If you are a big fan of animation or work in animation then you most likely attended the SPARK Animation festival this weekend in Vancouver. It ran from Oct. 24-27 and included panels, talks and workshops by the world’s most talented artists, directors, and studio luminaries. If it’s inspiration you seek then SPARK will definitely ignite your passion.
Kat Alioshin has worked on Tim Burton’s The Nightmare Before Christmas, which is celebrating its 26th anniversary. She’s also worked on Corpse Bride and Henry Selick’s Coraline, James And The Giant Peach and Monkeybone. Kat definitely knows animation and who to thank for her inspiration. In fact she’s created a love letter that spells it out for all animators feeling the same way. Animation Outlaws showcases the talents of extraordinary animation artists and legends Spike and Mike and their Festival of Animation. First there was Disney and then there was Spike and Mike that came in with a roar. They paved the road for so many others by throwing out the rulebook and writing their own.
An interview style documentary film in the style of Electric Boogaloo: The Wild, Untold Story of Cannon Films about two hippie friends who set out to create a first of its kind animation festival that helped to start the rise of the animation industry and launch the careers of the artist and directors who run it.
Outside of Walt himself there are few people who have brought together and united more animators in the history of the genre than Craig “Spike” Decker and Mike Gribble, known to all as Spike & Mike. They created an animation festival that helped launch the careers of John Lasseter, Peter Lord, Will Vinton, Bill Plympton and Mike Judge to name just a few. The festival was known as much for the breakthrough animation it presented as the outrageous antics of the founders. But who were Spike & Mike, how did they start and where did it lead them? That’s what this 90-minute documentary will reveal. Animation Outlaws is a journey told through the stories of those they impacted, such as Andrew Stanton (Finding Nemo), Tim Burton (Nightmare Before Christmas), Pete Docter (Monsters Inc.), Nick Park (Wallace and Gromit) and many others. It is an adventure of highs; as they discovered amazing new talent and incredible lows, including Mike Gribble’s untimely death from cancer in 1994. The film is broken into three acts, each separated animation transitions that reflect the time period in which it takes place. Classic cel-style, stop motion and eventually CG versions of Spike and Mike support the transitions in their lives and the festival itself through the 70’s and early 2000’s.
Animation Outlaws closed out the SPARK Animation festival on Sunday but the memories will resonate with us for some time.
To learn more about this extraordinary film and what it means to the animation world I spoke to Kat Alioshin from her car as she was driving over the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco. I like to think of it as a golden opportunity and Kat was extremely generous with the plethora of information and background on the film and what it meant to her to pay tribute to Spike and Mike.
“Can you tell me more about the film, since I’ve not had the privilege of watching a screener?”
“It’s all about Spike and Mike’s growth as a genre. What they’ve created in their classic animation before moving onto their Sick and Twisted stuff. I interviewed over 45 different animation artists that talk about how Spike and Mike inspired them to get started and how there was no other place to show films. In some instances, they’ve even launched careers. I call them hippies at that time because it was in 77 when they started searching and finding the shorts. In some cases, they would finance the creation and produce the films for the artists.”
“What is it that attracts you to animation projects?”
“I find that there’s so much power in telling a story in short form. I love live action shorts and short stories. For me, it’s the 2 or 3 minute slice of life pieces that can be told so profoundly, it’s what really turned me onto animation once I met Spike and Mike back in 1987. I loved going to these 2 hour programs and seeing so much diversity in storytelling and visuals. There’s clay animation, cut out animation, paper, painted and so many others. It just went on and on of what people were playing around with. There was also the experimental factor but also wonderful storytelling in short form.”
When Kat made the Spike and Mike documentary, she was able to use 65 animation clips from the years of Spike and Mike’s animation festivals. She went back through much of the footage and animation from their festivals to determine what might be appropriate to put in her film. Whenever it allowed, she would interview her subjects with their films playing behind them to appear that they were in their own film. There was 40 years of animation that Spike and Mike had contributed to. Many people are only aware of their later years, which is the Sick and Twisted genre but 20 years before that they were doing classic animation.
“Were they doing that because they wanted to support all animators or was it specific animators that they were drawn to?”
“I think it depended on their personality. For Spike, it was to generate money from it but for Mike, he was definitely the creative force. He would find particular animators and tell them that he knew their next project is going to be good and he’d like to finance it to get made.”
Mike sadly passed away in his 40’s from cancer. For many years after Mike passed, Spike rose to the occasion and kept going. He’s in his 70’s now but still represents a couple key areas, such as France and Comic Con in San Diego. There’s always a large sold out group that attends his show.
