Spike and Mike Get Serious

Let’s consider a couple popular pieces of animation: “The Nightmare Before Christmas,” “Beavis and Butthead,” “Toy Story,” “South Park,” “Finding Nemo.” What do these films and TV shows have in common? Other than being embedded into our pop-culture DNA, they’ve been named by critics as our generation’s best. Apart from popularity and acclaim, however, they also have a much more intrinsic link unnoticeable to the average eye: all of their animators started their careers at Spike and Mike’s Animation Festival.

Founded in 1977 by Craig “Spike” Decker and Mike Gribble — UCSD alumni and the owners of Mellow Manor Productions — the festival originally promoted underground bands, holding film screenings (both classics and local work) after every show, and introducing them with animated shorts.

Over time, however, the shorts themselves became immensely popular, and developed their own cult following — outshining everything else in the process. Spike and Mike realized they had tapped into an unexplored niche, and named the phenomenon Spike & Mike’s Classic Animation Festival.

Today, the festival is a haven for aspiring animators and filmmakers. Venues for nouveau animators to strut their stuff didn’t used to exist; the festival opened a space for diehards and newbies to appreciate the art of animation.

Bigshots like Tim Burton and John Lasseter made their mark by premiering their short films through Spike and Mike back in the ’80s. As the years went by, more and more ambitious filmmakers competed to debut their films for the festival, and the genre positively exploded. It became more sophisticated — even cruder. Hence, the birth of Spike & Mike’s Sick and Twisted Festival, which has become the pair’s most famous endeavor.

Showcased at Comic-Con every year, this influential festival is responsible for the birth of “Beavis and Butthead” and “South Park.” If you’ve come across a disturbing yet popular piece of animation floating around the ’nets (I’m looking at you, Happy Tree Friends), chances are it was debuted to the Sick and Twisted audience.

“Humor’s the bottom line,” Spike said. “A younger crowd can appreciate artistic merits to have good time. It’s very accessible, and a fun time to escape the reality of the frickin’ world.”

Wherever the immature trend — childish fantasy, slapstick or crude and lewd — the influence of Spike and Mike is undeniable. Though Mike passed away in 1994, Spike has continued running the festival.

Three long years have passed since the last Spike & Mike festival was held in La Jolla — but this year, it’s back.

Hold your horses. This isn’t the Spike & Mike you’re familiar with. Instead of opting for the more traditional Sick and Twisted, this year Spike decided to gather the best animated shorts worldwide in the past three years — regardless of sickness — to show at the festival. Tamely titled New Generation Animation Festival and hosted by the Museum of Contemporary Art in downtown La Jolla, this year’s event will value artistic talent and technical savvy.

“This is very high-brow stuff. The analogy I like to use is, if [Sick and Twisted] was 40-oz. beer, then this is vintage cabaret wine,” Spike said.

The festival will play a compilation film, stringing all chosen shorts into one 90-minute extravaganza. It will be separated into three acts that highlight intellectual, technical and technological achievements.

The first act opens with “Missed Aches,” a colorful parody on language and diction, unveiling the illusion-of-intelligence theme with slick animated pacing. Then, we move to the multiple-award-winning “Lapsus” by Gabriel Alfonzo, which plays with shape and structure while still somehow commenting the power of religion and faith (or lack thereof). Drawing out this sociopolitical motif is “Stillwaters” — a claymation contemplation on trust — and “Crab Revolution,” a hand-drawn reflection on the frivolity of life.

The second act is a technical feast, highlighting some of today’s finest hand-drawn, two-dimensional cel animation — “Santa the Fascist Years” at the top of the list. “Key Lime Pie” is a masterstroke in character design, and “The Hidden Life of the Burrowing Owl” mixes cel with documentary reel footage and slapstick. “Quiet Log Time,” animated by fan-favorite Dr. Tran, is a brilliant study in punchline pacing, while “Yulia” is a beautifully sketched ballet set to a smalltime love story.

The festival, however, saves its best for last: The third act is riddled with technological breakthroughs. It begins with “Eleven Roses,” a dark tale of unrequited love that cleverly shifts between 2D and 3D animation to fit the film’s changes in mood. It’s followed by brilliant stop-motion shorts “Western Spaghetti” and “A Town Called Panic: Cake,” astoundingly clever in their playful combination of toys with the mechanics of animation.

But they’re all topped by “For Sock’s Sake,” which also uses stop-motion animation, but combines it with 2D mechanics and sub-cultural geek memes to craft a piece of astounding depth.

Closers “Ghost of Stephen Foster” and “Oktapodi” hold the festival together, exemplifying contemporary breakthrough. “Ghost” acts as a parody on the classic ’30s “Betty Boop” style while imparting dense subliminal satire in its crevices of crude humor, and “Oktapodi” utilizes Pixar-influenced character design to tell similar slapstick.

“It’s so fresh, so innovative — we try to keep it alive each year,” Spike said. “These submissions are new ideas from new people. It keeps new cultures alive and fresh, not like trendy music. Animation brings things to life. It’s not like selling pizza; it’s more like creating new genres of music.”