‘Animation Outlaws’: How Spike & Mike Turned Indie Shorts Into a Cultural Phenomenon

The new doc pays tribute to the "animation outlaws," who made it "something more dangerous and fun than it was ever supposed to be."
Sick & Twisted
"Animation Outlaws"
Spike Decker

Without Spike & Mike, two hippie friends from Riverside, California, who pioneered the animation festival in the late ’70s, the indie short wouldn’t have become the cultural phenomenon that has helped shaped the industry today. That’s the takeaway of the celebratory documentary, “Animation Outlaws,” directed by stop-motion animator Kat Alioshin (“The Nightmare Before Christmas”), available now on Apple TV, Amazon Prime, iTunes, Vudu, Fandango Now, PlayStation, and Vimeo.

“Beyond anybody in the world, we stepped up and did it first, and premiered it first, and made it first — and that’s why the documentary is so important to me,” said Spike Decker, who first promoted rock bands and classic horror movies with the late Mike Gribble (who passed away from cancer in ’94) before segueing into animation festivals. Their “Spike & Mike’s Animation Festival” and the “Sick & Twisted Festival of Animation” (launched in ’90) made the art form “something more dangerous and fun than it was ever supposed to be,” according to stop-motion director Henry Selick (“Coraline,” “The Nightmare Before Christmas”).

These “animation outlaws” used guerrilla promotion tactics and rock theatrics to bring indie shorts to the general public, first on the West Coast, and gradually to the world via festivals in Annecy, Cannes, Sundance, and Comic-Con. They got a hold of classic collections, scouted talent at CalArts, and tapped the prestigious National Film Board of Canada. But once the word had spread, they created an unprecedented fan base for experimental, indie animation, which helped launch the careers of Aardman’s Nick Park, Pixar’s Pete Docter and Andrew Stanton, Rich Moore (“Zootopia,” “The Simpsons”), Mike Judge (“Beavis and Butt-head”), Joanna Priestley (“Voices”), Bill Plympton (“Your Face”), and many more.

Spike & Mike
“Animation Outlaws” Spike & MikeSpike Decker

For “Animation Outlaws,” Alioshin intersperses nearly 50 interviews with 65 clips, but she layered in her own custom animation in very creative ways. “Obviously with animation we wanted a colorful, upbeat, fast-paced movie,” she said. “I wanted to capture the people I interviewed within their own pieces, so when Pete Docter is speaking [about the ‘cool, eclectic mix’], he’s inside ‘Palm Springs,’ which is one of his CalArts pieces.

“And I wanted to portray the Spike & Mike team as one of the perfect storms happening. They’re very different personalities, and you get that with Spike being the bigger guy and Mike being the skinny guy. I knew they were popular, but they always felt a little bit on the outskirts. That fan base was great to connect with, to get a handle on the input that they had in promoting these young artists back in the day.”

Running into Seth Green accidentally at Skywalker Ranch, who fawned over Dexter, resulted in his participation in the doc. “I spent my entire life struggling and searching for like-minded people, for a place that I felt like I belonged and not feel so fucking weird,” he said. “‘Spike and Mike’s Sick & Twisted Festival of Animation’ was absolutely a place early on that gave me a sense of community in the weird world of sick & twisted filmmaking.”

For Park, who rose from the ranks of “an underground, cottage industry” in the UK, Spike & Mike “were promoting it over there like it was McDonald’s or something.”

Nick Park Aardman
Nick ParkSpike Decker

“We actually took [Nick] to the Academy Awards [in ’90] and he was up against himself [with the Oscar-winning ‘Creature Comforts’ and ‘A Grand Day Out’] and Bruno Bozzetto’s ‘Grasshoppers,'” Decker said. “We started hanging out with him then and saw the talent. We brought him out from England to the shows in San Francisco and La Jolla.”

But Spike & Mike’s first animation show was full of “high anxiety” at Riverside City College’s Landis Performing Arts Center. “We had to fight hard to put together a 90-minute show,” Dexter said. “We had to get power packs and special bulbs for the 16mm prints because the throw was so far and the screen was so large.”

Being on the road all his life, Dexter learned that “you’d better deliver…and I always took pride in giving them something extra in putting on a special event.” It began with Max Fleischer Betty Boop and Superman cartoons, and the festival continues today at Annecy and Comic-Con. “I’m at the point now where we’re talking to people about ways to utilize and monetize in digital platform areas where they have more expertise. We want to let people know we’re here and available.”

Yet animation historian Jerry Beck summed it up best: “Spike and Mike came from nowhere with nothing and created a market where none existed.”

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