John Kenworthy: Ub obviously idealized his dad in some ways deep down inside. Ub inherited a lot of traits from his father, mostly his mostly his creativity.

Leslie Iwerks: Ub's father was a bit of an artist and an inventor [he had developed and patented some early photographic systems]. Fortunately it was those tendencies that Ub inherited from his father. Even though he had a very strong artistic bent, Ub was really an engineer at heart.

John Kenworthy: His father had taken out patents on cameras and like to tinker with things and Ub clearly picked that talent up from his father. I don't think he like to talk about that much but the history is there.

>GEO: In fact when his father died, Ub pretended to be indifferent.

John Kenworthy: Yeah, he made no effort to go to the funeral or have any contact with his father's new family back in Kansas City.

>GEO: I wonder if that's why Ub was such a family man.

Leslie Iwerks: He was a family man, but also a very strict father according to my dad. Kids were to be seen but not heard, he remembers hearing his father saying as he was growing up. He was very strict but also very loving and supporting. He really believed in rasing his children properly and not letting them get out of hand. Ub had two sons by the time he was 31 and he also was running his own cartoon studio at that point. I think a lot of the inspiration for his cartoons came from his kids.

>GEO: He involved his kids in his machine shops at a fairly early age.

Leslie Iwerks: My dad took an interest in the technical end of things early on and Ub just said 'Oh, come on board and work for us in the machine shop.' Dad ended up picking up where Ub left off.

John Kenworthy: He bought them cameras and got them involved in the film industry. They both followed their father to the Disney Studios where they worked for him.

>GEO: How did Ub Iwerks and Walt Disney?

.John Kenworthy: When Ub's father left Ub had to find a job. After trying a few things --like working on a farm and a back note company -- he ended up at the Pesmer-Rubin Commercial Art Studio where he was their main lettering man. One day there was a new man there, Walter Disney, who had just gotten back from France where he was an ambulance driver in the First World War.

Leslie Iwerks: The Pesmer-Rubin Art Studio was just a little commercial studio serving local businesses in the Kansas City area in 1918. Walt and Ub quickly became friends. A year later they were both laid off, so they formed their own business, Iwerks-Disney Commercial Artists. But that company was destined to be short lived. Shortly after the holiday season while Ub was creating mastheads back at the office, Walt was out trying to drum up some business when he came upon an ad placed by the Kansas City Slide Company seeking a full time employee . Walt got the job and soon convinced the boss to hire Ub too.

>GEO: That's where they both learned the rudiments of film animation. And it was Walt who came up with the idea of short commercials for local businesses to show in movie theaters.

LESLIE IWERKS: One week end Walt borrowed a film camera from work and he created these little trailers for the local movie theaters which became Newman Laugh-O-grams, after the theater chain that would be showing them. They were satiric little comedies about life in Kansas city, just a couple minutes long that ran before the program. They were such a hit that he quit his job at the Kansas City Film Ad Company to go out on his own. Nine months later he brought Ub in to do the animation. By 1923 Walt began his first cartoon series, the Alice cartoons, which featured a live little girl in a cartoon environment. It was just a switch on what Max Fleischer was doing with his Out of the Inkwell series. Walt felt that by reversing Max's gimmick he would have a hit. And he did; the Alice cartoons are what put them on the map.

>GEO: It was wise of Walt to give up animating himself. I never thought that Walt's drawing style had any sort of poetry to them; while Ub's lines kind of naturally sang.

John Kenworthy: At that time I would imagine that neither was all that good. But Ub continued to perfect his craft until he became the, well, world's greatest animator. Walt on the other hand had his eyes on other things. He was more concern with the story, and the characters, and the business side of things while Ub just loved to draw. Ub could draw forever!

>GEO: Walt soon took the Alice Cartoons to California and then brought Ub out. Then in 1926 their distributer Charles Mintz got them the job doing the Oswald the Lucky Rabbit cartoons for Universal Studios.

Leslie Iwerks: Yes. Ub really came into his prime when he joined Walt in California to work on the Oswald Rabbit cartoons. It was in those cartoons that Ub really developed his unique style: very cartoony, bouncy, round. That became the Disney style and continued to be utilized there even after Ub left in 1929.

