His name is explained by his Frisian roots; his father, Eert Ubbe Iwwerks, emigrated to the USA in 1869 from the village Uttum in East Frisia (northwest Germany, today part of the municipality of Krummhorn). Ub's birth name can be seen on early Alice Comedies that he signed. Several years later he simplified his name to "Ub Iwerks".
Ub was considered by many to be Walt Disney's oldest friend, and spent most of his career with him. The two met in 1919 while working for the Pesman Art Studio in Kansas City, and would eventually start their own commercial art business together. Walt and Ub then found work as illustrators for the Kansas City Slide Newspaper Company (which would later be named The Kansas City Film Ad Company). While working for the Kansas City Film Ad Company, Walt decided to take up work in animation, and Ub soon joined him.
He was responsible for the distinctive style of the earliest Disney Animated cartoons. In 1922, when Walt began his Laugh-O-Gram cartoon series, Ub joined him as chief animator. The studio went bankrupt, however, and in 1923 Ub followed Walt's move to Los Angeles to work on a new series of cartoons known as "The Alice Comedies". After the end of this series, Walt asked Ub to come up with a new character. The first Oswald the Lucky Rabbit cartoon was animated entirely by Ub Iwerks. Following the first cartoon, Oswald was redesigned on the insistence of Universal Studios, who agreed to distribute the new series of cartoons in 1927.
In the spring of 1928, Walt lost control of the Oswald character, and much of his staff was hired away; Walt soon left Universal afterwards. Walt asked Ub, who stayed on, to start drawing up new character ideas. Ub tried sketches of frogs, dogs, and cats, but none of these appealed to Walt. Walt eventually came up with the idea for a character that would later be called "Mickey Mouse" and sketched a design. Ub was given the sketch and was told of the concept, allowing him to create a more refined appearance for the new character.
The first few Mickey Mouse and Silly Symphonies cartoons were animated almost entirely by Ub. However, as Ub began to draw more and more cartoons on a daily basis, he soon found himself unable to cope under Walt's harsh command; Ub also felt he wasn't getting the credit he deserved for drawing all of Walt's successful cartoons. Eventually, Iwerks and Disney had a falling out; their friendship and working partnership were severed when Iwerks accepted a contract with a competitor to leave Disney and start an animation studio under his own name.
The Iwerks Studio opened in 1930. Financial backers led by Pat Powers suspected that Iwerks was responsible for much of Disney's early success. However, while animation for a time suffered at Disney from Iwerks' departure, it soon rebounded as Disney brought in talented new young animators.
Despite a contract with MGM to distribute his cartoons, and the introduction of a new character named "Flip the Frog", and later "Willie Whopper", the Iwerks Studio was never a major commercial success and failed to rival either Disney or Fleischer Studios. From 1933 to 1936 he produced a series of shorts in Cinecolor, named ComiColor Cartoons. Backers withdrew further financial support from Iwerks Studio in 1936, and it folded soon after.
In 1937, Leon Schlesinger Productions contracted Iwerks to produce four Looney Tunes shorts starring Porky Pig and Gabby Goat. Iwerks directed the first two shorts, while former Schlesinger animator Bob Clampett was promoted to director and helmed the other two shorts before he and his unit returned to the main Schlesinger lot. Iwerks then did contract work for Screen Gems (then Columbia Pictures' cartoon division) before returning to work for Disney in 1940. (The cartoons created by Iwerks' own studio remained largely unseen for many decades, but have been released to DVD by several companies.)
After the return to the Disney studio, Iwerks mainly worked on developing special visual effects. He is credited as developing the processes for combining live action and animation used in Song of the South (1946), as well as the xerographic process adapted for cel animation. He also worked at WED Enterprises, now Walt Disney Imagineering, helping to develop many Disney theme park attractions during the 1960s. Iwerks did special effects work outside the studio as well, including his Academy Award nominated achievement for Alfred Hitchcock's The Birds (1963).
Iwerks' most famous work outside of Mickey Mouse was Flip the Frog for his own studio. Iwerks was known for his fast work at drawing and animation and his wacky sense of humor. Animator Chuck Jones, who worked for Iwerks' studio in his youth, said "Iwerks is Screwy spelled backwards." Ub Iwerks died in 1971 of a heart attack in Burbank, California at the age of 70.
Influence and homages
- A rare self-portrait of Iwerks was found in the trash at an animation studio in Burbank. The portrait was saved and is now part of the Animation Archives in Burbank, California.
- After World War Two, much of Iwerks' early animation style would be imitated by legendary Anime artists Osamu Tezuka and Shotaro Ishinomori.
- Iwerks Entertainment, a filmographic company, was founded in 1985 in honor of Ub Iwerks.
- The 1986 D.C. Comics character Dr. Ub'x was named in his honor.
- In the Ren and Stimpy Show episode "Superstitious Stimpy", Stimpy is chanting in garbled talk and mentions Ub Iwerks.
- In the 2005 Fairly OddParents episode "The Good Ol' Days", Timmy and his Grandpa Pappy, are transported to an early Disney-style cartoon. In it, two street signs that intersect are the streets of Ub and Iwerks.
- The creators of the 2017 video game Cuphead, brothers Chad and Jared Moldenhauer, stated that the art style was heavily influenced by the works of Ub Iwerks, as well as other animators such as Max Fleischer, Willard Bowsky, and Grim Natwick.