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‘Animation Outlaws’ Shows How Spike & Mike Made ‘Sick & Twisted’ a Household Name

Craig ‘Spike’ Decker and Kat Alioshin discuss her new documentary that skillfully captures the raucous energy and infectious spirit of the infamous, riotous, and hugely influential ‘Sick & Twisted Animation Festival.’

In the earliest days of AWN, back in 1995, you couldn’t venture too far into the animation community without bumping into Spike Decker, festively adorned with some outrageous costume, handing out flyers while imploring the masses to come see his latest Sick & Twisted Animation Festival screening.

His odd and comical impresario act may have seemed a tad old school, maybe even out of place in the burgeoning animation industry that was quickly turning art-driven festivals into shiny, big studio-sponsored talent grabs. But beneath the colorful capes and giant medieval felt crowns was a true, walking-the-beat indie promoter, a carnival barker of a man whose old fashion, hippie rock n roll show-inspired methods of putting “butts in seats” and delivering a raucous, riotous animated “show,” single handedly ushered in an entire genre of independent animated short films; he made it cool to enjoy the “Sick & Twisted” works once only found in late night screenings on college campuses and dimly lit, run down auditoriums on the wrong side of town.  

When we discuss the history of adult animation, important shows like The Simpsons, Family Guy, and South Park are obvious, and appropriate, examples of groundbreaking works, once magnets for controversy over issues that would seem almost comical today. But years before those shows were even glimmers in their creators’ eyes, Craig “Spike” Decker and his partner, Mike Gribble, were pounding the pavement, peddling their latest theatrical compilation of crazy, hilarious, raunchy, profane, vulgar and often violent animated shorts that eventually created the consumer market for what came to be known as “Sick & Twisted” animation.

They were there first; they dug where the ground was incredibly hard, for many, many years, and the fruits of their labor, the paths they macheted out of the thicket of entertainment industry brush, have given rise to some of the most critically and financially successful animated shows ever made. HBO Max just paid $500 million for exclusive North American streaming rights to 23 seasons of South Park. Case closed.

Gribble sadly died from cancer in 1994; Decker carried on, and the rest, as they say, is history, a history lovingly and artfully chronicled by Kat Alioshin in her new documentary, Outlaws of Animation. Alioshin, an animator who spent years working for Decker, brings together an incredible group of some of the most successful, influential and important names in animation, who share their own stories of how the Spike & Mike world helped shape their own world and the industry at large. Folks like Pete Docter, Andrew Stanton, David Silverman, Nick Park, Alison Snowden and David Fine, Dave Sproxton, Mike Mitchell, Weird Al Yankovic, Danny Antonucci, Seth Green, and Jan Pinkava, to name a few.

Animation Outlaws is now available: visit the film’s website for more information.

We recently spoke to Decker and Alioshin about the film, Spike & Mike’s place in animation history, and a hilarious clip featuring John Lasseter and some chocolate mousse.

Dan Sarto: When you look back on what you created with your Spike & Mike Festival of Animation and then Sick & Twisted Festival of Animation, and how for some of the most creative, well known and successful people in our industry, their earliest brushes with animation were through your shows, how do you reflect on your part of this industry’s history, influencing and helping so many people make their mark, and career, in animation?

Spike Decker: Well, first of all, I appreciate you realizing the energy it took, and how hard it has been to do this, and promote this, especially as an independent without any sort of financial help or corporate sponsors or anything. A lot of people don't get that. They just think, “Oh, you went out and put up some posters and all these thousands of people showed up everywhere around the world.” And as far as all the people that we helped, to give myself and Mike credit, I think it's funny. When we first started, we got films from Pyramid Films. And there was a woman named Angie Pike, who ran the Created Film Society in Reseda [California]… she helped us. We didn't know the difference between 16mm and 35. We didn’t know animation.

As I look back, I'm pretty proud of what Mike and I did. And then what I continued to do once Mike was gone. It's Jerry Beck's quote, "Spike & Mike came from nowhere, with nothing, and created a market where none existed." Not just as far as the brand and the concept, but as far as individual films, the fact that we had the ability beyond anybody in the world to have been there first supporting these animators, when nobody, not even their parents, knew who they were or believed in them.

We stepped up and saw the talent beyond anybody. And we put our money where our mouth was. We went out there 18 hours a day, promoted it and put butts in seats in city after city and lived on the road our whole life to do that. There was a variety of people that we introduced, or in some cases co-created or produced films with. The track record, it's pretty impeccable. And it's very exciting. I'm proud of Mike and I'm proud of myself. When Mike died, it was brutally hard because I was on my own. I grew up with the guy. He was my partner. But I'm still doing it on my own… and it's still hard.