GEO: Disney was contracted to do these cartoons at a flat rate. Unfortunately they were not inexpensive cartoons to create. Neither he nor Ub would cut corners, which really took its toll on the budgets.

Leslie Iwerks: Ub and Walt were both very quality driven.

>GEO: It was interesting reading in your biography of Ub, The Hand Behind the Mouse, about the relationship between Ub Iwerks, Walt Disney and Roy Disney. The three of them really needed each other; they balanced each other.

Leslie Iwerks: When I began researching their history, it soon became clear that when they started they were just kids just looking to create, and even though they didn't know where they were headed, they still were managing to have a good time. The three of them were so lucky to connect. With out the financial genius of Roy, Walt wouldn't have had the money to make his dreams come true. And without Ub's ability as an artist, Walt wouldn't have been able to create the content. Clearly Walt Disney was the visionary and was a great promoter. And with the other two by his side he had the team he needed to go forward.

>GEO: Walt Disney was also a real gambler; he took some chances with his business that if they didn't pay off would have suck the company.

LESLIE IWERKS: Especially in the later years. Every single time the company started making too much money, Walt Disney would seemingly say 'Oh oh, we must be doing something wrong!" He would re-invest every penny and to take things to the next level. He was fueled by that. Ub had a similar outlook -- but in a different way. Ub loved a challenge, he loved designing new things and building new things and in so doing taking the industry to places it had never been or even imagined.

>GEO: When it came time to renew the contract for the Onward the Rabbit cartoons with Mintz he was going to ack for a modest increase -- from $2,200 to $2,500 per cartoon. But Mintz had out-smarted him: he told Walt he was cutting the amount to $1,800 -- and he had hired away almost all of Walt's animators to boot. Pretty much the only people left were Roy, Ub and Walt. And Mintz even tried to hire Walt, who said "no". That must have been devastating: to have helped created a successful character only to have it pulled away from you by a shady producer. But Walt learned from every set back. This time Walt devised a character and made certain that he owned it out right.

Leslie Iwerks: The ledged is that Walt came up with Mickey Mouse on the train ride back from New York after losing Oswald. But that's not the story from Ub perspective. In an interview from 1956 Ub said that Walt came back from New York all dejected, but realizing that he needed to come up with another character fast. They began looking through magazines, searching for ideas. Ub sketched out four different characters, one of which was this little mouse. Walt loved it and thought "that's a cute character." He took it home to his wife Lilian and said "Let's call him Mortimer" and she said, "No, "Mickey!" -- that's a cuter name." So the truth is that Mickey Mouse was created by Ub and named by Lilian.

>GEO: In your book it becomes clear where the original Mickey Mouse got his personality.

Leslie Iwerks: I think the personality was very much Walt Disney; but there's a good bit of Ub in there, too. How could there not be? After all, he's animating that character. Ub would turn out seven hundred drawings a day, a fantastic amount! Unheard of! Animator Bill Nolan in New York held the record at that time with 600 hundred drawings a day. Ub was such a competitive spirit that he was determined to top that. And he did! He animating the first Mickey Mouse cartoon, Plane Crazy, all by himself in two weeks.

>GEO: In the early Mickey Mouse cartoons, Mickey exhibits a good deal the insulant airs and shear joy of performance one finds in Douglas Fairbanks.

Leslie Iwerks: Right. Mickey had a vary wild side in those early cartoons, pretty raucous. I mean, he's throwing cats around and is very abusive to other animals. Deep down that was Ub. Hard to believe it's the same Mouse that in the 1930s cartoons became such a soft sweet family mouse. Look at the characters Ub created for his own studio, they were all anarchistic. Ub had this very crazy sense of humor which Walt tended to tone down. After Ub left the studio Mickey clearly became much more Walt's personae.

John Kenworthy: Clearly it evolved much more closely into Walt' personality after Ub left. When you look at the first two Mickey Mouse cartoons to be produced "Plane Crazy" and "Galloping Gaucho" Mickey Mouse is really a different character than the one we came to know. He's smoking and drinking and forcing himself onto Minnie. He's doing all those things that a corporate icon should not do! When Ub left a lot of this disreputable behavior left with him. And it ended up over at the Ub Iwerks Studio where it manifested itself in Ub's new creation, Flip the Frog! Meanwhile Mickey evolved into someone who was much nicer.

