Wednesday, May 11, 2005

Masters of Animation: Ub Iwerks

The early history of Ubbe Ert Iwerks and Walter Elias Disney has been covered in a previous installment. How they met in Kansas City. How they went out of business together. How the ingenuity of Iwerks saved Disney’s Oswald the Lucky Rabbit cartoons, and how nearly all of the animators were hired away by Charles Mintz, who cut Disney out of the show. How Iwerks worked late nights single-handedly animating Plane Crazy in secret, and how Mickey Mouse quickly became a sensation.

Disney’s first cartoons were distributed by a man named Pat Powers. It was Powers who helped set Iwerks and the Disney brothers with the Cinephone, which allowed Steamboat Willie to feature synchronous sound (Powers himself had pirated the technology, "adapting" it from RCA). In those early days, Walt acknowledged that Ub was the real animation talent by paying Ub a higher salary than he paid himself. But it was Walt who became rich and famous. When Ub and Carl Stalling produced The Skeleton Dance, Walt was not enthusiastic about it. Friction grew between the two, and Ub began to feel like his place in Disney history was being covered up, that he was shut out of the spotlight to make it look like Walt had done everything himself. Pat Powers felt the same way and offered Ub his own studio and double the salary he was receiving now. Ub had loyally stood by Walt during the Mintz debacle, but this time Ub said yes and left Disney for Ub Iwerks Studios, under contract to Powers’s own Celebrity Pictures. It was 1930. Walt felt betrayed and set about erasing the contribution of Ub at the Disney Studios.
In 1928, when Ub and Walt set about trying to find a replacement character for Oswald, Ub had designed a frog before settling on Mickey Mouse. Pulling his drawing out of the drawer, Powers and Iwerks hoped Flip the Frog would be the new animation star. However, Ub’s first Flip cartoon, Fiddlesticks (1930) was vaguely unsatisfying, little more than a retread of the Silly Symphonies or the cartoons where Mickey played the piano and capered about (except, of course, with a frog). It’s incredibly well animated, just not very exciting. Interestingly, Flip (who opens the cartoon with the same dance Mickey performed in The Opry House) is accompanied on the piano by a mouse on the violin who looks a hell of a lot like Mickey (and probably pissed off Walt, which was the point). The mouse plays the violin and cries over the beauty of his own notes–a gag Mickey also performs in Fiddlin’ About, although they were released so close together it remains unclear who was being ripped off. What is much more interesting (and what makes this charming little cartoon a milestone) is that this is the first color cartoon, and the mouse is wearing red shorts. Mickey Mouse wouldn’t wear red shorts until his first color cartoon, The Band Concert, five years later.

Take a look at Fiddlesticks here.


Ub Iwerks had managed to beat Disney to color. He knew that Walt had signed an exclusive two-year deal with Technicolor for their 3-strip process, so Ub simply used the 2-strip Technicolor. The pallette was limited, especially heavy on reds and greens, but it was still functional and rather pleasant. But Powers tried to sell the film to MGM, who was thinking of a distribution deal (everyone was getting into animation in 1930), liked the color but balked at the price for what they thought was a rather ordinary cartoon. The second Flip short, Puddle Pranks (1930), was similarly underwhelming (and color had been abandoned because of the cost). Powers felt that they were put off by the frog, and pushed Ub to redesign Flip so that he looked more human. Round was a shape that audiences responded to, so Flip ended up looking more like Mickey Mouse. By his third film, The Village Barber (1930), Flip was more human (and he would become much more so), and MGM picked up the series.
Ub was able to hire a staff that included many animation luminaries. Future Warner Brothers story man Bugs Hardaway (whom Bugs Bunny is named after) and former Fleischer animator Rudy Zamora came first, followed quickly by others. The biggest coup for Powers was enticing Grim Natwick (the designer of Betty Boop) away from Fleischer Studios. Natwick was one of the biggest and most respected animators in the business–so much so that Roy Disney had tried to hire him as a replacement for Ub. Natwick was followed by other Fleischer animators, including Al Eugster, Jimmie (later Shamus) Culhane, and Berny Wolf. Iwerks employed the four top Betty Boop animators. Ub was also joined by Carl Stalling, whom he had begun the Silly Symphonies series with at Disney, and who left the Van Bueren Studios to join his old pal. Among the other animators and storymen who worked at Ub Iwerks Studios were Norm Blackburn, Frank Tashlin (formerly of Van Bueren, later the director of several Jerry Lewis comedies), Steve Bosustow (later the founder of UPA, producer of the Mr. Magoo and Gerald McBoing Boing cartoons), legendary sound engineer Glen Glenn, future Warner storymen Cal Howard and Earl Duvall, and future Disney storymen Ted Sears and Otto Englander. Chuck Jones started in animation washing cels for Iwerks (he was later fired). Mary Blair (subject of a wonderful new book by John Canemaker, The Art and Flair of Mary Blair) also began at Iwerks, and would go on to design for Disney, including the little characters for the It’s a Small World ride.

