were two dream-driven Kansas City kids in 1919, sharing a passion:
the new field of motion-picture animation.
documentary filmmaker Leslie Iwerks agrees that Walt Disney
provided Mickey Mouse's soul, her grandfather contributed
one followed his dream to Hollywood, later sending for the other,
and together they established arguably the greatest entertainment
company on Earth.
may have already guessed the identity of one of the friends: None
other than Walt Disney. The other?
oddly-named partner (he was of Dutch-German descent) is the subject
of "The Hand Behind the Mouse: The Ub Iwerks Story,"
an enlightening 1999 documentary written, produced and directed
by his granddaughter, Leslie Iwerks, and screened Oct. 27 at the
Virginia Film Festival.
Leslie Iwerks -- only 1 when her grandfather died -- grew up with
family legends about her grandfather's leading role in the Disney
empire, yet found little public mention of it. The film, she said,
was an attempt to set the record straight.
learn, for example, that it was Iwerks who first drew Mickey Mouse,
although Disney conceived the words and story lines. Iwerks had
joined the staff of Disney Brothers (with Walt and his brother,
Roy) in July 1924, and they soon produced a series of cartoons
featuring Oswald the Lucky Rabbit. But Oswald's rights were controlled
by their distributor, who soon claimed them -- and a good portion
of the Disney staff -- and took them to New York.
Disneys turned to Iwerks, their top animator, to create a new
character. Mickey Mouse was born, and Ub feverishly cranked out
as many as 700 drawings a day to create the first Mickey feature,
"Plane Crazy." (This time, Disney retained the rights,
vowing to own everything he produced from then on.)
Iwerks was more than just an artist; he was a technical whiz.
He produced the first synchronized-sound cartoon, "Steamboat
Willie," which represented a quantum leap forward in animation
technology. Soon, Mickey Mouse cartoons were taking top billing
on the nation's marquees.
Walt Disney asserted more and more control over the company, though,
Iwerks began to feel squeezed. He left Disney Brothers in 1929
to form his own company, the Ub Iwerks Studio, creating now-forgotten
characters like "Flip the Frog" and "Willie Whopper."
The studio won technical acclaim and mentored some of Hollywood's
top animators, including Bugs Bunny creator Chuck Jones. But Iwerks'
dark, edgy, satirical humor fizzled in the Depression, while Mickey
Mouse's popularity boomed.
1938, Iwerks closed shop and returned to Disney, leaving animation
to head the studio's Photographic Effects Lab. Iwerks was the
first to add depth to what were once two-dimensional drawings.
Though he and Walt had pioneered mixing live action and cartoons
back in Kansas City, Iwerks brought it to a new level in "Mary
Poppins," in which Dick Van Dyke and Julie Andrews cavorted
through an animated fantasyland.
stayed in contact with his dark side, too, collaborating with
Alfred Hitchcock in creating the special effects for "The
Birds." [Roger Ebert led a shot-by-shot critique of this
film during the festival.]
even had a hand in creating virtually every attraction at Disneyland,
with some persisting to this day, though Iwerks died in 1971.
Leslie Iwerks began "The Hand Behind the Mouse" in 1990
as an independent project, but ran into snags with Disney's lawyers,
who still maintain vigilant control over Disney's trademarks.
Roy Disney Jr. interceded with Disney CEO Michael Eisner, and
the film became a Disney production.
didn't clear away all the obstacles, though. For awhile, Disney
insisted that Leslie sign over the rights to her own family photos.
"It was an interesting lesson," she said. "It was
such a fight to get this film made in several respects."
product seems to be a hit. Disney asked her to expand the original
60-minute version to 90 minutes for theatrical release. The film
is currently making the rounds at festivals, Iwerks said, but
she hopes it will soon see wider release in the home video and