>GEO: Mickey Mouse ended up becoming middle class and boring.

John Kenworthy: In the forties he became so timed that a supporting character, Donald Duck, surpassed him in popularity.

>GEO: Why did Ub Iwerks leave the Walt Disney Studios in 1929?

John Kenworthy: I think it was a question of control. Ub was a proud man. He knew that he was a great animator. And what was happening was that Walt would come in and question Ub Iwerks 's timing of a scene. And for an animator, the timing is everything. That's what one's whole style is based on. Ub Iwerks liked to keep his animation flowing, that was his rhythm. You talked about the poetry of Ub's line, the same thing was true of his timing, there was a poetry in his characters' movements. Walt, on the other hand, liked to have characters hit poses -- Walt liked strong key frames-- wheree they would go and hold a position for an extra frame of two to emphasize a point. Both are very valid techniques. But they are diametrically opposed. And Ub Iwerks didn't like someone tinkering with his timing. You could take the same drawing, but by changing the timing, how many frames each cell was shot, create a whole different effect. So when Ub got the offer of his own studio, well, Ub had to take it. When Walt's brother Roy asked him why he was leaving he said that it was because of personal differences with Walt.

>GEO: And Walt took it personally.

John Kenworthy: Naturally. He and Ub Iwerks were very close. They were very good friends and grew up with the industry, really working side by side for many years to create these great characters and to create this great studio.

>GEO: The behind the scenes machinations were really Machiavellian. Ub Iwerks had been approached by an associate of Walt Disney''s new distributer, Pat Powers, with the financing to set up with his own studio. Ub was unaware of Power's involvement or that he was being used as a bargaining chip by Powers to get Walt to take less money. History was repeating itself....

Leslie Iwerks: Exactly. Ub hired away a lot of the Fleischer Studios animators when he formed his own company and moved them to his studio in California


>GEO: Ub's cartoons were almost a country version of the urbane Fleischer studios' stuff, which reflect the jittery chaotic New York City where they were made. His first creation after forming his own studio always was Flip the Frog, which always seemed to me to be just a big green lanky version of Mickey Mouse.

Leslie Iwerks: Right. There were no real rules in an Ub Iwerks cartoon, anything could happen, things would come alive whenever they felt like it.

>GEO: Those are very bizarre cartoons -- especially when one realizes that they were released through the MGM Studios. You wonder what Louis Ub. Mayer thought when he saw them.

Leslie Iwerks: They were pretty racy. Ub always incorporated a more adult type of humor in his cartoons so they would appeal to the adults in the audience as well as the kids. He would have sexual innuendoes and racial stereotype jokes. In one cartoon Saint Peter flips off the bird, things that would NEVER happen in a Walt Disney cartoon.

.>GEO: When you hear of the budget this films had it's a wonder they got made at all. Ub was getting like $7000 per cartoon from his distributer. And the distributer would end up making like a hundred thousand dollars profit on each short.

John Kenworthy: The distributers got the sweat equity of all the animators and the other people working on the films who were brilliant people.

>GEO: Ub's weakness was shared by all of Disney's competitors: they lacked Walt Disney's story sense.

John Kenworthy: True. The biggest criticism of the Ub Iwerks Studio was that the story's were just not compelling. Especially in the first few years. Things got better in the later years with such poignant films as The Wise Little Hen and The Brave Tin Soldier.

>GEO: And visually they even rivaled Disney's output at the time .

John Kenworthy: Sometimes they even exceed the Disney films! They were really stunning. One of the things that got me started on the whole project was a documentary I saw at Disneyland. Almost everything it talked about they credited to Walt Disney, when I knew they were things that Ub had done. Even at his own studio Ub was breaking new ground, with multi plane camera shots, and color, and sound.

