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Like Father, Like Son: Interview with Disney Legend Don Iwerks

Ub Iwerks

When Peter Ellenshaw first went to work for Walt Disney Studios, Walt said, “One man who you’re going to work with is Ub Iwerks… you’ll learn a lot from him, if you’re willing to.”

We, too, can learn a lot from Ub thanks to his son, Don Iwerks.

Don Iwerks

Beginning in 2007, after encouragement from friends, family and Walt’s daughter, Diane Disney Miller, Don set out to document his dad’s many achievements. Walt Disney’s Ultimate Inventor: The Genius of Ub Iwerks plugs the gap in Disney’s record of technical triumphs from 1940 through 1971 and is a testament not only to Ub Iwerks and his genius, but to everything he stood for: hard work, problem solving and persistence. 

Don Iwerks followed his father to the Walt Disney Studios in 1950 and later to Disney Legend status in 2009. He worked with Ub and Walt for over a decade developing cameras, projectors, and other technical systems, including Circle-Vision 360, before joining fellow Disney executive Stan Kinsey to co-found their own company, Iwerks Entertainment, in 1986.

Don graciously agreed to speak with us about his book, the early days at the Walt Disney Studios, and his dad, who he describes as “a self-taught modern day Leonardo di Vinci.” 

We got about as close to time traveling as we possibly could in this interview, and we brought back the following inimitable stories and valuable lessons. 

Don, it is an honor to chat with you. Thank you for joining us at The Disney Blog.

My pleasure and nice to meet you.

Thank you, too, for sharing your dad’s story with us in your book, Walt Disney’s Ultimate Inventor: The Genius of Ub Iwerks. You mention that Walt’s daughter, Diane Disney Miller, first encouraged you to write a book about your dad. Tell us about your conversations with Diane and what ultimately inspired you to embark on the project.

From 2005 through 2007, I was working on the restoration of some of my dad’s film related artifacts that were to be displayed in Diane Disney Miller’s Walt Disney Family Museum in San Francisco. Diane had organized a meeting bringing together the top-level participants to discuss the progress of the museum. Diane had asked me to participate and I decided to prepare a 15 page booklet that described my dad’s artifacts to be displayed and their importance to the success of the Walt Disney Studio and Disneyland. After reading through the booklet, Diane exclaimed that “I didn’t know about all of this. This is wonderful, and if you could make it into a book, we could sell it in our gift shop.” Her comments were the start of my efforts to write a book.

In the foreword by Leonard Martin, he acknowledges that we are lucky to have you to “fill in the blanks” of Ub’s life. Why was it important to you fill in the blanks and why now?

Although the early Disney history has been written in numerous books, my dad’s technical achievements from 1940 through 1971 had never been fully documented. At this point in time, I was really the only one left who could write about his technical achievements, as I had worked with him for 18 years on many of his projects. So, before I would forget the details, I had better get to work! I began in 2007 and with the help of the editorial staff at Walt Disney Editions beginning in 2014, we were finally able to bring the book to life in late 2019.

Your prologue takes readers straight to December 15, 1966, the morning of Walt’s passing. It struck me as interesting that you started at this point, and I soon realized the importance and emphasis on the future of the Studio, especially since Walt and Ub were always looking to the future. How did you decide that this was the “beginning” for the purposes of Ub’s story?

This was a Disney Editions suggestion. From a storytelling standpoint, I can understand that you can begin near the end of a story, and then revert back to a beginning. At first, I too wondered, but over time, I began to see that it would work and had no objections.

The photos are superb. They portray a real intimacy between Walt and Ub that is perfectly supplemented by your writing. What took priority in mapping out your book – the photos or the text? Tell us a bit about your book brainstorming process.

The original manuscript that I submitted was in chronological order. The text was primary with photos and illustrations used to further explain the text. We were limited to 224 pages and I had more information and photos that would fit, so some stories had to be eliminated. I chose the most important stories, supplied many of my own photographs and illustrations as well as searching the Walt Disney Archives Photo Library. 

The credit for the layout of the book goes to the editorial staff of Disney Editions, my editor Jennifer Eastwood and layout editor Lindsay Broderick. Further editorial work by Jeff Kurtti. I was very pleased with the final layout and feel that it accomplished my goal of informing the many Disney fans as well as the general public of my dad’s accomplishments.

Had you been saving the photos for a long time or were some of them more recently discovered?

Since a teenager, I have been interested in photography and have numerous photos that I took as well as copies of photos that my dad had in his collection.

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3 thoughts on “Like Father, Like Son: Interview with Disney Legend Don Iwerks”

  1. Just discovered your blog. Love it! I have been studying Disney history for 50 years, so it’s easy to become a little jaded, but your blog gives a more human slant on the subject. Well done!
    Bob Sangwell, author of The Big Book of Disney Word Searches ?

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