Ub was a technical innovator, and MGM fed that hunger for invention by giving him a lot of capital; MGM spent more for their animation at that time than any other studio except for Disney. What set Ub’s cartoons apart were his adult touches and his technical flourishes. In The Cuckoo Murder Case (1931), a Philo Vance parody starring Flip the Frog, his vanishing point effects nearly outdo all of the ones he did for Disney. Flip also has a run in with the Angel of Death reminiscent of the one Mickey Mouse had in The Haunted House (1929). In Room Runners (1932), there is nudity and cheesecake to spare, making use of the Boop animators now working at the studio. The Office Boy (1932) is basically about how many times a secretary’s butt can be used for humor value. In Chinaman’s Chance (1932), one of many overly-racial-caricatured cartoons from the studio, Flip gets high on opium and the film produces a sort of liquid effect as Flip gets stoned.

Though the films were lavishly animated and very stylish, audiences never fully warmed to Flip the Frog. Though Ub’s abrupt departure had dealt Disney a blow in quality, by the end of 1930 they had recovered and were providing high competition for Iwerks. The Flip the Frog series was producing a steady though small profit for MGM, but they were starting to wonder why they really needed animation if the returns were going to be so small. The series ended in 1933 with Soda Squirt.

Ub needed something more story-oriented rather than gag-oriented, and came up with a new star: Willie Whopper. Grim Natwick designed Willie, a boy with a tendency to tell Munchausen-esque tall tales about his various, imagined achievement. The first short, The Air Race (1933), was the best in the series, with Willie winning an airplane race. It played on Iwerks’s predilection for mechanical jokes, and when watching it one can tell that he was really enjoying himself. In another moment of adult humor, St. Peter (whose cloud is buzzed by a plane) gives one pilot the finger. Ub didn’t believe in self-censoring the way Walt came to. Curiously, The Air Race was not released until 1936, and then under the title Spite Flight. Powers didn’t care much for Willie, and felt he needed to be fat to be sympathetic. By the third short, the truly disturbing space comedy Stratos-Fear (1933), Willie was round.
Iwerks wasn’t quite satisfied with the Willie Whopper series, either, and decided to run a new series at the same time which he called ComiColor Cartoons. It would not be beholden to a character, but free-form and experimental, like the Silly Symphonies. He went to Cinecolor (Walt had extended his exclusive deal with Technicolor), which had a limited 2-strip process, but he tailored the cartoons to use the strengths of orange, brown, red, and green, which appeared the most vibrant. Cinecolor was also used for Willie Whopper, beginning with the bizarre Hell’s Fire (1934). The ComiColor Classics are the best cartoons from the Ub Iwerks Studios; they often began with an ornate storybook opening up–something Disney would "borrow" for Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. The series began with the Grim Natwick-directed Jack and the Beanstalk (1933), one of the best. This was quickly followed by The Little Red Hen (1933); for the cartoon, Jimmie Culhane and Al Eugster interviewed a radio performer named Clarence Nash for the role of a duck. They loved him, but couldn’t hire him without Ub’s approval, and Ub was out of the office that day. Nash, emboldened by his terrific audition, interviewed at Disney and was hired on the spot to be the voice of a duck in a similar Silly Symphony called The Wise Little Hen. Nash would stay at Disney, becoming the voice of Donald Duck for nearly 50 years.

Jack and the Beanstalk.

The ComiColor Classics were generally wonderful cartoons, though Iwerks and his animators were prone to racial and gay stereotypes. The best of these are the charming The Brementown Musicians (1935), The Brave Tin Soldier (1934), The Valiant Tailor (1935), Puss in Boots (1934), the gorgeous Jack Frost (1935), and the bizarrely surreal Balloon Land (1935). Summertime (1935), with its centaurs and flower ballet and a beautiful sequence where trees turn into the silhouettes of nude women and dance, seems to have inspired a lot of scenes in Disney’s Fantasia (1940). For The Headless Horseman (1935), Ub developed a multiplane camera to make background layering possible, giving the cartoons more depth. He built it from parts out of an old Chevy he’d paid $350 for. His head was much more in technical problems than it was in animation, and more and more he deferred to Natwick. Iwerks was not interested in story or character as much as he was in innovation.

The Brave Tin Soldier.