>GEO: Ub Iwerks was one of the most important people involved with the development of the multi plane camera which gave a three dimensional effect to the animation, very difficult to a achieve in animation until recently when computers made it so incredible simple. The opening of Pinocchio is probably the best example of Disney's million dollar investment in this piece of equipment. And the Disney short The Old Mill was actually conceived as a test for Ub's new multi plane camera. But Ub had made a cruder version at his own studio for far less money.

John Kenworthy: Ub had heard that Disney was going to start work on a multi plane camera. So he retired to the basement of his own studio and went to work. All his animators were wondering what he was up to down there. All they knew was that he wasn't up there working on the films like he should have been. They saw him bringing in more and more parts from outside. Sometimes he would bring down parts of old cars. Finally one day he invited them all downstairs and show them the world's first multi plane camera. He ended up using it in his films "Don Quixote" and "The Headless Horseman." So he ended up beating Disney's use of the technology in "The Old Mill."

>GEO: I never could understand how the multi plane camera worked, specifically how did they keep the levels of artwork in focus. Was it that the F Stop was incredible high, giving it great depth of field? If they did it that way, then the exposure time must have been very long.

John Kenworthy: The layers were quit a distance apart. And the part of the way the multi plane camera worked was the farther away something was the less it was in focus -- just the way your eye sees things in real life. So the background layer looks more real to us because they are a little bit out of focus. Usually the plane where the character is was kept sharply focused.

>GEO: Ward Kimball told me that the machine was huge about ten feet tall and just bathed in light. And it was incredible hot down there.

John Kenworthy: I think it was more like twenty feet tall. I've seen pictures where guys are climbing up ladders to get to the top part. At the Disney Studio it was a vertical camera shooting down with the artwork laid on glass in layers parallel to the floor. This way the different layers could be moved forward and backward between shots independent of the other layers. So the effect of the camera pushing in was achieved by moving the foreground layers faster towards the camera than the background layers. The multi plane camera the Ub used at his studio -- and that the Fleischer Brothers used at theirs -- was horizontal, with the different plans perpendicular to the floor.

>GEO: None of the studios used the multi plane camera all that much because it required so much more artwork and a lot more people to operate it. Anytime they could achieve a similar effect without using that rig they did.

John Kenworthy: Right. We found pictures of little model sets that Ub and his crew had built to get a similar effect.

>GEO: Anything to save a few steps but still get the job done.

John Kenworthy: Right. All the studios had labor saving tricks like that. Ub would make a series of drawing where the last one could be butted up against the first to create a cycle that could be repeated. Sometimes they would then flip the drawings to get another round out of them. Grim Natick told me of how in one of Ub Iwerks cartoons they had a row of parrots dancing that first went across the screen from left to right and then back again from right to left. Well, to save time and money, they just flipped the cells over had then have them come back again from right to left.

>GEO: The Fleischer did that a lot too. Ub Iwerks used the multi plane camera to stunning effect in his series of color cartoons based on fairytales. These cartoons are just gorgeous. But for some reason MGM didn't want them, so Ub was forced to distribute them through lesser studios for lesser money.

Leslie Iwerks: Yes, the Cinecolor Cartoons, a two strip process that didn't give you a full spectrum like Technicolor did. But Disney had that exclusively at the time. By the mid thirties his Willie Whopper and Flip the Frog series were beginning to get a little unfocused. So Ub created a new series specifically to explore color. He used classic fairy tales as their basis but gave them a modern twist. They all have a dark side to them. At that point all the studios' were aiming their cartoons just at kids. Walt had toned down Mickey Mouse, bringing in some new sidekicks for the more raucous routines. But Ub's work was just a little too heavy duty for the MGM's liking; just a little too scary to make it. One of my favorites of his is "Balloon Land" where the hero and heroine are being menaced by the Pincushion Man who's terrorizing the town with pins, popping all the balloon people. I've read articles that say it's an allegory about the Great Depression, which was in full swing when it was made.

>GEO: I first saw "Balloon Land" as part of Pee Wee Herman's HBO Special, but now I find it's been collected along with a lot of Ub's other work on one of the volumes of Kino Video's "Cartoons That Time Forgot." You can see all the different technical challenges he set up for himself in those films. I think the most telling story in your book was his venture into bowling.

