Wednesday, March 22, 2023

Between Books - Walt Disney's Ultimate Inventor: The Genius of Ub Iwerks

Book cover for Walt Disney's Ultimate Invetor: The Genius of Ub Iwerks showing Iwerks drawing Mickey Mouse at an animation desk.

Disney history is full of larger-than-life characters such as Bob Gurr, Marc Davis, Rolly Crump, and even Walt Disney himself. But while Ub Iwerks may not be a name known to every Disney fan, his contributions to early Disney history are irreplaceable and placed next to Walt and Roy O. Disney on the Mount Rushmore of Disney legends.

Walt Disney’s Ultimate Inventor: The Genius of Ub Iwerks by Don Iwerks is a highly visual history of the co-creator of Mickey Mouse. The text is broken into six key sections highlighting different phases of Iwerks’ life. The opening outlines Iwerks early life and animation work which included meeting Walt Disney in Kansas City, a failed partnership, and Disney asking him to join him in California. During this first stint at Disney, Iwerks would create the Mickey Mouse design and lead the development of the innovative Silly Symphonies. After a disagreement, Iwerks formed his own studio best known for Flip the Frog. Iwerks would return to the Walt Disney Studio, not as an animator but using his skill and curious nature to create special effects which included Aerial Image Optical Printers, sodium traveling matte, and Xerox processes in animation just to name a few. As Walt Disney expanded his parks, Iwerks used his knowledge of cameras to create Circarama and Circle-Vision 360. The younger Iwerks provides images and schematics along with personal know-how to explain the innovations that helped define his father's genius.

This book is personal and visual. Disney Legend Don Iwerks is writing a very personal story about his father. Oh yes, there is definitely respect and nostalgia. But Don as a member of the machine shop was also a colleague to Ub. So along with understanding the personal man, he also understands the very complicated inventions that his father dreamed up. In many ways, it’s the best of two perspectives, and Don makes his bias clear. Though that bias never seems to get in the way of his writing. And technical expertise is really needed to help explain these numerous mechanical changes. For example, I am not a camera expert. I don’t believe that most readers will be. So having Iwerks walk us through the tech, as someone who often contributed to the manufacturing of them, is completely necessary. Luckily this oversized coffee table book has numerous images which help illustrate the developments. For those who are not interested in technical details and want another starting point on Ub Iwerks’ life, The Hand Behind the Mouse is likely a better starting point and is co-written by his granddaughter.

Walt Disney’s Ultimate Inventor: The Genius of Ub Iwerks by Don Iwerks taught me a lot about cameras…and Ub Iwerks. While I have read biographies of this legend, this text has a personal touch and technical understanding that I would urge Disney history fans to not sleep on. And while we may struggle at times with technical developments, Don Iwerks helps us overcome them to better understand his father’s genius allowing us to better understand an innovator that has helped shaped animation, cinema, and theme parks. 

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