Fresh success for British film as home skills lead new wave of Hollywood animators

Hi-tech special effects and feature-length cartoons have long been produced by just one or two companies in Hollywood. Paul McCann, Media Correspondent, finds some new players looking to create magic.

The British film industry to take on the might of Star Wars director George Lucas' with the biggest special effects studio in Europe while in Hollywood Stephen Spielberg is launching an animation studio to challenge Disney's dominance.

PolyGram, the Dutch entertainment company which made Trainspotting, is planning to create a special effects company based in Britain that can handle the demands of the growing number of Hollywood movies being made here. It will compete for business with Lucas' famous special effects company Industrial Light & Magic and is likely to be based at one of the big studios at Pinewood, Shepperton or the newly opened studios at Leavesden in Hertfordshire.

The company is being formed first to create effects for Thunderbirds, PolyGram's forthcoming live-action film based on the children's animated TV series. Thunderbirds has a planned budget of pounds 40m and is forecast to be one of the most expensive UK films ever made. This means it will need better effects than the visible-wires of Gerry Anderson's `Supermarionation' that was used for the Sixties series. Previously there has been no effects company in the UK capable of supplying the scale of effects needed for the film - although PolyGram films such as The Borrowers have used some British expertise.

Over half of all Hollywood films now made contain computer-generated animation or digital effects such as morphing and PolyGram wants its new unit to be able to handle demand from the increasing number of UK and US productions who use British facilities and craftsmen to make films. As well as the extra capacity at the new Leavesden studio, Shepperton and Pinewood have expanded to meeting demand for British studio facilities

Industrial Light & Magic itself grew out of the special effects team brought together by George Lucas to create the effects for Star Wars in 1975.

Its greatest innovation has been computer generated animation, a technique that allowed images to be conjured out of nothing or real images to be manipulated at will, most famously when Arnold Schwarzenegger was turned into a liquid-metal robot in Terminator 2. Industrial Light & Magic's computer generation was hived off into a separate company, Pixar, which made the Disney film Toy Story.

Now more traditional animation is being planned by Disney's former chairman Jeffrey Katzenberg and Stephen Spielberg, his partner in Hollywood's newest studio, Dreamworks SKG.

Dreamworks is investing millions in its own animation studio and its first project will be a feature-length version of the life of Moses.

The pounds 38m film, The Prince of Egypt, is being made by many former Disney animators brought over to Dreamworks by Katzenberg. The film, which will be targeted at adults and older children, will feature the voices of actors such as Ralph Fiennes as the Pharaoh Ramses and Helen Mirren as the Pharaoh Queen.

It is planned to be the first of a series of feature-length cartoons from Dreamworks which had a disappointing start with its first film, Mouse Hunt, which took just $45m in the US.

A Dreamworks spokesman said its animated films would be more serious than those from Disney: "There will be no anthropomorphic singing urns or any of that rubbish," he said. "There will also be no tie-ins with burger restaurants."