Leslie Iwerks: Yes, he became a avid bowler at one point and one day he finally bowled a perfect game. And he never bowled again. Once he bowled a 300 game he put the ball in the closet and said, I've done it, no need to go back, it's on to the next challenge!

>GEO: Your biography of Ub Iwerks' The Hand Behind the Mouse seem to imply that Ub didn't really have the temperament to manage his own studio; he wanted to get his hands in there and do it all himself.

John Kenworthy: Yes, that was the ultimate down fall of the Ub Iwerks studio. It was a successful studio; any studio that you start in 1930 during the Depression and survives for close to ten years is a success. But running a staff and keeping all the business details straight was not something Ub wanted to be doing. He always had other people taking care of that while he was down in the basement creating something new.

>GEO: As the head of his own studio what kind of money was he making?

John Kenworthy: Well, Powers was paying him a salary of $300 a week at the start which was more than he made at Disney. But I don't thin Ub cared about the money so much. He tended to spend all his time at the studio anyway. His work was his life. That's why I think it was important to him to bring his two sons into the business when he was working at Disney. He was there all the time and he wanted to be working on projects with them.

Leslie Iwerks: By 1939 Ub Iwerks' company had closed up and he was doing independent projects. By this time his desire for animating was really wearing thin. It was just like bowling for him: he had done it; he had mastered it; so he wanted to move on. His mind at this point was more interested in the technical side of film making. It always seemed that Ub Iwerks was one step ahead of Walt Disney technically -- Ub did the first color cartoons, Ub did the first multi plane cartoons. Walt did it later. Ub Iwerks was always pushing the envelope technically. But he had far less money then Walt Disney did at this point. So when Walt Disney saw what new innovation Ub Iwerks had incorporated in one of his cartoons, Walt was able to developed it more fully thanks to his greater financial resources. And it would be Walt who would end up winning the Oscar for these technical achievements! When Ub returned to Disney in 1940 Walt realized that he was hiring one of the top geniuses of the industry and was glad to have him working for him again. There have long been rumor that their relationship remained icy after Ub left in 1929, but that's not true. There was no way Walt would have hired him if he was really upset with him. Actually their friendship grew from that point on, from 1940 on.

John Kenworthy: It was sort of like being old army buddies where you have gone through so much together that no matter whatever happens after, you always have a special place in your heart for the guy who was in there with you in the trenches. That's the way Walt Disney and Ub Iwerks were. They had gone thru a lot to get the studio up and running. They had gone through bankruptcy together, several times. Even when they were apart with separate studios they watched what each other was doing, not in just a competitive way, but in a creative way. They had great respect for one another. It was only natural hat they would get back together. Of course their relationship was now different, they were both older, and had families. But from the animators I've talked to there wasn't any animosity when Ub Iwerks came back.

Leslie Iwerks: They just fueled each other, inspired each other. Ub would work on some new technique and Walt would look at it and figure a way to use it in their next film. Conversely if Walt came up with an idea for a film, say, or a ride at Disneyland, he would turn to Ub to come up with a means of making it happen. So it was a great balance between the two of them.

>GEO: When he went back to Walt Disney in 1940 they were paying him only $75 a week.

John Kenworthy: Yep. So it certainly wasn't the money that drove him back; it was the fact that he would be in a place with enough money and tools to do the resources to make happen the ideas that he saw in his head. And he wouldn't have that luxury at any other studio.

>GEO: Ub Iwerks helped formed the original Disney Company back in the Twenties. When he left to form his own studio at the end of the decade he sold his stock back for $2900. He must have regretted that.

John Kenworthy: Who knew that the studio would end up so successful? And when he came back they treated him fairly, but more importantly gave him the opportunity to explore all the areas that he wanted to explore.

Leslie Iwerks: Remember, when he left the company the stock was worth nothing. Walt kept re-investing every penny.

John Kenworthy: To me that's not how we should judge the success of a man: how much money does he end up with?

>GEO: I think your grandfather was happy if he had enough money for a house and food and for his experiments.

