Whose trousers are they anyway?

The Oscars
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The Independent Culture
The official view of this week's Oscars is that Britain did not do terribly well. Wilf Stevenson, director of the British Film Institute, was pleased with the number of nominations but admitted it was "disappointing" that we did not win in any of the major categories.

It all depends how you define major. The win in the animated short film category for the Channel 4-backed animation Bob's Birthday, about a dentist with a mid-life crisis, is further proof that we are challenging and indeed beating America in one area where it once reigned supreme.

Monday night's win was our fourth Oscar for animation in the last five years. Indeed, Britain had three of the five nominations.

Animation is thriving in Britain. The director Nick Park and his team at Aardman Animations in Bristol drew a Christmas day audience in 1994 of 9.5 million viewers, 45 per cent of the audience for the BBC showing of the 1994 Oscar-winner, The Wrong Trousers.

And yesterday, in an announcement that was overshadowed by the Oscars, they secured a £7.5m Hollywood deal to make a full-length feature film.

The deal with Jake Eberts, executive producer of Dances with Wolves, will guarantee the independence of the Bristol studio. And the new movie will be shot there.

The firm also collected an Oscar in 1991 for Creature Comforts, which became the inspiration for the Heat Electric television commercials.

Park is now shooting another film, A Close Shave, with his clay model characters, Wallace and Gromit. He was "very likely" to be involved in the new Hollywood film, Arthur Sheriff, the firm's spokesman, said.

But the craze for animation, both among film-makers and viewers, goes well beyond the Bristol studio. We have watched series of animated Shakespeares, animated operas, and will shortly have the animated Bible, Old Testament and New (with the first ever animated life of Christ) as well as the animated version of Chaucer's Canterbury Tales.

All these are the result of co-productions between the BBC, S4C, the Welsh Channel 4, and the Russian-based Christmas Films.

The success of animation is largely due to the involvement since the early 1990s of both television finance and East European artistry. Chris Grace, director of animation at S4C, points out that animation always flourished in small, independent film companies. It was only with the advent of Channel 4 that it began to flourish nationally.

And he does not underestimate the importance of Eastern Europe and Russia. The Shakespeare series was the result of an invitation from Russia. "It helped us to throw off the downside of the Disney legacy," he says. "Russian and East European animators had never been influenced by Disney. There was still the auteur film tradition, made without commercial considerations."

Now animation, as with Shakespeare and Chaucer, is a key factor in ensuring that film does not let a generation lose its cultural memory - quite an achievement for a medium traditionally thought of as trivial.

Channel 4 has long had an interest in animation, and since 1991 the BBC has been commissioning adult animation. The attractions are clear. Animation lends itself to international markets: only the soundtrack needs to be changed to appear home-made.

Animations also tend not to date as quickly as live action feature films. And, in the children's market particularly, animation provides endless opportunities to exploit related markets such as books, videos and toys.

The strong literary tradition in Britain and British film-making means the potential for strong animation coming out of Britain was always here once the TV companies decided to put money in.

But there are other reasons for Britain dominating the awards for animation in the Nineties. Pat Raine Webb, who is on the board of the International Animated Film Association, points to the growth of college courses in animation. In the Seventies there were three colleges offering courses. Now there are 50.

David Lister

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