Book Review: “Walt Disney’s Ultimate Inventor: The Genius of Ub Iwerks”

Hi everyone!

We received the book Walt Disney’s Ultimate Inventor: The Genius of Ub Iwerks to review. This is a book that has been delayed a number of times, I was so glad when it was shipped! It releases on December 10th, 2019, and consists of just over 200 pages in a larger format book. The Iwerks name has been in the news quite a bit lately, with the fantastic documentary series The Imagineering Story on Disney+ by the granddaughter of Ub Iwerks, Leslie Iwerks – and now this much anticipated book by his son Don Iwerks. Walt Disney’s Ultimate Inventor: The Genius of Ub Iwerks is a little bit biography but much of the book is about the inventions of Ub Iwerks. He invented a lot, including the multi-plane camera, Circlevision 360 and so much more.

The foreword is by Leonard Maltin, who has himself done quite a bit with the Walt Disney Company, including coming up with the idea of the “Walt Disney Treasures” DVD series. He is a film historian but also I consider him a Disney film historian in particular. He talks about how Iwerks was awarded with two academy awards and also developed the process for combining live action and animation, as what you see in films such as Mary Poppins. Maltin mentions how Iwerks didn’t have an engineering degree, that he was self-taught.

The prologue is by author – and Disney Legend – Don Iwerks. This book is written in a different tone than many, with Don Iwerks not only being the son of the subject but they also worked together, including at the Walt Disney Company. The prologue embodies that in two pages about the day Walt Disney passed away on December 15th, 1966. And it touches upon their friendship but also how it was just a normal day at the Studios until the announcement was made. And father and son – Ub and Don – discussed the ramifications it might have on the future of the studio. Don Iwerks says about the book, that it is a “respectful historic record” and “loving recollection”, and even talks about how he is uncomfortable referring to his dad as “Ub” but does it in the book, but also calls him “dad” or “father” for the more personal stories.

Walt Disney’s Ultimate Inventor: The Genius of Ub Iwerks goes into the backstory of Ub Iwerks and Walt Disney after a brief paragraph or two about Ub’s childhood.  It goes into some about Laugh-O-Gram films, and Oswald the Lucky Rabbit – who Ub co-created – and then losing Oswald, and then the creation of Mickey Mouse (also created by Ub and Walt). This all happens within a few large-format pages, so it isn’t a deep dive into this part of their history. There are photos and concept art through the whole book.

The book continues into when Iwerks had his own studio, and eventually Flip the Frog – who he’d hoped would be popular in the way Mickey Mouse was. Flip wasn’t, and Iwerks eventually took some contract work before closing his studio.

Ub returned to Walt Disney Studios – not as an animator, but a “technical problem solver”.  And at this point, the book mostly leaves behind the personal aspect of Ub and moves onto his work. For example, Don Iwerks says that Mary Poppins “owed much to Ub’s invention of the Aerial Image Optical Printer” and his refinements over the years to the Sodium Traveling Matte Process”. And these are talked about in the book. Really, about 2/3 of the book is how Ub problem solved through invention. Even solving a way to get a cat to look into the camera in This Darn Cat required his expertise and creativity – and a box with a live bird. The book also talks about his work at WED, including a fire effect for the Sleeping Beauty Castle walk-through (partly made of a one-gallon cider glass jug). There is a page on the Disneyland Circarama Theater – and a number of pages after that about the Circarama and eventually Circle-Vision 360.

While Walt Disney’s Ultimate Inventor: The Genius of Ub Iwerks isn’t only about his work with Disney, quite a bit of it is. The book talks more about his work for the parks, including flame-less candles for Pirates of the Caribbean, Haunted Mansion “Illusioneering” effects; the 1964 World’s Fair and then it proceeds into Walt Disney World, including one of my favorite attractions – If You Had Wings and also The Hall of Presidents. Ub Iwerks passed away before the Magic Kingdom opened.

The epilogue is also by Don Iwerks and is more on a personal note, talking about how he worked with his dad for over 20 years at The Walt Disney Studios for almost twenty years and how his dad taught him about power tools and photography when he was a child. Awards given to Ub Iwerks are also shown at the end of the book, including a photo with one of his Academy Awards and a window on Main Street in the Magic Kingdom. There is also a glossary, which can help with the terminology in the book.

Disney says of Ub Iwerks, Up till now, Ub and his many technical inventions and techniques have been largely unknown by the general public. His illustrious career consisted of dozens of innovative contributions, large and small, to both animated and live-action motion pictures, as well as the fields of optics, film processes, and special effects. He was also the major force behind the design of special cameras, projectors, electronics, and audio for theme park projects, and much more.

The Walt Disney Company wouldn’t have been what it is without Ub Iwerks, whether in animation or in the parks. Walt Disney’s Ultimate Inventor: The Genius of Ub Iwerks will be of interest to those interested in Disney history and in the history of the many inventions by Ub Iwerks. And it will help give a deeper appreciation for someone who not only co-created Mickey Mouse but put an indelible mark on the Walt Disney Company.

Just a note – the Disney Parks Blog had a nice article a few days back as well about Ub (written by Jeff Kurtti).

The book can be ordered here.


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