Search form

A Son’s Compelling Tribute to his Fabled Father, Ub Iwerks

Don Iwerks talks about his new book, Walt Disney’s Ultimate Inventor: The Genius of Ub Iwerks, which celebrates the singular achievements of the irrepressible innovator.

As legendary among animation professionals and aficionados as he is unknown to the general public, Ub Iwerks was a self-taught animator and inventor whose contributions to Disney Studios were arguably second only to those of Walt himself. From his work as the primary animator on early Disney sound cartoons, including Steamboat Willie, to his later pioneering innovations in visual effects and the design of special equipment and electronics for theme park projects, Iwerks’ genius for invention knew no bounds. And, as Walt’s lifelong friend and kindred spirit, Iwerks played a unique role in the creation and development of the Disney brand, setting standards that continue to inspire today’s artists and technicians.

Yet even longtime fans of Iwerks and his notable achievements – for which he received two Academy Awards – have been largely in the dark about the specifics of his contributions, as well as the details of his relationship with Walt. That unfortunate gap in the historical record has now been rectified with the publication of Walt Disney’s Ultimate Inventor: The Genius of Ub Iwerks, Iwerks’ son Don’s affectionate and highly informative chronicle of his father’s years at Disney. Featuring never-before-published photos and engaging first-hand accounts of Iwerks’ professional and personal experiences during a half-century career, Walt Disney’s Ultimate Inventor transcends the typical industry bio, offering substantial technical details for the specialist, while remaining wholly accessible to the general reader.

For anyone familiar with Don Iwerks’ own illustrious career, the intimacy and knowledgeability of Walt Disney’s Ultimate Inventor won’t come as a surprise. Himself an Oscar-winning technical innovator who worked with his father for many years at Disney, Don Iwerks is singularly well-positioned to tell Ub Iwerks’ story. We caught up with Don and spoke to him about the book and his dad’s legacy.

The book is now available through the Disney Books website as well as Amazon.

Editor’s Note: Many of the captions provided with the wonderful images shared with AWN were too large to post within the image embed, so they are shown just underneath, formatted slightly differently.

AWN: Walt Disney’s Ultimate Inventor is a terrific book. It’s not only thorough, but it tells the story in an especially compelling way, and the illustrations are fantastic. How long did it take to produce?

Don Iwerks: I started in 2007, when I was working on the Walt Disney Family Museum, restoring some of my dad's film-related artifacts for display there. I had prepared a small booklet for Diane [Disney-Miller, Walt’s daughter and museum co-founder] describing what we were going to display, and she was very pleased with it. She said, "If you could put this into a book, we could sell it in our gift shop." My dad always told me that he didn't have time to write a book, so I decided I better start writing it while I can still remember it.

AWN: What do you think the book brings to the discussion about your father and his work with Disney that no one has heard before? What do you want people to take away from it?

DI: My view, and I repeat it numerous times, is that the inventions that he came up with for Walt, or the solutions that he offered to Walt, were extremely significant. For instance, my dad and Roy Disney, Walt's brother, were having a conversation one day, and Roy mentioned to Ub that he was going to recommend to Walt that they cease making animated films because they cost too much compared to live-action films, which they had begun to make. And my dad was taken aback and figured there's got to be some way to lower the cost. So he bought a Xerox copy machine, which had only recently come on the market, and made a test, photographing the pencil drawings from one of the scenes. And he was able to copy those onto cels, which eliminated the hand labor of inking individual cels, which is where a lot of the cost accumulated. They were able to do 101 Dalmatians, a feature film, using the Xerox process. It saved animation at the studio.

Walt had a home at Smoke Tree Ranch in Palm Springs where he, his wife, Lillian, and their family spent many an enjoyable weekend. One of Walt’s friends and neighbor was Donald Gilmore, Chairman of the Board of the Upjohn Company and one of the early sponsors at Disneyland. When Walt’s 1967 film The Gnome-Mobile had been completed at the studio, Gilmore purchased the 1930 automobile that had been used in the film and would keep it at his Palm Springs home.
Gilmore was also interested in the oversized rear seat set that had been built for the film with a plan to also bring it to his home. (Oversize sets were often used in the film to make normal size actors appear small.) His plan was to install the seat set in a spare bedroom with a window cut into a wall where his guests could observe other guests frolicking on the oversize seat. But a problem presented itself, as guests would appear as normal size people in an oversize set.
While the oversized rear seat was still at the studio, Walt asked Ub if he had any ideas on how to solve the problem. Ub immediately had a solution: The problem was that the viewer needed to be in the same scale as the set, in effect being three times larger than normal. To make the rear seat of the automobile appear normal size to the viewer, Ub knew that the average person’s eye separation, known as the interocular distance, was approximately 2¾ inches and would have to be increased to match the scale of the set. The set being three times normal size would require that the viewer’s eye separation be extended by a factor of three to approximately eight inches.
Ub came up with a solution whereby the observer could look into a periscope device similar to a pair of binoculars. Internal mirrors extended the interocular distance of the viewer’s eyes outward three times matching the scale of the set. The result was that the oversize rear seat now appeared normal, and the friends cavorting around and on top of the seat appeared one-third normal size.

AWN: The work that your father did – as an animator, and then with his own studio, and then all of the photographic and engineering work – is nothing short of incredible. Did he recognize how significant his accomplishments were?

