Aardman, the celebrated UK animation company which this weekend sees the US release of its first film Chicken Run, is planning a feature based around its popular characters Wallace and Gromit for release in 2004.

The Wallace and Gromit film will be produced after the next Aardman film The Tortoise And The Hare which is already in production under director Richard Goleszowski at the Aardman studios in Bristol.

Under a deal struck with DreamWorks SKG last October, the US studio will fully finance the next four films from Aardman including both The Tortoise And The Hare and the Wallace and Gromit movie. Aardman plans to have a film ready every two years which means The Tortoise And The Hare is scheduled for 2002 and Wallace And Gromit two years later.

Wallace and Gromit were first seen in Aardman's award-winning shorts A Grand Day Out (1989), The Wrong Trousers (1993) and A Close Shave (1995). Wallace is an inventor living in a suburban house with his brilliant, long-suffering dog Gromit.

Chicken Run producer/director Nick Park, who won Oscars for The Wrong Trousers and A Close Shave, said in Los Angeles last week that the characters were originally written in to make guest appearances in Chicken Run by screenwriter Karey Kirkpatrick. "We rejected the idea just because we felt we were in a different world here and we didn't want the audience to expect to see Wallace and Gromit later in the movie."

Park said he will "go away" to work on the script for the Wallace and Gromit feature while The Tortoise And The Hare is in production. Aardman chairman Peter Lord said that The Tortoise And The Hare, a new telling of Aesop's fable, is being made in mock-documentary style whereby the animal characters voice apparently real voice recordings.

Chicken Run opens wide across North America this weekend through DreamWorks SKG and in the UK on June 30 through Pathe, the French group which co-financed it.