Oscar glory for the next Wallace & Gromit?

A peculiarly British cartoon by two East End animators is in the hunt for an Oscar, reports Jonathan Brown
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The Independent Culture

When Hollywood's elite gathers next month at the Kodak Theatre, Los Angeles, to celebrate another year of glittering achievement in motion pictures, British hopes of Oscar glory will focus on Kate Winslet, Stephen Daldry and Danny Boyle.

Lurking further down the nominations list, peeking out from behind the leading ladies' voluminous ballgowns, will be two quiet British animators who cut their teeth on pop videos and commercials – and now find themselves pitted against the might of Disney's Pixar studio for one of the ultimate accolades in filmmaking.

Seated at a table near the back of the famous auditorium will be Adam Foulkes and Alan Smith, flanked by handsome chair-fillers just in case they get a call from the stage where X-Men star Hugh Jackson comperes the annual glitz fest.

Having met in London at the Royal College of Art, from which they graduated in 1996, these unassuming backroom boys from Shoreditch, east London, are on the brink of international fame, nominated for the Academy Award for Animated Short Film – a category won four times by the British cartoonist Nick Park.

Before they can begin to emulate Park's achievement, their eight-and-a-half minute creation This Way Up must battle Pixar's Presto, a slick, feelgood homage to the glory days of slapstick cartoons, drawn by the veteran Toy Story animator Doug Sweetland.

By contrast, the Britons, whose work has featured in Lemony Snicket's A Series Of Unfortunate Events and Steven Spielberg's Catch Me If You Can, tells the story of two undertakers as they struggle to transport the body of an old lady to her final resting place, enduring "bumps and scrapes" en route that threaten – but never quite manage – to undermine the dignity of the recently passed.

It is a David and Goliath of animation. Founded in 1979 by Star Wars creator George Lucas, Pixar was acquired by the Apple founder Steve Jobs, who sold the firm to Disney for $7.2bn. Its smashes include Ratatouille, A Bug's Life and Finding Nemo.

Smith and Foulkes, meanwhile, have been plodding away at the studios of London-based animator Nexus, which has built a stable of directors with a reputation for cutting- edge filmmaking. Several shades darker than Pixar, This Way Up has notched up a series of prestigious awards around the world. It was part of the official selection at the Sundance Film Festival, won the public prize at Ottawa Animation Festival, a comedy award at the London Short Film Festival and was named best of show at the influential Siggraph Asia. The unlikely accolade of best children's film at Sweden's Uppsala International Short Film Festival helped qualification for the Oscars.

"We never thought it was a children's film but, thanks to them, we are in the Oscars," said Alan Smith. "Although we also won an award at Palm Springs where everyone is 85."

Win or lose on 22 February, the pair hope the experience will help them move into full-length animation. "We are going to take the opportunity while we are in Los Angeles to set up meetings," said Mr Smith. "We are planning on getting into longer formats and looking at some scripts. We are not really expecting to win an Oscar. It is just a bit of a laugh for us."

Both Foulkes and Smith are keen to play down the comparisons with Aardman Animations – creator of the phenomenally successful Wallace and Gromit series. "We don't have as many cloth caps," quips Mr Foulkes. Yet there remains a peculiar Britishness to their work. This Way Up bears favourable comparison with The Plank, the 1967 comedy short starring Eric Sykes and Tommy Cooper which recounts the delivery of wood to a construction site, although Foulkes and Smith have not seen the film.

The animation renaissance of the 1980 with the arrival of Channel Four and MTV, first influenced them. But This Way Up only became a reality after it came to the attention of Beavis And Butt-head creator Mike Judge at a film festival in Portland, Oregon.

After graduating, the pair worked on animations for U2's Pop Mart tour. Smith says the process was far from the CGI wizardry being developed by the likes of Pixar over in California's Silicon Valley. "Our initial jobs were all cut and paste on to film – frame by frame. There were no real special effects." But the arrival of dedicated animation software transformed the industry and the bedroom cartoon enthusiasts were able to emulate the work of multimillion-dollar studios relying on their creativity and flair.

The duo has gone on to pick up some of the most-sought-after commissions in the business. They created Super Bowl commercials for Coca Cola – their latest one will be shown in next week's final – and collaborated with car giant Honda. They also had a hand in the cartoon series Monkey Dust, in which "Liar" Clive Pringle's extraordinary excuses to his wife (modelled on plots from Lord of the Rings, Dune and 24) helped turn the character into a cult.