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Ub Iwerks: Engineering Creativity
by Amanda Knoss

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Ub Iwerks and Walt Disney.

Ub Iwerks and Walt Disney.
In a year where over thirty animated films are being released in the United States alone, either in the theatre or straight to DVD, it's hard to believe that there was a time where cartoons were a fresh and new novelty. Although new technologies are always being created to aid animators and enhance one's viewing experience, cartoons have always been there.

Most living generations can remember fondly an animation that added to their childhood experience. Whether it be the sad and funny BAMBI or television's bumbly "Winnie-the-Pooh," it cannot be denied that cartoons are a priceless part of growing up. And the household name that many of these animations tend to have in common? The Walt Disney Company.

Everyone has heard of Walt Disney. He helped paved the way for animations to be an everyday part of our lives. He produced one of the most notable cartoon characters in the world, and his character-based theme parks are what every child dreams of. There is one person, however, that many people haven't heard of, but who is arguably just as important as Disney to the field of animation.

That person is Ub Iwerks.

Ub Iwerks was Walt Disney's good friend and lead animator for many years. They met at an art studio in Kansas City in 1919 and their partnership goes as far
Popular image created by a less-known name.

Popular image created by a less-known name.
back as Disney's very first animations, including his Laugh-O-Gram series.

Oswald the Lucky Rabbit, an obvious precursor to Mickey Mouse, was animated by Iwerks alone. It was a successful distribution by Universal beginning in 1927, but the ownership rights were soon disputed and lost by Iwerks and Disney, who were left to come up with something new.

Then came Mickey Mouse. The Walt Disney Company's staple cartoon character dates as far back as the mid-twenties. Although the character is mostly attributed to Disney's genius, it has been said that Iwerks created Mickey out of inspiration from drawings of Disney accompanied by mice. "Steamboat Willie" was released in 1928.

Both the first of the Mickey cartoons and of Disney's stand-out Silly Symphonies were animated almost solely by Iwerks.

Although the partnership between the two eventually came to an unfortunate end, it is indisputable that together they influenced the world of animation.

Ub Iwerks' influence did not stop with Disney, however. He went on to open his own studio, and animated and produced the series Flip the Frog, and Willie Whopper. His business was not successful commercially, however. He went on to work for other studios such as Warner Brothers.

One of most popular cartoons ever created,
Flip the Frog in Spooks.

Flip the Frog in Spooks.
and one of my personal favorites, is the Silly Symphony, "Skeleton Dance." An eerie animation of skeletons dancing in the graveyard after the sun goes down was only the beginning of a string of relatively morbid and strange animations produced in the first half of the twentieth century; many were animated, produced or directed by Iwerks himself.

Eventually, Iwerks returned to Disney's studio, and made prominent headway in the field of special visual effects, as well as some of Disney's well-known theme park attractions.

If cartoons can be attributed to the creativity of kids, then the imagination presented and provoked in the creepier shorts by the animation genius is nothing short of wondrous. In "Hells Bells," we're taken to into the fiery depths and introduced to a vicious dancing spider, shadowy demons, a sharp-toothed alligator
The Day The Violence Died: Supposed Story of Walt and Ub.

The Day The Violence Died: Supposed Story of Walt and Ub.
monster, and even the three-headed guardian of the gate. In "The Headless Horseman," Iwerks brought the story of Ichabod Crane to life, animating the horrifying headless fiend. In "Spooks," Iwerks' character Flip the Frog comes across a house full of skeletons on a dark and stormy night, and struggles to get away with his life.

The hard work and dedication that Ub Iwerks brought to animation is something to be hailed. According to the Disney website's section on Iwerks, he completed "as many as 700 drawings a day," while today's current animators produce only "80 to 100 drawings a week." His influence on animation is undeniable and profound, and some of his cartoons still remain favorites.

One has to wonder where the animation world would be today without the talent of a Kansas City-born animator who supported Walt Disney's first steps to fame.

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Nov 29, 2009 4:15 PM
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Utterly fascinating. Thanks.

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Other Columns
Other columns by Amanda Knoss:

Secondaries: Part Two


Star Wars Cubicle Gear

Mano-a-Mano: The Travolta Role

CowCon 2009

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Amanda Knoss
If there's something Amanda can't commit to, it's a single taste in films. She believes that Walmart, Starbucks and a certain super-power government are going to clan together to take over the world. Either that, or she's over-caffeinated again.

If you have a comment, question, or suggestion, you can send a message to Amanda Knoss by clicking here.

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