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

You also left Disney at a certain point before returning. What did you gain from being outside the Company that helped propel your career forward when you rejoined Disney?

I accepted a layoff at a time when our studio machine shop was being incorporated into the MAPO machine shop in Glendale. I was offered the position of Director to manage the MAPO operation, but I realized that I would no longer be involved with cameras, projectors and film but instead, I would be more involved in the day-to-day operation of producing animatronics, ride vehicles, show equipment and more. I had been involved with that type of work when we were building equipment for the 1964-65 New York World’s Fair. 

In the end, I decided to move on to co-create a company with Stan Kinsey, Vice President of Finance for the Picture division and Vice President of Operations who was also leaving the company.  Our new company, Iwerks Entertainment engaged in the manufacture of specialized projectors and show equipment, simulation theaters, 3D theaters and giant screen presentations for World Fairs, museums and theme parks. Over a period of 15 years and prior to my retirement, our company had produced over 250 installations worldwide.

When you were growing up, had you always wanted to work with your dad?

I can’t say that I always wanted to work with my dad while growing up, but after high school graduation and a two-year stint in the U.S. Army Signal Corp during the Korean conflict, my dad’s and my paths became intertwined when I went back to work at Disney.  We worked together for a short time in the Process Lab and the rest of my thirty-five year career in the Studio Machine Shop.

What are some of your most memorable moments working with your dad and with Walt?

The most memorable moment for me was the demonstration to Walt of our prototype 16mm projector and film loop cabinet.  In a January 1966 meeting convened by Walt to discuss the 1967 upgrades to the Tomorrowland area of Disneyland, Walt had mentioned to my dad, that there was a big problem with the use of film in the park.  Projectors break down, film life is very short due to breaks, and scratches are a big problem. Walt further mentioned that we are a film studio and we should be able to run films in the park. Walt simply asked my dad if he would look into the problem.  

The projectors in use were the best commercially available on the market, but we found that the tight bends the film makes passing through the projector would often cause the film to break.  Additionally, the projectors were not designed to run continuously as the Disneyland schedule would require. The decision was to build our own projectors with large diameter sprockets that would not flex the film, and the removal of the audio sound head to become a separate synchronized sound reproducer. The film life in our simplified projector increased from 800 runs to 10,000 before replacement was required due to fading of the image.  

The second issue was the film storage system. In use was a platter system where the roll of film lies flat on a revolving platter, much like a record player. The film is extracted from the center of the roll, runs through the projector and returned to wind on the outside of the roll.  Each layer of film is moving at a slightly different speed causing the film to become scratched. My dad’s answer to the problem was to use a film loop cabinet, similar to a film drying cabinet used with developing machines in the lab. The film was transported through the cabinet by multiple sprockets mounted side-by-side on driven shafts, literally being carried without the picture area coming into contact with any surface or adjacent film. The result, no scratches.  

During the demonstration, Walt studied the film moving quietly through the projector and film loop cabinet, and at one point, he put his hand on my dad’s shoulder and said with emphasis, “Ub, this is real progress.” Not only would there be enormous savings in film costs and reduced projector downtime, but the projector would not require a standby operator. Walt asked my dad if Circarama (eleven synchronized projectors in a 360 degree circle) could be done this way. My dad’s answer was “yes.” Would it work with 35mm film?  The answer was “yes.” Walt turned to me and asked “could your shop build the equipment for Circarama and the Trip to the Moon in time for the 1967 opening?” My answer of course, was “yes.” Walt’s directive was simply, “let’s do it.” Unfortunately, Walt passed away in December of 1966 and did not live to see the fulfillment of his directive.

Ub Iwerks

In what ways do you consider yourself similar to your dad? In what ways are you different?

We had similar interests like photography, woodworking, machine shop, and invention.  I think that our temperaments were different. I feel that I am more like my mother who was easy going, whereas my dad could sometimes get pretty impatient if things were not going well. 

What does it mean to you that both you and your dad are Disney Legends?

A great honor to be recognized as a Disney Legend.  My dad was the second person to be recognized and many talented people followed.  I was quite surprised in later years to learn that I had also been selected for a Legend award.  I am proud that my dad’s and my Legends Awards sit side-by-side on a shelf in my home.

What do you find most rewarding about being part of the fabric and history of the Walt Disney Company?

I feel extremely fortunate to have been an employee while Walt was still with us.  The right place at the right time! During my early tenure at the studio in the 1950’s and 1960’s was an especially great time because there was so much going on in the way of creativity and invention, both in the film world, and Disneyland. My dad was involved in all of it, and he, Walt and my boss Roger Broggie Sr. were so insistent on quality work.  And the excitement of knowing that Walt had more projects in the pipeline made working at the studio a dream come true.

How did the lessons your dad taught you while working with him translate, if at all, into your work at your company, Iwerks Entertainment, and beyond?

I retired from Iwerks Entertainment about 18 years ago but while still working, I tried to emulate my Disney experience, but soon realized that for a variety of reasons it would not be possible, it was a different time and different people.  

In 2005, I found enjoyment and satisfaction in working on the Walt Disney Family Museum in San Francisco. Working with the late Diane Disney Miller was a real pleasure as she was open to my suggestions to display many of my dad’s film related artifacts that were gathering dust at the studio. Garry Broggie, the manager of the Studio Machine Shop and grandson of my previous boss Roger Broggie Sr. working together to refurbish many of the artifacts for display including one of the three Multiplane cameras, my dad’s revolutionary aerial image optical printer, building a replica of the first Circarama camera and a replica of the underwater camera used on 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, and much more. Garry and I are currently working on the restoration of two animation stands that were built in 1938 and were used on virtually every Disney animated film up until the early 1980’s when digital animation became the norm. 

The entire Iwerks family is a talented bunch! You credit your children for their contributions to the book and acknowledge their very own talents and accomplishments. We have to mention that we loved Imagineering Story, directed and executive produced by your daughter, Leslie Iwerks. You must be very proud!

Leslie has created a remarkable documentary on the history of Walt Disney Imagineering.  I have a wonderful, creative family of which I am very proud.

Leslie also published a book on Ub – The Hand Behind The Mouse – in 2001. What does Ultimate Inventor add to Ub’s story that was not otherwise included in the 2001 publication or other published works?

Leslie’s book touched on my dad’s numerous inventions, but my book goes into more detail and is based on my personal knowledge and experience of working with my dad on his many projects.

What do you hope readers get out of Walt Disney’s Ultimate Inventor: The Genius of Ub Iwerks?

My goal was to inform the public about my dad’s many significant inventions and processes that to-date, are largely unknown. His groundbreaking inventions and processes that helped Walt create new avenues of creativity. With all of the those who worked with him now gone, I became the only source of detailed information to write about his projects. My dad’s legacy should be known, and exemplary credit and recognition should be his due. Like Walt Disney, my dad was truly a Genius.  

If there is one thing that you would want readers to learn from your dad, what would it be?

Dedication to excellence, persistence and never giving up on an idea if it has value. Finding a vocation that you truly enjoy, rather than a day-to-day job with no excitement or reward. Easier to say than to find, but it is said that we go through life once as we know it, and we should make the best and satisfying use of our time while we are here.

Great advice. Thank you, Don.

Thank you for the opportunity to discuss my dad and hope that readers will find my book “Walt Disney’s Ultimate Inventor, the Genius of Ub Iwerks” interesting, informative and above all, motivating.  

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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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