And as far as contemporary screenings, like if I go to Annecy, which we usually do every year, and I put together a show, the kids come! They're from all over the world and they come. Our shows are packed, they love it. And so, it's still very timely. This is a pretty young crowd that comes in. They really dig it and they see it's cool. By creating Sick & Twisted, we showed how cool animation can be. The fact that I go there, and they show up and leave knowing they had a good time and got more than their money's worth, that makes me happy.

DS: People have no concept how hard it is to put together and promote a theatrical road show of any kind, let alone, animated shorts. Looking back through the filter of today’s media landscape, they don’t quite understand just how unique and groundbreaking your efforts were. And in looking at that content today, aside from the fact that it's still as relevant as it ever was, it's interesting to see what that means in the context of today's media and entertainment world, because it still shines. The brand still shines, and people love “Sick & Twisted” content more than ever now. Except now, they can get it streamed to their phones from the biggest media companies in the world.

SD: It was also about creating a resume for these people. A lot of them landed their jobs at Pixar, or wherever, because we did all the production. We put up production money because we believed in these people, beyond anybody in the world. And then taking the work out and living on the road to get people to come and see it. And some of the people from these corporations or big industry would come and watch a sold-out show, and they'd see the energy. Then it's a no brainer, it's better than any resume. Here's your film showing on a big screen, and here's a paying audience already seeing your show, and bingo, you got a job and the rest is history.

DS: One of the big deals for your annual festivals back in the day was the show poster. You had a lot of great artists create posters for you. Still today, for many festivals, the annual poster reveal is a big deal. People still put up posters to promote all types of shows, especially local concerts, but there was a time when stapling posters on telephone poles across the city was essentially “social media.”

Kat Alioshin: Thinking about what you said regarding posters on telephone poles, there is a chapter in the film about the flyers, which became their own little pieces of art. And I know that I've saved them all through the years and I've got, you know, the entire collection of the flyers. They represented the people doing the artwork at the time. David Silverman mentioned in the documentary about how you really did look forward to the next year's flyer. You wanted to see who was doing the art. So yeah, the admissions, that promotion of getting them out everywhere, was a big deal.

The opening credits on the film are actually flyers that have been cut up and animated. That's custom animation of the actual flyers. Anthony Scott did that for me. He's an amazing stop-motion animator. And Erica Jordan was my editor on the trailer and the whole documentary, and she was amazing at helping me put it together. We made it in chapters, which was really important, to make sure we kind of touched on all the passages of time, and the audience response, and flyers and posters.

It’s funny how nobody was filming back then [in the early show days]. It was really hard to find photos and footage. There was little filming of inside the auditoriums. So, we ended up creating one part, called anecdotes, where like Andrew Stanton's telling a story about Spike dressing up like a centaur and going out to all the children that were at the ice cream machine. We didn't have any found footage for that. We had to create it. So, there's a lot of custom animation and stuff.

DS: So, what inspired you to make a documentary film about the history of Spike & Mike’s Sick & Twisted Animation Festival? What are your plans for the film?

KA: Well, Spike was visiting San Francisco a couple of years ago, and we met at Cha Cha Cha, a great restaurant on Haight Street. He was telling me that he’d been approached by a couple different people about doing a documentary. And of course, the light bulb went off in my head because I was thinking, "Well, I work in the animation industry." I started back on Nightmare Before Christmas in 1991. And I had worked for Spike & Mike, handing out flyers and doing their box office. So, when he said these people were approaching him about doing a documentary, I thought, "Well, I need to be the one to do it." Because I have a background with him, and I have the connections in animation. So, I just begged him to let me do it, basically. And that was the main thing, saying, "I can do this."

It took two years to produce. I started working on it within like two months after that January meeting. My first interview was with Pete Docter, who’s a Bay Area guy. He's one of those great contacts I met through Spike & Mike at the festivals. So, I was able to just kind of cold call and say, "Look, I'm doing a documentary. You want to be in it?" And he said, "Absolutely." So, two years in the making, traveled around to get people like Nick Park in Bristol… went up to Canada and got the wonderful Danny Antonucci and David Fein and Alison Snowden, who did Bob's Birthday. Marv Newland was up there as well.

It's so funny. People crack up when they see the Marv Newland footage, because it's at Annecy and he's in that paddle boat on the lake. He was actually recording his own documentary. He wasn't available for me, but I got that footage from a previous documentarian that was starting a project with Spike and hadn't finished. So, I grabbed it.

My hope is just that people see the documentary. You don't have to be a Spike & Mike fan. I also want to give Spike & Mike credit. Show that they did launch a lot of these people's careers and they were able to help them by not only showing their films, but in some cases, paying for them to get finished. That's important, for me, that people know that.