DI: No, not at all. He was never one to pat himself on the back. You could hardly get him to talk about it. Once he'd done something and excelled at it, he'd move onto something else. That's why there's such a long list of significant inventions and processes he created. He was always looking forward to the next challenge.

AWN: In the book, you talk about when he went back to Disney, after he closed down his own studio, and you make a point of saying that, contrary to what people believe, there was no animosity between him and Walt. Why do you think that’s been the narrative?

DI: I have no idea about that. Maybe they just come to that conclusion because, when my dad left Walt back in 1930, it was a shock to both Walt and Roy that my dad was leaving the company and going out to be a competitor. So one could surmise that Walt would never forgive him for that. But one of the wonderful things about Walt Disney is that he recognized talent, and he could put aside whatever he might've felt about my dad leaving the company, because he recognized what he had to offer. My dad never talked to me about any of that, but I saw the interaction between them when I went to work there, and they talked just like a couple of old friends.

AWN: Were there any areas that you’re aware of, any endeavor or project, that he wanted to work on, but just never had the time to do it?

DI: I can't really think of anything. The last thing he worked on was the Hall of Presidents, but he was heavily involved with that. He had some initial problems solving how to project an image 200 feet wide and, as I describe in the book, we started to build a camera stand to do it, utilizing one camera. It was going to do multiple repeats of trucks, zooms, pans, tilts, and so forth. We got the rig partly built, but then he realized it wasn’t going to work. And so he came up with a camera that had a long aperture that was the same aspect ratio as a 200-foot long screen. It was just amazing. I mean, to get registration on pulling down that many frames and still have it be steady was more than amazing.

Anyway, he was working very hard on it and, whether that put him in the hospital or not, I don't know, but then he had his heart attack. And actually, people who were working on various phases of this camera and the filming would visit him in the hospital, and he was helping them solve the problems [before he died in July of 1971].

For The Hall of Presidents attraction in the Magic Kingdom at Walt Disney World, there is planned film shown before the curtains open to reveal the presidents. From its opening day, the 70mm film played a gigantic movie screen, eighteen feet high by two hundred feet long and described various historical moments. To produce this as a live-action film would have been cost prohibitive due to actors and period-related locations, sets, and costumes. And last but not least—what kind of camera and projection system could be used to present a film on a two-hundred-foot-long screen? It was determined that the film would have to be done with paintings photographed a frame at a time, like animation films. Large detailed paintings in the same shape as the long screen were produced by a multitude of scenic artists, many flown to the studio from England. The show designers asked Ub if he could figure out a way to photograph and project the paintings onto the enormous screen. It would be impossible to project such a large image using one projector, so Ub decided that the screen could be separated into five adjoining screens—each forty feet in width with its own 70mm projector—to produce a continuous image!

The second challenge was how to photograph the paintings. In order that the paintings would not appear static, it was imperative that the camera be able to pan horizontally, tilt vertically, and also truck (zoom) in and out from the paintings. Ub’s first attempt involved mounting a single camera on the carriage of a long lathe bed. The camera would have to make five passes at the painting, one for each of the five projectors. It would become very complicated to match the edges of each of the five films, particularly in a truck shot. Construction of the camera and lathe bed apparatus had barely begun when Ub decided that it wouldn’t work. The only way the photography could be done was with a specially designed camera (above). The camera required a wide aperture in the same shape as the two-hundred-foot-long screen so that it could photograph the entire painting in one exposure. This would allow the camera to pan across the painting and incorporate the necessary truck shots.

AWN:  Don, what was it like growing up with and working with someone who is such a revered figure in the industry?

DI: Well, that's a hard question to answer, but I never thought of it in those terms. As far as working with him, it was mostly a pleasure. Sometimes it wasn't a pleasure, like when things were going wrong with a project and we were getting some inferior work and he’d get a little upset. But 99% of the time he was a joy to work with. We would have lunch together probably once a week, go off the lot to a restaurant and just talk about the current project and solutions to problems. Anyway, it was a great time for me, and it's been a real joy writing a book that secures my dad’s legacy. 

One afternoon, in early 1954, after screening some CinemaScope dailies, Walt and Ub were standing in the hallway outside the theater when Walt casually asked Ub if it would be possible to photograph and project a 360-degree movie—a sort of “Cinerama in Surround.” “If we could do that,” Walt said, “we could find a sponsor and it could become an attraction at Disneyland.”
Ub answered, “Yes, I am sure that it can be done.”
Walt said, “Why don’t you check into it, and see what you can come up with?”
Within a few days, Ub let Walt know that yes, it could be done. He had worked out an idea for a circular camera and “surround” projection system. Walt enthusiastically asked Ub to proceed immediately with the camera as time was short. Not only did the camera have to be designed and built—a film had to be made before the opening of Disneyland, which now was only a few months away.
The new camera technique gained a name, “Circarama” (a circular, panoramic presentation, which combined “circular” and “panorama”).
The Circarama camera has never traveled faster, other than when conducting aerial filming, and shooting on an Italian racetrack was really a thrill!

Jon Hofferman's picture
Jon Hofferman is a freelance writer and editor based in Los Angeles. He is also the creator of the Classical Composers Poster, an educational and decorative music timeline chart that makes a wonderful gift.