“It’s such a contrast from what Disney was pumping out in comparison to the path that Spike and Mike took. Do you think that’s why they became legends in animation?”
“They did follow their own path but at the same time they also knew the importance of having a real fun great audience and they’d involve their audience in the screenings by having an intermission. Mike would go out and tell jokes and people would love it and would go to it for his act.”
“How difficult was it to gain access to people to talk to?”
“I’m very fortunate because of my contacts in animation, my access was fantastic. I know people in Pixar and called up the right people to ask if they could put me in touch with Pete Docter’s (Pixar animator, film director, screenwriter, chief creative officer) people and within a couple of weeks the arrangements were made to do the interviews. It was such a personal project but because I am in animation it made it easier.”
“What do Spike and Mike represent to you in the world of animation?”
“I met them at a time when I was so eager and excited, I was 22 years old. My first work in my career was in live action but in the back of my head I knew in the back of my mind that animation was going to be part of my world. What they represent to me is the career path I took after having my eyes open to other forms of media and realizing I could do something important and fun in animation. I have a very personal connection with them through being so young and being influenced by them.”
“Did you have to look hard for stock footage?”
“That was the bane of my existence because I couldn’t find any footage. I couldn’t find any footage of Mike and people just didn’t film back then and certainly not in a dark theatre because you’d have to bring in lights. I did not get the footage I wanted of Mike being on stage. We here about him being a comedian and how funny he was and we really don’t get to see that but I did do some recreation by hiring an audience and showing them having some fun at a festival. Found footage/archived footage was mostly in the form of photographs, which have been manipulated very appropriately through animation. I was also very fortunate to get a hold of a documentary on Spike and Mike filmed in France back in 2000, so I was able to use some of that footage but there really wasn’t much footage on Mike that I could find.”
“What does it mean to you to have made this film that represents Spike and Mike’s contributions to the animation world?”
“I’ve always felt that this is a piece of history and I think every student of animation should watch this. For anyone interested in animation history, it’s become an informative piece and I’m very proud that it can be used as a historical document illustrating these two gentlemen’s impact on animation.”
“What would you want people to walk away with after watching this film?”
“I’ve heard two different comments from people. People that have never seen Spike and Mike before have said they wish they were there and the ones that were there are saying it’s very nostalgic and it’s inspired them to continue to create short pieces. People that are wondering how ‘adult swim’ happened now know that it was because of Spike and Mike opened the door to that style of low-brow animation. I really want people to know who opened that door.”
“Has Spike been able to see the film?”
“He has recently seen it at a San Diego opening and he now lives there. It was a wonderful event and hosted for the cast and crew, not a theatrical release in any way. He was pretty overcome with nostalgia and memories. I really hope I did justice for him because many people didn’t know where they came from or what they did but they do now.”
“It sounds like this film is a real love letter for those that knew them and how they paved the way for others.”
“It is… and the way I laid the film out was in chapters in a progression. The early years, middle years and where they came from, which was Riverside, a blue-collar town. I do have a chapter on Mike’s passing and many in the audience are not aware that Mike is no longer with us, so that’s surprising for them. We end with, the Sick and Twisted but don’t stay on or glorify it but it is there and needs to be mentioned.”
“Was there a purpose for formatting it in that way?”
“When I went to film school in UC San Diego I remember that a film needs a beginning, middle and end. They don’t always have to be in that order but do need to be in there. I started looking at the yearly flyers and realizing the importance of them as well as determining that they fall in chronological order so it made sense to make a chronological film. Every chapter is introduced with a flyer cover.”
“After it premieres out here in Vancouver, where does it go next?”
“We’ve submitted it to other festivals but won’t really know until December. Personally, I’d really like to see it get picked up for distribution into theatres because it’s the kind of film that needs to be appreciated in a theatre and not a TV screen. With people laughing out loud and an entire chapter dedicated to an audience, it truly belongs in a theatre.”
In addition to the film closing the SPARK Animation festival on Sunday, Kat will be hosting the screening of Animation Outlaws in Portland and tells me that Henry Selick will be attending. Henry is in Portland working on his latest feature with all stop-motion. She says he has been incredible to work with throughout every film she’s been involved in. Kat also informs me that stop-motion is pretty hot right now and 3 features coming out are all using the technique. ‘Stop-motion is a real niche talent and once you establish a specialty crew that can light, model and create puppets of a certain scale, you want to hang onto them.’ In Oregon, they’ve established Laika, which has a lot of room to accommodate a lot of small sets.
I believe my extent of animation is drawing a circle, so I really got an education on illustration and the various types of animation once can create. You don’t have to be able to draw, you only need to have a passion for creating and storytelling.