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Shari Acharya
Real Detroit Weekly
December 21, 2005

Sketchy Artists
Spike & Mike's Sick and Twisted Animation Festival
by Jamie Cook

Sick and twisted can sometimes translate to rich and famous. And not just in the case of Gary Busey. For a point of reference, see Beavis and Butthead creator Mike Judge, or look no further than Trey Parker and Matt Stone, the brains behind South Park. All three debuted work at Spike & Mike’s Twisted Animation Festival, a carnival of cartoonish whimsy that serves as a forum for animators below the radar and unable to keep their ideas rated G.

Now in its 15th year, the event provides a chance for talented — and frequently deranged — minds to proffer their works to the world. Spike and his crew (Mike passed away in 1994) turn a sharp critical eye to submissions for the festival, which weeds out the garbage while maintaining the spirit of the event — he doesn’t want cute, and he doesn’t want boring. “We’ve been notorious for having an eye for great films,” Spike says. “So many things have started with shorts, so it’s a good format for launching careers.

“I take satisfaction that we have the ability to know what works. People want to be a part of it. We’ve never had a level playing field, yet we’ve developed a following. There are some very talented people, and their stuff needs to get out there.” Brad Ableson had an ideal submission for the festival. His piece Save Virgil involves a foul-mouthed, disgusting little cartoon guy born to real, live people. Virgil’s got a trucker mouth and, in his own words, is “hung like Chilly Willy,” yet comes across as both entertaining and endearing.

Though Ableson, 30, already is a success as a storyboard artist on The Simpsons, he wants to get his own work off the ground. “There are tons of small Internet outlets, but this is the only widely expanded festival for animation,” Ableson said. “You can expect them to filter only the best stuff. The name’s been around long enough that people expect outrageous work. Mike Judge and Trey Parker are my two biggest heroes, so to be in a forum where they got their start is an honor.”

These days, animation isn’t just the stuff spawned by Steamboat Willy. Traditional animation, such as The Simpsons or Family Guy, relies on writing more so than the way it looks. Part of that is because the field has expanded to computer-generated images (CGI), stop-motion and that old-fashioned claymation. Good luck trying to top that with frame-by-frame animation cells. Spike’s got no beef with all the different disciplines. He thinks it only enhances the festival. “This show will be one of the highest quality we have put on as far as production value,” he said. “A lot more submissions, a lot more computer-generated pieces ... there’s a lot of diversity and style — very intelligent, funny films. Not just gross-out stuff.”

But the disgusting stuff is still out there. This year’s festival has a piece that gives us the old See Spot Run tutorial in a salaciously inappropriate manner. There’s also the cult fave Happy Tree Friends back to show us that just because you’re a cute forest animal it doesn’t mean your face can’t get ripped off by a faulty lemonade stand. But Spike is right: there are some beautiful pieces of work. The Zit, a cautionary CGI tale about the dangers of popping pimples, took creator Mike Blum more than three years to complete. The finished effort is gorgeous to look at and sick enough to make the cut at Spike & Mike.

Blum, 38, has worked at Disney the past 11 years and is the technical supervisor for the upcoming Toy Story 3. But there’s a reason he toiled so long to make a piece that spans less than 10 minutes. “I definitely want to direct,” Blum said. “I’m keeping my fingers crossed that a lot of people see it. This is a funny business. All it takes is one person to see potential, and you’re off to the races. You just have to get your work out there.”

Years ago, Nick Park got his piece to play at the festival. It featured a clay guy named Wallace and his dog, Grommitt. Craig McCracken also chose to debut at Spike & Mike. He’s the man behind the successful Powerpuff Girls. Despite all he has done to launch young careers while staying true to the format of the event, Spike feels there’s more to be done. He would like: 1) The animation on TV to stop sucking, and 2) Animators who have gone on to make big money to remember where they came from. “People get successful and stop taking your calls,” Spike laments. “That’s the most negative thing about it, and it’s kind of sad. I look at the animation on TV and there’s some real crap out there. It’s crap, but they hype it. I’d rather watch paint dry than watch Daria.”

Ableson agrees, but believes riskier, visually pleasing animation could make it big, given the chance. “When there’s that much animation on television, the quality suffers,” he says. “There are two ways to look at the work: visuals and content. The Simpsons, Family Guy and South Park continue to be incredible, but none of the shows aspire to be aesthetically groundbreaking.”

Spike & Mike’s Sick and Twisted Animation Festival runs Monday, Dec. 26 through Friday, Dec. 30 at the Magic Bag. Each evening there will be two performances — doors for the early show are at 7 p.m. and doors for the late show are at 10 p.m. For more info call 248.544.1991 or visit the themagicbag.com.

Jamie Cook isn’t that twisted or all that sick, but he’d love to hear perverted thoughts from all your dirty little minds. Send ‘em in to letters@realdetroitweekly.com.

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