The UK's Aardman Animation (Chicken Run) has started production on its latest clay-animation feature project, The Curse Of The Wererabbit.

Rumoured to cost $50m, the Dreamworks SKG financed feature will take 18 months to shoot and is set for a September 2005 release. 180 people are currently working on the film at Aardman's Bristol headquarters; this is expected to rise to 220 over the course of the shoot.

The Curse Of The Wererabbit is co-directed by Nick Park and Steve Box, and is based on Aardman's popular Wallace and Gromit characters. It will be the first Wallace and Gromit feature film.

The story begins just days before a giant vegetable growing competition, when prize vegetables are being ravaged by a terrifying and mysterious beast. With all hopes resting on Wallace and Gromit new pest control business - Anti-Pesto - to save the town, the duo confront their greatest challenge yet.

Helena Bonham-Carter and Ralph Fiennes will lend their voices to the feature. Bonham-Carter plays 'eco-toff' Lady Tottington, while Fiennes is Lord Victor Quartermain, a proud, pompous yet debonair bachelor. Several other high profile names are set to be announced for the feature, but contracts have yet to be signed off.

The Curse Of The Wererabbit has been in development at Aardman for the past two and a half years.

It will be the second feature to emerge from Aardman's five picture deal with Dreamworks. The first, Chicken Run, took $214m worldwide at the box office.

Aardman'sTortoise vs Hare was set to be the second film to emerge from the Dreamworks deal - but it went back into development when script problems emerged soon after shooting began in 2000.

Tortoise vs Hare is now expected to be the third film to come from Aardman's Dreamworks deal.