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

Your dad was the original animator of Mickey Mouse. Words don’t seem to adequately convey just how significant that is. How do you feel when you see Mickey or a Mickey icon knowing your dad was behind the creation of the world’s most famous mouse?

I feel very proud, but as my dad has been quoted that “the creation of a character is not what counts, but what you do with it after its creation.” My dad would never talk about his creation but would always give credit to Walt for having done something with it.

Ub had a lot of tricks up his sleeve, even beyond groundbreaking animation. From implementing cost-effective strategies with the Xerox process in the 1950s to creating flameless candles for the Pirates of the Caribbean ride at Disneyland, it seems like there was nothing Ub couldn’t tackle. Without saying what they were specifically, were there projects where anticipated solutions went awry and otherwise had to be abandoned? If so, how did Ub handle that?

It was seldom that his solution to a problem did not work. I can think of a couple of times where his first attempt at a solution did not work, but he would recognize it and move on to another possible solution. I cannot think of any of his projects that were abandoned except for a specially designed projector that he developed for a WED project. It turned out that the project was abandoned, so his projector was never used. The manner in which he would handle that was that it was history, and let’s move on to the next project.

Ub was also responsible for the necessary modifications to cameras to achieve 70mm film that saw Sleeping Beauty come to life in 1959. Those modifications were also used later in 1985 for Black Cauldron. Do you think Ub foresaw the longevity of his ideas?

I don’t believe that he would give much thought to a project’s longevity. I am certain that he could see that a solution such as the implementation of the Xerox process that saved animation at the studio would have a long-time effect. But he would also realize that change is inevitable, and sooner or later, a better or a more cost-effective method may be found.

You write and I quote, “Often, Ub’s solutions had less to do with cutting-edge technology than with ingenuity and old-fashioned showmanship.” We are inspired by the fact that Ub was self-taught. With so much emphasis on college degrees and certifications these days, were you always aware of your dad’s creative and engineering savvy?

From my early years, I recognized his abilities to build most anything. He always had a workshop with both woodworking and metal working equipment. He built model airplanes, a sailboat, restored antique automobiles, was a photographer with a complete darkroom, and owned numerous cameras. He became interested in electronics and built several radios and recording equipment. He helped me build a crystal radio set when I was quite young. He always strived for perfection in whatever endeavor he would take on.  

You note that the work culture that Ub and Walt created evolved around dreaming, creating, problem solving, and making the impossible possible. We hear a lot generally about dreaming and creating, but less about problem solving. Ub pioneered this idea at the Walt Disney Company. Did you inherit your dad’s problem solving skills? 

I would like to think that some of his approach to problems rubbed off on me. I certainly don’t consider myself in the same intellectual category as my dad. He was a self-taught modern day Leonardo di Vinci.

Throughout Disney history, a lot of employees have left the Company and then returned to work there at a later stage. Did your dad ever talk about his decision to resign in 1930 and what that meant to him?

My dad resigned from the Disney Studio in 1930 for very personal reasons and would never discuss them. He made his decision based on the events at the time. Nothing more, nothing less.

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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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