Leslie Iwerks: Exactly. Which is what he got at Disney, his own lab. He became the guy at the studio that all technical problems ran through. Roy E. Disney talks about how everything went through Ub. And Ub had a whole department to do what he wanted. And he didn't have to check with Walt or anybody for approval when it came to spending money. Of course he never took advantage of the situation, there was a lot of trust there. He was very loyal to Walt.

John Kenworthy: He would go into Walt and say "hey, I got this idea for a way to create a 360 degree camera." And Walt would say "gee, that sounds like a great idea, why don't you go do it? And he would.

>GEO: And then Walt would then figure out what to do with it.

John Kenworthy: Exactly. And there were times like when he developed a die process that worked better than Kodak's. And it would be a way that they would save money internally. Ub's xerox machine for tracing the drawings on to cells saved the staff a lot of time.

>GEO: I was always thought the whole reason that Walt Disney decided to do the film 101 Dalmatians was because Ub Iwerks had come up with a way to replicate a few dog drawings into the five score and one they needed.

John Kenworthy: Chuck Jones told me that over in Warner Brothers if he had talked about doing a film called spot with one dog with one spot, they would have never done it. That would have been too much work. And here over at Walt Disney you have this great device that let them do 101 Dalmatians just covered with spots.

>GEO: The xerox process gave a very nice jittery line to 101 Dalmatians. You could feel the pencil.

John Kenworthy: It was very distinctive. Marc Davis talked about that -- he animated Cruella De Vil. "Always in the past we would do these great drawings and then we would give them over to an inker, and even though they were very good at what they did would loose some of the character of the drawn line." Chuck Jones made the comment that the difference between and animator's line and an inker's line is the difference between lightening and a lightening bug. It's a very stark difference for the animator! Marc Davis said that when he looked up on the screen and could see his very own lines in Cruella De Vil, it was a revelation to him, it was a marvelous thing, THERE WERE HIS LINES! Just exactly the way he drew them! Up on the screen!

>GEO: Ub Iwerks trained a lot of people over the years.

Leslie Iwerks: Ub, I think, could sometimes not be very easy to work for. He was a task master, a perfectionist. If someone made the same mistake: the first time, ok, he'd sit down and explain it to them. But if you made the same mistake a second time and it was: "you weren't listening!" and his displeasure would be clear! He was very thorough and very serious about his work. And he expected his staff to be, too.

>GEO: The Disney studios had the best special effects of all the studios at that time.

John Kenworthy: Up until the 70s, definitely. There's a story that when they were putting together the first Star Wars movie they wanted to see how the Walt Disney studios did all those processes. So they went back and found the sacred prism that Ub used to created the sodium screen camera. And they marveled how even in 1977 the was still the state of the art.

>GEO: One of his most important inventions while at Disney was the sodium vapor traveling matt technology which made films like Mary Poppins feasible. It used the very narrow spectrum of sodium light to pull very clean matts.

Leslie Iwerks: Yes. Before that the standard was the blue screen, which tended to not be able to handle fine details like strands of hair. Ub was able to take the technology to the next level, minimizing fringing, creating a seamlessness between the foreground characters and the backgrounds. He won an Oscar for that. Walt exploited that technology to make such films as The Parent Trap.

John Kenworthy: The sodium screen process that Ub perfected was used to great result in films like The Parent Trap where you had Hayley Mills acting with Hayley Mills. It was a nice gimmick and a great process.

>GEO: Ub Iwerks had a lot to do with the design of Disneyland.

Leslie Iwerks: Oh, yes. He had a hand in virtually every attraction, creating projection technology, camera technology, 3-Walt Disney work for the park and for the films and for the tv shows. At that time the company was just booming. They were developing Disneyland, had the weekly television show and the daily Mickey Mouse Club Tv show, were still making feature films, the nature films, an animation. So Ub Iwerks was just so busy with so many different things. He was making new advances in the process lab which would involve every department at the studio.

John Kenworthy: Anything that Walt Disney could think of to do tv shows, movies, animation, Ub was involved with. And when the Disneyland theme park idea came up it was plain that Ub would be involved in that too. His contributions were many and varied: he worked on the film backdrop of Abe Lincoln. He devised the camera for the 360 degree theater. How do you film a movie in 360 degrees -- and not see the camera? [he had the nine 35 millimeter cameras pointing up onto a ring of angled mirrors.]. He came up with the talking busts in the Haunted Mansion attraction at Disneyland.

