You won't see two of Britain's most popular stars among the glittering throng of Hollywood contenders at the Oscars ceremony tonight, but Wallace and Gromit will be represented by Nick Park, the animator who created these much-loved Plasticine characters. Winning the category of Best Animated Short with A Close Shave, would be a hat-trick for Park, as he already has two of those golden statuettes - but at least he won't be competing against himself, as he did in 1992 when his film school graduation piece, A Grand Day Out, vied with his first Channel-4 financed short, Creature Comforts, for the award. Two years later, another outing for that man and his dog, The Wrong Trousers, won again.
The appeal of Wallace and Gromit is doubtless linked to the cosy, nostalgic "forever England" atmosphere they evoke, and the ingenious mechanical solutions provided by eccentric inventor Wallace's long-suffering canine sidekick Gromit. Strong story-lines and characters, along with technical virtuosity, have made these films popular with audiences here and abroad, perhaps for the novelty of seeing them in animated form.
But the success of British animation isn't confined to Nick Park alone. Over the past decade British animation has won the lion's share of all prizes at every major festival for animated film the world over. The prestigious Cartoon d'Or, a prize for Best European Animated Film, has gone to British films almost every year since it began in 1990: the one exception was a film made in France (by a British animator).
British animated short films have won such a strong international reputation because of their astonishing range and diversity, both in technique and subject matter. They have long since gone beyond the old distinction between "cartoons for kiddies" and "animation as art" - the latter an allegorical fable, usually concerned with man's inhumanity to man. Instead, British animation has pioneered the concept of animation for adult audiences, which has become a crucial part of its appeal - and its impact.
Drawing from the experimental approach of art-college education, young animators have been making films on hitherto unlikely subjects - including incestuous abuse, autism, sexual relationships and UFO experiences - while the expressive potential of animation has led them to new techniques and materials.
Channel 4 was the catalyst for the animation explosion. Jeremy Isaacs, the channel's first chief executive, seeing that a remit to encourage minority viewing could extend beyond shocking soaps, hobby programming and hitherto unknown forms of sport, established the first commissioning editor for animation, to finance short, personal films. The striking number of award-winning films that emerged via Channel 4 created a critical mass of exciting work that has attracted many aspiring animators.
Many animators mix their own short film-making with more lucrative work on commercials. High-budget TV ads can also provide subsidised R&D: new techniques, expensive computer facilities can be tried out, and the experience fed back into more personal work. And sometimes it works in reverse: Creature Comforts led to a popular TV ad campaign (those cute zoo animals talking about electricity), and is just one of many short films that have inspired commercials. Animators in Britain also have opportunities to work on title sequences, rock videos, computer games, and now multi-media computer technologies (such as those in Jurassic Park) which blur the lines between what is "real" film-making and what is animation.
Channel 4 continues to pioneer. The cult animated sitcom Crapston Villas, shocked many with its ribald dissection of bed-sit life and it will shortly be followed by an animated soap opera. Yet this success is vulnerable, for Channel 4 and the other broadcasters do not seem to be able to come up with scheduling strategies to maximise the adult audience that exists for animation. Also, the BBC needs to invest in new talent, and recognise the importance of the short form to the development of that talent, not just rely on a Nick Park franchise. And the Government must protect the art school budgets where cuts threaten to stop the flow of young innovators.
In the wake of Disney's resurgence, and the realisation that adults will pay to see animated features, all the major Hollywood studios are desperately bidding against each other for scarce talent - and recruiting heavily in the UK. It would be a shame if British animation skills became simply part of the special-effects sector that has long serviced the Hollywood film industry.
Media coverage has largely ignored animation, the one consistent success story of the British film industry, and instead has focused on the hand- wringing and dire threats of doom and destruction that come from the lobby for feature films. It might be best to play to our strengths. Perhaps the recent parliamentary motion calling for recognition of animation, in all its aspects, as a popular art-form will prompt the Lottery to fund the development of animation as part of our unique national heritage.
The writer is the organiser of the British Animation Awards.
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