Sick Sense

By Arrissia Owen

Posted January 6, 2011 in Feature Story

Craig “Spike” Decker and Mike Gribble changed animation history by accident. It all started when Gribble showed up to a party in a clown costume. It was the early 1970s, and he and Decker hit things off immediately, sharing an off-kilter, wry sense of humor and an appreciation for anything counterculture.

Gribble moved into Decker’s Victorian crash pad in Riverside, known then as the communal living space Mellow Manor. Decker attended Riverside Community College, making the Dean’s List while studying physics and physical science.

But the two stopped clowning around and embarked on an inadvertent revolution with their festivals of animation shorts that kicked off the careers of luminaries like John Lasseter (Toy Story, A Bug’s Life, Cars), Danny Antonucci (Ed, Edd ‘n Eddy), Craig McCracken (The Powerpuff Girls) and many more. Way before bizarre and politically incorrect animation became mainstream—a la early ’90s Ren & Stimpy and Adult Swim’s programming—animation from the likes of Mike Judge (Beavis and Butthead), Matt Stone & Trey Parker (South Park) and Eric Fogel (Celebrity Deathmatch) were fixtures of the touring festival.

After years in hibernation, the festival is back, with four dates scheduled near Decker and Gribble’s former stomping grounds at the Fox Events Center in Redlands. Sadly, Spike is going at it alone these days with Mike on board only in memory and name.

The Revolution Begins

“He was a genuine character and a funny guy,” Decker says of Gribble, who passed away in August 1994 from cancer. Decker says he still takes a moment to ask himself during decision-making, “What would Mike do?”

In the mid-1970s, Spike was a member of the band Sterno and the Flames. Decker and Gribble started promoting the band’s gigs through their company called Mellow Manor Productions, finding unique ways to get people to the band’s rock shows by including horror, rock and classic movie screenings.

The band also showed classic cartoons like Popeye, Betty Boop and Superman, and even the newish cult favorite Bambi Meets Godzilla by Marv Newland on a screen behind the band playing.

The band fizzled, but Decker and Gribble’s fervor for animation presented a new opportunity. The two created 90-minute features out of animated shorts and branded it “Spike and Mike’s Festival of Animation.”

In 1977, the festival (later renamed the “Classic Festival of Animation”) launched, showcasing the short animated films by touring theaters, film festivals and college campuses annually. The festival premiered early works by the aforementioned Lasseter (the Academy Award-winning short Tin Toy), Tim Burton (Vincent), Nick Park (A Grand Day Out, Wallace and Gromit), Bill Plympton (Your Face, Nose Hair) and others.

Decker and Gribble also produced the student works of guys who went on to the big time, including Pixar’s Pete Docter (Monsters, Inc.) and Andrew Stanton (Finding Nemo).

“It just fit and it worked,” Decker says. “We started getting to know so many of the animators, it just started revolving.”

Animation is Unlimited

The duo had to overcome some stigma at first, with many not won over by the idea of a festival dedicated to what they perceived as childish cartoons. “Each film is a movie in itself, a masterpiece,” Decker says.

Spike & Mike’s Sick & Twisted Festival of Animation started in 1990 and accompanied the original festival showing unrated adult-oriented shorts, eventually completely replacing the Classic Festival.

Sick & Twisted got its start at UC Berkeley’s Wheeler Auditorium at when Decker asked the crowd of co-eds if they wanted to see something a little more mature. “Hells yeah” was the answer in no uncertain terms.

It was meant to offend from the start. Sick & Twisted’s creation was prompted by a few animated shorts that Decker and Gribble saw potential in, but were too high on the gross-out and taboo meter for the regular festival.

To create an entirely new festival, Mellow Manor Productions funded the creation of new shorts by some of their favorite animators, including Mike Judge. Judge went on to launch his Beavis and Butthead empire with Sick & Twisted’s help.

“It was total freedom for them to do these crazy, sick and twisted films using animation as a medium,” Decker says. “It’s a natural application because animation is unlimited with what you can do with it.”