>GEO: That's one of my favorite effects, it's so lifelike!

John Kenworthy: One day he got this crazy idea to take a wig stand and project film of a real face on it. So he brought in his wife's to the office and tried it. It looks very realistic ... and. very frightening! And that's how the singing busts in the haunted mansion came about.

>GEO: One of the most memorable films that he worked was not made by Disney: Alfred Hitchcock's The Birds.

Leslie Iwerks: Yes. During the production of Mary Poppins Alfred Hitchcock approached my grandfather about how he could create the illusion of all these birds attacking human beings convincingly. So Ub was hired out to Universal to make that film. Tippi Hendren recalls watching Ub and Hitch sitting together on the set discussing their vision. She had to react to things that were not there on the set and it was very strange for her. When she finally saw the combined image she couldn't believe it!. She said it was Ub Iwerks who created real terror.

John Kenworthy: He had already had gained a reputation at that time for being the special effects genius that he was and one day ah came into the Walt Disney studios and asked to see Ub and pitched the idea for The Birds and asked Ub how he could possibly do it. Walt Disney let Ub go and do the film. It was an outlet for Ub Iwerks's creativity. Recently they published Alfred Hitchcock's notebooks and there is a great section where he talks about all the different special effects processes that he evaluated during pre-production. And he came to the conclusion that Ub Iwerks' process was truly the state of the art and the only one that would be able to achieve what he needed to have done.

>GEO: I was interested to read in your book why some of the birds look so really dark and menacing: they were white pigeon printed in reverse!

John Kenworthy: They were shot on the Disney lot, all these white pigeons against a black background and then flipped to get these black birds chasing these terrified kids as they ran home from the school.

>GEO: Both he and Hitch loved a technical challenge. And Hitchcock wasn't afraid of stylization. He wasn't interested in pure reality, he was going for an emotional truth.

John Kenworthy: Even the "musical score" was all electronic noise and screeches!

>GEO: It must have hit Ub Iwerks hard when Walt Disney died.

John Kenworthy: It was terribly hard on Ub, part of the reason was the way he found out: they announced it over the studio P.A. system. Everyone at the studio knew Walt was sick but nobody how sick.. Can you imagine? Here's a man who was your best friend for 40 some year and you find out over a loud speaker that your buddy is gone and the studio is closing for the day. Ub went into his son Don's office and sat down and the feeling was that it was the end of an era. That was the one person that Ub looked up to, the one person whose respect he wanted, the one person whose approval mattered. And now he was gone.

>GEO: The Hand Behind the Mouse paints a fair picture of everybody, I think. You do an especially good job with Walt Disney who tends to be presented so often in the press either as an avuncular genius or a monestrous anti-Semite.

John Kenworthy: There are people who think that our book doesn't address Walt's evil side enough; they say we make a saint out of him. The truth is that Walt Disney was a human being and somewhere between those extremes was a man. And to say that he was a man doesn't make him any less of a great man. Walt was clearly one of the special people of our century and that doesn't take anything away from what Ub did. We wanted to be a very fair book to everyone. We didn't want it to be one of those "Let's trash Walt" books. Leslie and I both have a great respect for Walt; we just wanted to tell Ub's tale.

>GEO: Ub would remain at the Disney Studios for another five years, until his death.

John Kenworthy: He worked all the way to the end. I think that's the true story of Ub Iwerks. His work ethic was the most important thing to him. It was the Summer of 1971. He had obviously had a stroke some time that morning, but he denied it to himself. He went to the studio and just kept on working. His left hand became limp and useless so he would use his right hand to maneuver it. His staff finally convinced him to go to the hospital where he died on the morning of July 7th, 1971. Very sad: here was this great man was constantly driven to solve problems. This was one problem he couldn't solve.

Geo. Stewart is a contributor to FilmFax and Outre, having interviewed Stan Freberg and Tom Lehrer among others for the publications. He also hosts Crazy College, a weekly show dedicated to all musics odd, silly or forgotten, heard on some of the more adventurous public radio stations and over that wild world wide web.