Have you heard of Ub Iwerks, the man behind Mickey Mouse?
In addition to having one of history’s great names, Ub Iwerks is one of the least known, but most important, contributors to American cultural history. He was Walt Disney’s oldest friend and business partner, and, in many ways, the artistic genius responsible for the start of the Disney empire.
Among other things, he should be considered the inventor of many of the most famous Disney characters and stories. But he’s almost completely forgotten, except by experts. Ub began working with Walt Disney in 1922, and when their early cartoons weren’t as successful as Disney wanted, Iwerks came up with the idea for Mickey Mouse (as well as drawing him for the first time). Iwerks animated the early Mickey Mouse cartoons and shorts almost single handedly, including the iconic “Steamboat Willy” (1928).
Iwerks and Disney had a falling out and Ub formed his own animation company in 1930. Iwerks’ own studio was not as successful as he hoped (although he was an important contributor to Warner Bros. Loony Tunes series). He returned to work for Disney in 1940 and developed the process that combined live action with cartoons, most famously in “Song of the South” (1946) and contributed greatly to the special effects used at the new Disneyland in the 50s and 60s. In addition to his work at Disney Studios, he did the special effects work in Hitchcock’s “The Birds” (1963), which earned him an Academy Award nomination. He died in 1971 and is only remembered by experts in animation (although often referenced, sometime obliquely, by cartoonists to this day).
Leslie Iwerks and John Kenworthy, “The Hand Behind the Mouse” (Disney Editions, 2001) and documentary of the same name (DVD, 1999)
Leonard Maltin, “Of Mice and Magic: A History of American Animated Cartoons” (Penguin Books, 1987)