MGM was no longer impressed with Iwerks, and decided to dump him for their own in-house animation division, from which Hugh Harman and Rudy Ising would direct the Happy Harmonies series. Ub was forced to shut down the studio, but with Grim Natwick and a few others he launched Cartoon Films Limited. Natwick directed commercial films, including See How They Won (1936) before leaving for Disney, and Iwerks was subcontracted by Leon Schlesinger to direct two Looney Tunes cartoons–Porky and Gabby (1937) and Porky’s Super Service (1937). Iwerks apparently despised Porky Pig as a character, and Chuck Jones and Bob Clampett were brought in to complete both cartoons. Iwerks drifted around some more, even working for Charles Mintz at Columbia on four cartoons in the Color Rhapsodies series in 1940 (he left after only four because Columbia’s animation studio was widely regarded as a sweat shop). In Great Britain, Iwerks directed three cartoons featuring Gran’Pop Monkey, a character created by illustrator Lawson Wood. Taking a teaching position in America at the Ray Patin Animation Training School (Patin was a former Iwerks animator), Iwerks felt like his time was over and he should get out of the business altogether.

Many of Iwerks’s contemporaries thought he was being wasted as a teacher; Hugh Harman called Roy Disney and asked what the general mood was. Roy harbored no ill will towards Ub, and said that he would be interested in having Ub come back. Ub called Ben Sharpsteen and was hired to head the burgeoning technical department in 1940. He began to do effects animation, playing with the multiplane camera Disney had developed in 1937 (at a cost of $70,000), and combining real water with animation for the rainstorm in Bambi (1942). During the war, when Disney was making cartoons for the government, Iwerks directed animated training films such as Stop That Tank: The BOYS Anti-Tank Rifle (1942) and Victory Through Air Power (1943), a film which not only utilized Ub’s extensive knowledge of every type of aircraft, but supposedly influenced President Roosevelt’s handling of the air support of D-Day.

Iwerks loved doing technical tasks and creating new animation technology much more than he had loved animating. He worked all over the place, troubleshooting, inventing, and generally fixing problems. For Saludos Amigos (1944), he refined the method to combine animated characters with live action that he had used on the old Alice Comedies. As the head of the Disney Optical Printing Department, he perfected his methods by creating a new optical printer for The Three Caballeros (1945). He redesigned the 3-strip color system for Disney and improved the saturation and contrast range so much that engineers for Kodak asked to see his designs. His services were so invaluable to the company that in a company manual of the time, Ub is praised as someone whose "ingenuity can usually contrive to get an effect or shoot material that stumps the more staid, conventional camera crane."

Besides doing animation effects for Melody Time (1948) and Cinderella (1950), Ub also did the following:
* invented the Wet Gate process which allowed 16mm film used for the True Life Adventures series to be blown up to 35mm without scratching it.
* developed a color separation system that controlled balance, density, and contrast so that shots filmed at separate times would blend together.
* created Oscar-winning effects for 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (1954), one of Disney's biggest hits (and, interestingly, directed by Max Fleischer's son Richard).
* created the 360 degree film process for Disneyland called Circarama, then later enhanced through the use of mirrors to become the seamless Circlevision.
* helped Disney develop an in-house 3D system for two shorts.
* patented the Xerographic Fusing Apparatus and the Xerographic Developing Apparatus to allow animation to be copied onto other cels, enhancing the linear backgrounds of 101 Dalmatians (1961).
* created a nodal point perspective camera that allowed forced-perspective shots for Darby O’Gill and the Little People (1959) (a process still being used in films like The Lord of the Rings).
* created a sodium vapor process that allowed Hayley Mills to appear as twins in The Parent Trap (1961).
* developed a switching system for editing machines that allowed The Mickey Mouse Club to be edited quickly.
* developed a traveling-matte process that allowed animated characters to move from the background to the foreground in live action settings for realistic interaction, thereby making one of the most popular sequences of Mary Poppins (1965) possible.* created special lighting effects and a projection effect that made the Great Moments with Mr. Lincoln attraction so realistic, leading to the Hall of Presidents and effects for The Haunted Mansion attraction.
* designed electronic effects for The Pirates of the Caribbean, creating a circuit that mimicked the flickering of fires.
* developed cheaper, more resilient 35mm projectors that are still used in Disney parks.
* created an optical prism for the effects in The Love Bug.
* worked on special effects for Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds–Hitch himself demanded that Iwerks and no one else create the effects for his film.

Ub and Walt came to be friends again, redeveloping a real respect and admiration for one another. Ub even conceded that Mickey would have been nothing without Walt’s storytelling and marketing skills. When Walt died of lung cancer shortly before Christmas 1966, Ub remarked: "That’s the end of an era." After that, he didn’t feel the drive to please and impress that he had with Walt. They truly needed one another. Ub never retired, but slowed down, dying of a heart attack in 1971 at the age of 70. In 1989, the Walt Disney Company officially acknowledged that Ub Iwerks was the true designer of Mickey Mouse, and awarded him the first Disney Legends Award. Today, his non-Disney work is considered a side note to his career. But his legacy lives on as one of the most important animators who ever worked.

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