Most people hear Spike & Mike’s Animation Fest and think Bambi Meets Godzilla. Truth be told, that genre-defining short, which heartwarmingly featured a blithe doe being crushed by Tokyo’s Number One Rampaging Paw, first lit up the screens of college campuses about six years before Craig “Spike” Decker and Mike Gribble began their concerted tours of animated whimsy. They began as the so-called “classic” shows and then evolved into the more cannibalized and strange “sick and twisted” model.
“Yeah, we didn’t show it first,” acknowledged Decker (Spike to you), “but we were friends with Marv Newland from early on,” he said, speaking of the man who made the minimalist wonder that was Bambi Meets Godzilla. More joys followed, from Will Vinton’s Closed Mondays to Nick Park’s Wallace and Gromit. Spike and Mike weren’t only interested in presenting their work, either; oftentimes, they found funds to help produce so many of the animators who matter today. “We’ve met so many of them. We used to call them ‘the kids,’” he explained, invoking a roster of neophytes that includes Bill Plympton, Mike Judge, UCSB’s own wunderkind Don Hertzfeldt, and John Lasseter, the current head of Disney’s animation division and cofounder of a little company called Pixar. “A lot of them were just students from Cal Arts. I remember we showed Lasseter’s work before he even did Luxo Jr. or Tin Toy” — the pieces that ultimately established computer animation’s credentials. Spike tells tales of crazy food fights that involved the current Disney chief and Co. driving through Santa Barbara’s back roads in the 1980s, when the group was putting on shows at the old Victoria Hall Theater. “We had to stop when a piece of fruit broke the windshield of my rented car,” Decker laughed.
Another thing you probably don’t know about the fest is that Mike Gribble, half of the genius team that created Spike & Mike, died 20 years ago. In fact, Spike kind of doesn’t know it either. “It’s really been that long?” he said last week. “It must be some kind of weird time-space-continuum thing. And I tell you, I still miss him all the time.”
When does he most miss the man whose name is still on the bill?
“Whenever I have to get out in front of people,” said Decker. “That was what Mike did; he loved the spotlight, and he loved making it into a show.”
But even without his showy friend, Decker has kept the faith — and the fest — alive. The two started their friendship in a rock band called Sterno and the Flames in Riverside, California. (They played while Max Fleischer’s Betty Boop cartoons got projected along to the music.) After the band split up, Spike and Mike kept screening cartoons and cult films, which eventually evolved into the institution that exists today. Looking back over the fest’s long history, Spike has favorites, of course: Matt Groening of The Simpsons, as well as lesser-knowns like Frédéric Back (The Man Who Planted Trees), Shane Acker (9), and the Italian director Bruno Bozzetto, who made Allegro non troppo. The show that stops at UCSB this week includes surprises and sharp takes, featuring everything from painted cells to computers to a meta miniseries within the show aptly titled Animation vs. Animator. For sheer lunacy, don’t miss the tale of an escaped octopus and a moose (deer?) involved in a love triangle with a trucker.
Spike is still bullish on it all but believes in talent over craft. “I still think after all these years, it’s not an easy art. It’s a gift, like some athletes have, like chess players. You can’t just do it. If it was that easy, there would be hundreds of Nick Parks and John Lasseters. And there aren’t.”
UCSB Arts & Lectures presents Spike & Mike’s Animation Fest at UCSB’s Campbell Hall on Friday, April 4, at 7 and 9 p.m. For tickets and info, call (805) 893-3535 or visit artsandlectures.sa.ucsb.edu.