Ub Iwerks: The Animator Behind Mickey Mouse | History Hit

Ub Iwerks: The Animator Behind Mickey Mouse

Shannon Callahan

09 Jun 2022
L: A Disney Studios animation technician makes a sound cartoon film of Mickey Mouse using the old method of individual frames. R: Mickey Mouse in Steamboat Willie, 1928.
Image Credit: L: Colin Waters / Alamy Stock Photo R: Allstar Picture Library Limited. / Alamy Stock Photo

American animator and special-effects technician Ub Iwerks created the cartoon character Mickey Mouse alongside Walt Disney and changed the course of animated movie history forever. Born Ubbe Ert Iwwerks in 1901 in Kansas City, Missouri, ‘Ub Iwerks’ showed a talent and passion for drawing from a young age. He met Walt Disney at 18 and started a professional relationship and friendship that would last decades.

The name Ub Iwerks has not always been synonymous with Mickey Mouse – that would be most associated with Walt Disney – but the iconic character was a group effort and co-creation. Without Iwerks, Mickey Mouse might not have ever been created.

Here’s the story of Ub Iwerks, the animator behind Mickey Mouse.

Ub Iwerks and Walt Disney became friends and business partners in 1919

Iwerks met and befriended Walt Disney at 18 at the Pesman-Rubin Commercial Art Studio in Kansas City, Missouri. The pair taught themselves animation and began working professionally together.

After several failed ventures in Kansas City, including an animation studio called Laugh-O-gram Films, Disney moved to Los Angeles, with Iwerks following shortly after. The pair became successful partners, with Iwerks’ creativity and artistic talents complementing Disney’s vision and salesmanship.

The pair created several animated characters before Mickey Mouse

One of Iwerks and Disney’s earliest characters were Oswald the Lucky Rabbit, a character that the business partners would later lose rights to. This pushed them to create the character of Mickey Mouse, with Disney focusing on characterization and Iwerks on animation. Iwerks was renowned for working quickly, creating a record 700 drawings a day – a feat that would have taken other artists months to complete.

Iwerks worked late into the night, but the hard work paid off. In 1928, the pair released their first Mickey Mouse cartoon, Plane Crazy. When their third film, Steamboat Willie, was released in 1928, they had a hit, and Mickey Mouse would soon become a household name. In addition to creating the animation, Iwerks is responsible for giving Mickey the buttoned shirt and white gloves that he’s known for today. He also created Minnie Mouse, the first major female animated character.

Mickey Mouse in Steamboat Willie, 1928.

Iwerks went off on his own for a decade before returning to Disney Studios

Iwerks wanted more creative and experimental freedom and went off on his own in 1930, becoming an independent producer. This caused a rift in Disney and Iwerks’ friendship, as Iwerks had signed for work with a bitter rival of Disney’s, Pat Powers, one of the co-founders of Universal Pictures whom Disney had ongoing legal trouble with.

Disney, Iwerks and Powers had worked together on Steamboat Willie, with Powers helping with distribution; however, Disney and Powers’ relationship turned sour after they had a dispute over box office receipts.

While on his own, Iwerks’ most notable cartoon character was Flip the Frog, though he never gained the popular success that Mickey Mouse had garnered. Iwerks’ studio went bankrupt after 6 years. Before returning to Disney, he worked on other productions, including Porky Pig. A decade after leaving, he returned to Disney Studios in 1940, on the condition that he got more artistic freedom to experiment. He worked there for the rest of his career in technical effects.

Walt Disney with a drawing of Mickey Mouse. 1931.

Image Credit: Harris & Ewing collection, Library of Congress via Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

Iwerks made significant advancements in animation and special effects

While on his own, Iwerks opened his own studio where he developed the multiplane camera, which created a three-dimensional effect on screen. Disney would go on to use this camera in Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937) and is often credited with its creation, though it came 2 years after Iwerks’ invention.

Back at Disney Studios, Iwerks also found a way to combine animation with live-action. This development allowed Hayley Mills to appear as twin characters on screen together in The Parent Trap (1961), and it resulted in the animated penguins dancing with Dick Van Dyke’s character in Mary Poppins (1964). Further, he designed several attractions for Disney’s theme parks in California and Florida.

Iwerks’ studies in optical printing would later contribute to Star Wars: A New Hope (1977). Iwerks continued creating, and after World War Two his work was influenced by anime artists like Osamu Tezuka.

Lobby card for the animated film Mary’s Little Lamb, 1935. Artwork by Ub Iwerks.

Iwerks’ granddaughter fought for credit for her grandfather after his death

Iwerks did receive some recognition for his contributions to animation, winning Academy Awards for his achievements in 1960 and 1965 and a nomination for his work in Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds (1963). He died in 1971, 3 months before the opening of Disney World. After his death, his granddaughter, Leslie Iwerks, felt her grandfather wasn’t getting the credit he deserved for his innovations, and she made a documentary about him in an effort to rectify that.

Ultimately, the creation of Mickey Mouse was a team effort, and Ub Iwerks’ contributions and inventions to animations were critical to Disney Studios’ success. Disney gave Mickey Mouse a voice, and the tireless work of animator Ub Iwerks brought the character to life and resulted in the early success of the company.

Shannon Callahan