DS: Kat, tell me a bit about the animation you produced for the film.

KA: I really wanted a layered look. Like I mentioned earlier, we were having a lot of trouble finding photos or film, really anything, from those early days. I worked with a local Bay Area group, Sneaky Little Sister, who added the motion graphics to the photos we found. My intention was to steer away from talking heads and still photographs and keep images “breathing” and lively.

We did some custom stop-motion animation. I had a puppet built of Spike and Scotty, and we did that sort of as a tribute to Nick Park's Creature Comforts, where I had Spike interviewed and I didn't have the animation yet, and then I animated to his interview. That animation was done by Tim Hittle who did Canhead that was featured in a lot of Spike & Mike shows. And then we had three gals, the fab team of Cindy Ng, Kris Toscanini and Lyla Warren, doing the 2D work.  We didn't have footage of the water gun fights and hiding behind the bushes from the cops and throwing bread rolls at people at restaurants. So, I had them create that. And Cindy, who's the main 2D gal, she basically did a lot of the fill-in work, like the centaur and the ice cream machine, things like that.

SD: I want to add that Kat, she did something nobody's ever done for us before. She stepped up. She wrote the checks, she got the professionals, she got great research people, she got great camera people. She stepped up and did it. And anybody that sees this documentary can see she’s a professional and put a lot of passion into it.

DS: There’s a great clip of you in a restaurant sitting next to John Lasseter, who’s cracking up as you go on some rant while you smear what I’m guessing is pudding all over your face.

SD: That's at a little cafe in Annecy by the old prison. It was chocolate mousse.

DS: Of course, there’s no such things as pudding in France. Let’s switch gears a bit. When it comes to mainstream animation, it seems like nothing is taboo anymore. Things people would have seen at a Sick & Twisted show decades ago that they would point to as evidence of the imminent collapse of Western civilization, are now being promoted for craft awards by the biggest studios in the world. What do you consider sick and twisted now?

SD: Wow, that's a good question. At first, what we did was pure, like 90% for shock value. But then we evolved into Sick & Twisted, the original show, the classic show, where it was state-of-the-art animation. Sick & Twisted came out because we had to do something that was for 18 and over. We started getting films that maybe had a little darker theme. They weren’t made just for shock value; they were just a little bit more adult-oriented. But they were films that were really, really nicely done.

Then we started looking for quality films that were clever and funny, that told a story. And so, it evolved. I saw that coming way early, that you could only go for so long on just the shock value. So that's kind of how I've taken it. And that's how I program a 90-minute show. One thing I have learned is how to balance a show. I tell people it's like somebody knowing a Stradivarius when it walks in their shop and they hear the first note played. There you go. That one's got legs. It's good, you know.

DS: Agreed. You've built this incredible brand and body of film rights. What does the future hold for you? What are the new opportunities for you, and how do you see yourself moving forward?

SD: Well, we're talking to some people now. But what I'd like to see is the proverbial... have somebody take the ball and run with it. I’m old school. We have rights. We have all this content. We have a library. We have all the digital rights, all the applications, the monetization. It's not the dance that I know how to do. So what I'd like to do is find somebody, some relation, corporation, person, somebody that would have the infrastructure and the wherewithal to do that but allow me to be Spike and network and be the character that I am when I'm at Comic-Con or Annecy and find that talent like I've done all my life. I want to be able to focus on something I really do well and like to do. So that's where I'm at with that.

DS: Last question. You make an interesting comment in the film about how once Mike passed you... it had been the two of you, working as a duo, and then, suddenly, you had to take on his role as well. You had to do it all. Of all the things you’ve done as Spike of Spike & Mike, what has brought you the most enjoyment? The most sense of personal satisfaction?

SD: I like going to events like Annecy or Sundance or Comic-Con, where I can just be myself and see new films. This is something a lot of people don't understand. Each year there's only a finite number of what I consider really great shorts to come along that have the entertainment value I try to program. So when I see something great, it's like hearing a new great song if you're putting an album together or you're a producer with an album. That's very exciting.

People say, "Well, now you must be seeing great stuff all the time because of computer technology. Anybody can make a film." I’ll use this analogy. You can go to Los Angeles and hand out 10,000 of the best guitars in the world and go, "Oh, where are the 200 Jimi Hendrixes? Have they shown up yet? Oh, where are the 500 Bob Dylans? Anybody can write a great song." No. They can't. It's not the guitar. It's the gift of talent and creativity.

Dan Sarto's picture

Dan Sarto is Publisher and Editor-in-Chief of Animation World Network.