Written by Kyle Lundberg
In 1986, a young animator named John Lasseter premiered his animated short Luxo Jr. at an animation festival run by Craig “Spike” Decker and Mike Gribble.
Lasseter went on to change the history of animation, helping start up a little company called Pixar and directing Toy Story, the first-ever feature-length computer animated film, in 1995.
But not long before that, Lasseter was just a young filmmaker with a vision, and Decker and Gribble, fast-becoming the rock stars of the animation world, saw his potential.
The spirit, if not the letter, of those pioneering days of animation is alive and well as Spike & Mike’s Sick & Twisted Festival of Animation celebrates its 20th anniversary at the Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego in La Jolla, starting Saturday, August 24.
In the 1970s, Decker and Gribble formed Mellow Manor Productions, Inc. (named after the Riverside Victorian house where they once lived), which they used to promote underground bands by producing retro animated short films. They also put on special screenings of live-action films, but after picking up animated cult classics such as Marv Newland’s Bambi Meets Godzilla, the duo knew that animation was what their fans really wanted to see.
Thus, the Classic Festival of Animation was born. The more traditional festival drew a who’s-who of up-and-coming animators, including Tim Burton (whose short Vincent premiered at the festival) and Nick Park (Wallace & Gromit) along with Lasseter and fellow Pixar mainstays Andrew Stanton (Wall-E,), Pete Docter (Up) and Brad Bird (Ratatouille, The Incredibles).
“It’s pretty interesting looking back at the Pixar guys in particular,” Craig ‘Spike’ Decker told La Jolla Patch. “We produced films with some of them. We were the first to theatrically show those early Pixar shorts like Luxo Jr. I’m pretty proud of it. It’s all about getting your finger on the pulse, and we were there for that.”
But the duo soon realized that their formal festival was leaving out edgier animators such as Bill Plimpton. So, in 1990, they created Spike & Mike’s Sick & Twisted Festival of Animation, which was designed to cater to the midnight crowd unsatisfied with Disney’s whimsical family-friendliness. Although Decker and Gribble have taken their festival all around the world, including the Sundance and Cannes Film Festivals, the show’s original home is at the Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego in La Jolla. La Jolla Boulevard is also home base for Mellow Manor, which has been run by Decker ever since Gribble passed away in 1994.
“We started doing a lot of shows at the museum,” Decker said. “The location is nice, obviously, and the venue itself is really great. We already lived in Southern California. We pretty much started in San Diego.”
The Sick and Twisted Festival drew animators who were interested in pushing more than just technical boundaries. It was the birthplace of Mike Judge’s Beavis and Butthead as well as the can’t-look-away gore of the popular web-based animal mutilation cartoon Happy Tree Friends.”
“When we first started creating this genre of adult animation, at first it was more about shock value,” Decker said. “The production quality wasn’t that great. Now, the films are more clever, and there’s much more diversity in the types of animation represented.”
Although celebrating its 20th anniversary, the festival has been on hiatus for five years. According to Decker, theaters didn’t have the quality digital projectors necessary to show off digital film submissions, and the films coming in were not up to the producers’ quality standards.
But the universe of the sick and twisted is back with a vengeance. This year’s festival will host John K., the creator of Ren & Stimpy, on Saturday, Aug. 24, and Futurama voice actor Billy West on Friday, Sept. 13 and Saturday, Sept. 14. They will be available for autographs and photos.
The films themselves come from around the globe, including new films Captain Awesome from Denmark and The Spirit of Christmas from the UK alongside classics such as Burton’s Vincent. All screenings will feature 24 shorts, and are 18 and over only.
Decker said the festival encourages audience participation in the forms of glow-in-the-dark hand clappers as well as souvenir barf bags, just in case. Along with the shorts, the festival offers live music and food for purchase.
“When Mike and I first started doing this, we always presented it as a cultural event,” Decker said. “We always wanted it to be more than just going to a theater and watching some films.”
When: “Spike & Mike’s Sick & Twisted Festival of Animation” starts Saturday, August 24 and runs continuously on Fridays and Saturdays through Nov. 23.
Where: Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego, 700 Prospect St. in La Jolla.
Cost: $15 (museum members get $12 admission when they show their membership card at the museum box office). 18+ only. Shows are expected to sell out, particularly the celebrity nights on Aug. 24 and Sept. 13-14. Festival tickets and a complete schedule are available online.