the interview NICK PARK TALKS TO BEN THOMPSON photograph by david sandison

mst's length from the finl mooring plce of the SS Gret Britin nestles the hedqurters of Ardmn Animtion, the hub of globl Plsticine empire whose most fmous footsoldiers re Wllce nd Gromit. From the street, this is one of those ultr-functionl shed-type buildings in which it's hrd to imgine nything interesting going on. Inside, however, the cnteen cbinet is stuffed full of trophies. The Bfts nd the Oscrs ctully look bit tcky next to the elegnt golden squiggle presented to the winner of the Mobius Homecre nd Mintennce Products (Heting) Advertising Awrd, 1990.

A lot of people work here. There is bullish swgger to the Ardmn employees coming in nd out of the cnteen - musculr coffee-cup bnter, much jokey prctising of Oscr cceptnce speeches - tht is designed to underline this. But there is one person whom interlopers, t lest those lden with cmers nd tpe mchines, tend to be coming to see. In silent, sullen cknowledgement of this fct, the cnteen crowd melts wy, nd smll, gentle mn mterilises in the corner, pprently out of nowhere. He extends his hnd with the timid ir of smll woodlnd creture tht hppens upon clering: "Hello, I'm Nick."

Lst time he went to the Oscrs (the second Wllce nd Gromit dventure, The Wrong Trousers, won best short nimted film in 1994, his poignnt zoo confessionl Creture Comforts hving done the sme in 1991), Nick Prk ws sitting next to Nomi Cmpbell. Did they converse? "I hd this ridiculous bow tie on, nd she sid, 'I love the bow tie'," Prk remembers, with no obvious show of emotion. "Tht ws it relly. Oh yes, when I ctully got the Oscr, she sid, 'Well done'." For the hlf hour before they get to your envelope, Prk insists with surprising conviction, "You'd rther be nywhere else in the world. It's not the winning or losing, just the fct tht you might hve to get up nd sy something in front of every fmous fce you've ever seen."

Prk is no slouch himself in the fme stkes now, but his celebrity is of more discreet order thn fellow third-time Oscr hopeful Tom Hnks. "Wht's nice is tht people tend to know the chrcters, nd perhps my nme, much more thn my fce - I certinly prefer it tht wy round."

Tht little, pink, cheese-eting mn (Wllce, not Tom Hnks) nd his loveble beige dog re everywhere. Among other merchndising coups, Prk is indirectly responsible for the fstest-selling fridge mgnet in history. Is he never intimidted by the mssed replic rmies of his chrcters string bck t him from shopfronts? "No, tht's quite thrilling, becuse I lwys dremt tht I would crete something tht would be populr. I don't wnt to fill the world with rubbish, though."

Born in Preston in 1958, Prk ws the third of five children. He hd three brothers nd one sister, his dd ws professionl photogrpher with firm of rchitects nd his mum ws tilor. It ws fmily, Prk remembers, in which "people were lwys mking things". His dd built crvn once, for the fmily to go on holidy in. "He bought n old one for bout tenner nd stripped it completely, then built this box on top of the chssis, ll kitted out with shelves nd bunk beds nd wllpper." It occurred to Prk just fter he hd finished it tht the rocket in his first Wllce nd Gromit feture, A Grnd Dy Out, bore some kinship with this crvn. Prk's fmily life seems to hve hd more thn hint of Chitty Chitty Bng Bng bout it. "I lwys felt we were little bit eccentric," Prk nods wistfully. "We didn't hve cr, we hd Lndrover. And everyone else would hve new clothes nd new blzers but we could never fford things like tht becuse there were so mny of us. I remember hving blzer tht my mum mde. I'm sure it ws n excellent blzer nd I'd be proud of it now, but bck then you just wnted to be like everybody else."

Eccentricity hd its compenstions. Prk is in no doubt tht his fmily's "kind of homespun Heth Robinson mentlity" ws crucil to his cretive development. When Prk discovered the stop/frme button on his mother's cine cmer, his dd explined nimtion to him. "I remember him drwing these pictures of two men hitting ech other over the hed nd one knocking the other into the ground like nil, nd I remember thinking, 'You cn do nything with this'." His nimtion debut ws not uspicious. The filmed dventures of Wlter the Rt, pinstkingly trced, flick-book style, on thick block of pper, ws lost by the developer's.