How to Pick a Winner

Beavis and Butthead’s pre-MTV short Frog Baseball was one result. “The characters and the voice that Mike did were really good,” Decker says looking back. He appreciated Judge’s affinity for parody, something Decker likes for its ability to shine a bright light on hypocrisy and truth. “It’s the backbone of stand-up comedians, even comics in newspapers.”

Decker and Gribble trusted their insight. “We had a brand and a concept,” he says. “We had a good knowledge of what works with audiences and whether a film has merit or not.”

Of the 22 shorts on average shown during an animation festival, whittled down from about 500 submissions, the key commonality is hitting funny bones just right—whether sick and twisted or not. “We had an incredible skill to know when something was a winner,” Decker says.

Still, Decker knows some of the shorts aren’t going to win Oscars.

“Obviously everyone isn’t going to like all of them, but humor is the No. 1 criteria,” Decker says. “It’s like Ben & Jerry’s. You are not going to like every flavor, but there are some damn good flavors in there.”

Decker shies away from taking too much credit for the subsequent success of the Pixar animators, Park, Judge and the South Park guys, though it bears noting that Decker and Gribble were the first to screen Parker & Stone’s famous Christmas short (The Spirit of Christmas) that launched Cartman and the crew into superstardom. So we will give him and Gribble credit for that; they were definitely the talent’s biggest cheer squad.

The New Generation

“We believed in them, saw the talent and the value and we stepped up before anyone else and put their stuff out there,” Decker says about the cavalcade of renegade animators. “It’s just built on that.”

Decker and Gribble set out to educate audiences in every town they hit that animation was more than kids’ play. “We wanted to show that these were incredible films and that some were absolute masterpieces,” Decker says.

Still, with Sick & Twisted gaining momentum, it was hard for Decker to continue to produce both festivals. The Classic Animation Festival ended up being phased out.

“We just didn’t have the infrastructure to do both,” Decker says.

The digital revolution helped bring it all back though.

This year, the “New Generation Animation Festival” has been added to the tour, which is basically the same as the Classic fest, but the name change is meant to emphasize the festival’s core progressive animators.

These days, Decker doesn’t have to comb the globe looking for cutting-edge animators. “People know us now,” Decker says. “We’ve paid enough dues for people to trust us and want to be part of the show. People use it as a résumé now.”

The payoff for Decker and his crew is helping take up-and-coming animators to the next level and finding them an audience. “We believe in someone when no one in the world outside their parents had seen their work and then all of a sudden they have people from another country watching their stuff,” Decker says.

“Spike and Mike’s Festival of Animation gives audiences the only opportunity to view the wonderful art form of the animated short film,” Lasseter has said about Decker and Gribble. “They also give young animators and filmmakers a chance that they normally never get in the film industry.”

“We Are Not Mainstream”

Others have said the same, just with more colorful language. “Spike and Mike are to animation what salad dressing is to sex,” according to Stone & Parker.

“It’s like someone who works on violins and knows a great Stradivarius,” Decker says. “It’s just working on these films and being characters outside of the mainstream. Just like someone in the music industry, we notice things that are different because we are not mainstream.”

While Decker remains humble, he can look back at what he and Gribble accomplished and feel proud.

“Part of me is like, ‘We earned it and why not?’” he says. “Part of me is thinking that we don’t get enough recognition for it. And then another part of me, at other times, like when we find ourselves at the Sundance Film Festival or screening at Cannes—that is very exciting and I am very appreciative of that. But I do feel that we’ve earned it.”

The dream would be to have a late-night TV show to showcase the Sick & Twisted talent. “We would like to get some mainstream shots out there,” Decker says.

Looking back at some of the talent he’s worked with, like Park of Wallace and Gromit fame, he’s even taken aback by the amount of genius that has passed through the festivals.

“I can’t think of too many titles that we have ever passed on that we didn’t hit it on the money,” Decker says. “We strive for perfection.”

Spike & Mike’s Sick & Twisted Festival of Animation and New Generation Animation Festival at the Fox Events Center, 123 Cajon St., Redlands, (909) 233-6727; Jan. 14-15, 21-22. Tickets $10 for each festival, $18 both shows.


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