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Brits find a pot of gold in clay

The future of claymation may well rest in the coffers of the BBC, particularly Channel 4, which has funded animated shorts for a decade. One of the BBC’s greatest benefactors is Aardman Animation and its star director/animator, Nicholas Park, who picked up his second Oscar Monday, this time for “The Wrong Trousers.”

“Over the last 10 years, out of all the programs the BBC has funded, the animation has clearly won the most prizes,” says David Sproxton, co-founder and director of the Bristol, England-based Aardman Animation. “As for the future, I think it depends on who you talkto. If you talk to the BBC they’ll say the half-hour. The short form is, in England, most viable.”

Park says, “Channel 4 has been the lifeblood of animation for the last 10 years and the BBC has sort of taken over what they have nurtured, putting up money just for half-hour specials.”

Park, 34, won his first animated short Academy Award in 1990 for “Creature Comforts,” a collection of interviews with zoo animals. That had followed his landmark work, the claymation video for Peter Gabriel’s pop hit “Sledgehammer.”

In “Wrong Trousers,” Park continues the adventures of Wallace, a fuddy-duddy of an Englishman with an affinity for electronic gizmos, and his intelligent dog, Gromit. The characters, Laurel & Hardy-like in their interplay, were featured in his Oscar-nominated short “A Grand Day Out,” which started as a college film.

In “Trousers,” the basic plot concerns Wallace renting a room to a penguin who plots a jewel heist.

“When we first went to commissioners,” says Park, “and told them we had a man , a dog and a penguin, they weren’t too sure about the idea. But Channel 4 had confidence in (Aardman). I was the one they were taking the chance on.”

Park started drawing “a whole range of ideas that didn’t really fit together.”

A writer was brought in and six months later, “Trousers” moved from script to storyboard.

Only Wallace speaks in the half-hour film filled with a vast array of great sight gags.

Working with a single crew, Park would shoot about three seconds of action daily.

“Because animation takes so long you have time to consider every detail,” says Park. “You almost rethink the whole film every day. The temptation, I find, is to put too much detail in. There’s no problem coming up with the ideas — it’s editing the ideas.”

Park’s work was screened with “The Fugitive” at the Harrison Ford starrer’s West End premiere, aired on BBC2 the day after Christmas last year and has been picking up prizes on the festival circuit.

The likability of the characters almost guarantees their continued presence in Aardman productions, though Park’s not sure if the two are ready for a feature.

“These characters can be in any story,” he says. “It’s a very character-led thing. You can put them in any situation and they’ll make the story because of who they are.

“There hasn’t been a great tradition of storytelling (in film) in Britain. The aesthetics are good, very rich. We’re starting to emerge, though. Stories aren’t sorted out enough for the longer format. You have to figure you’re putting three years into this — you have to have a great story.”

The next step, Sproxton says, is “to try and get the short films back into the cinemas. I think they’re planning on doing this in the U.K.” The problem now is that many are just too long at 15-20 minutes.

“If it wasn’t for 5-minute films we wouldn’t have gotten as far as we have,” says Sproxton. “It’s fantastic that Channel 4 puts money into these shorts because there’s so much commercial pressure. We’re seen as mainstream commercial product.

“(Channel 4) needs these things to be 15 or 30 minutes to serve that purpose. Five-minute reels were good for us at one time. It would be good if we could go back to that when we have a story that works in three minutes, rather than be dictated to by the channels on length and market.”

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