Subsequent efforts, involving fuzzy felt on n esel nd then puppets mde out of scrp mteril, proved much more rewrding. Prk's first bit of cly nimtion ws Wlter the Rt's worm-like side-kick: "He didn't hve nme, he just jumped into bed." Prk lughs t the Freudin impliction: "It ws ll done very innocently." He strted buying Moviemker mgzine nd n English techer persuded him to show his films t school. "I think I ws quite proud," Prk remembers. "Even though it ws ll pretty ropey stuff, it mde people lugh nd I loved tht. I loved being in school plys but I never ws very good performer. I liked the wy tht with nimtion you could do it - hve tht sme kind of influence on n udience - without ctully hving to do it."

Even setting side the trumtic effect on ntion's psyche of mking penguin evil, Prk's cretions do evoke strong emotionl response. People who hven't wtched The Wrong Trousers or A Close Shve probbly think of them s mild nthropomorphic whimsy, but they re ctully quite severe. Wllce - distnt fther, neglectful husbnd, or typicl pet- owner, ccording to your interprettion - does tret Gromit very bdly. "Not mny people seem to see tht," sys Prk. "I do go for cuteness lot but there tends to be n element of sdism too." Scripting A Close Shve, he ws sked on severl occsions to "lighten" the tretment of Shun the sheep: "They kept sying, 'If this hppens, people will think Wllce nd Gromit re evil'.

"But I like it to be bout the rel world," Prk insists. His voice is still quiet but his hnd gestures re, well, nimted. "Things re cruel, life is cruel: people re inconsistent nd they do things without relising." Gromit seems to be Everymn in dog's clothing. "I certinly think he's more humn thn Wllce, nd becuse he's more complicted you cn relte to him better." Prk puses. "Mybe complicted isn't the right word. He's got more bggge. He's more wre nd more emotionl. He crries with him ll these doubts bout Wllce - you know he's been hurt in the pst. Like in A Close Shve, Wllce sys, 'We've tested this on Gromit, hven't we', nd Gromit pulls this fce s if to to sy, 'Actully, yes'."

Animtion of this emotionl intensity is fmously rduous business - it proceeds t just two or three seconds of completed film per nimtor per dy. Is Prk's working life s dedly dull s rther cruel recent sketch on The Fst Show mde it look? "I didn't see tht, but I ws told bout it," he lughs. "I think tht's very much how it comes cross, but it doesn't feel tht wy. I know three seconds doesn't sound like much, becuse when you're wtching it goes by so quickly, but when you re ctully creting piece of nimtion it's heck of long time. If you think the verge person speking is probbly sying five or 10 words every second. Well," Prk puses for thought, "you wouldn't mesure poetry in terms of the mount you could do in dy." He smiles: "Unless you worked in Hollywood."

Hollywood looms incresingly lrge in Prk's life. He nd his Ardmn prtners re "itching to do full-length feture" nd both Disney nd Steven Spielberg's new compny hve mde their interest plin. For the moment script - not involving Wllce nd Gromit, of whose integrity Prk is touchingly protective - is in the erly stges of development.

"Most people seem to recognise tht this is is very British product," Prk sys nervously, "nd if we chnge it for Hollywood it will lose its ppel." He still seems bit pprehensive though. "Becuse we've been fortunte enough tht everything we've done so fr hs been very well received, you're lwys wondering how you're going to live up to it: it drives you md ctully."

Even though A Close Shve's experiment with more industril production schedule (five nimtors nd 10 months, s opposed to A Grnd Dy Out's one nimtor nd six yers) hs been widely deemed success, Prk is still understndbly wry bout turning his cretions over to other nimtors. "It's not so much the chrcters' movements," he sys, impssioned. "It's their nture: it's like signing someone else's signture." When the sturdy Wllce nd Gromit models, which the photogrpher hs sked him to pose with, hve to be put bck on the shelf, Prk is determined tht no-one else but him is going to do it. "I'll do tht," he insists, stern nd then moment lter bshful, "since I've got them nywy." He replces the two little figures with infinite tenderness.