A clutch of major UK animation features are cranking up, most with US Studio backing.
Aardman aims to start shooting a new spoof-horror Wallace And Gromit movie with backing from DreamWorks SKG by September. Pathe is already in production on The Magic Roundabout, while Walt Disney Co has North America and worldwide merchandising rights on Ealing Studios' Valiant. Disney has also fast-tracked Rocket Pictures' CGI and live-action garden gnome love story Gnomeo And Juliet, this time taking worldwide rights. Additionally, Tim Burton is said to be shooting Warner Bros' stop-motion fairy tale The Corpse Bride in the UK.
A coincidence' Barnaby Thompson, who is producing Valiant with Shrek producer John Williams, argues that the falling cost of animation equipment has opened the door to such mainstream, family-friendly product for independents.
Just as importantly, Pixar Animation Studios' CGI hits such as Toy Story have proved animation can be made outside Disney's Magic Kingdom, albeit with Disney's financing and distribution.
"Since Pixar, in general, animation has come from a wider group of people," Thompson says. "Pixar has a very distinctive feel. Although it is distributed by Disney, it feels independent."
Others acknowledge Aardman's role in putting the UK on the global map with its first feature, Chicken Run, a worldwide hit for DreamWorks and Pathe. According to Pathe UK deputy chief Cameron McCracken, French animation company Films Action looked for a UK partner on The Magic Roundabout partly because of Aardman. Films Action is now working with Bolexbrothers, Bristol's second animation studio, at its Marseilles studio on the CGI production.
Despite such developments, the animation sector as a whole is hardly booming. The commercials business, traditionally a bedrock, is down, while animators bemoan the lack of investment from broadcasters. Many are also being undercut by overseas competition - The Simpsons is farmed out to South Korea. Even Aardman, the UK's leading animation house, admits to short-term cash-flow problems after investing more than $1.6m (£1m) in production and facilities over the last 12 months.
All of which makes the current crop of features all the more remarkable. The UK is far from alone in having a strong animation tradition - Japan's Spirited Away was this week nominated for an Academy Award. But most internationally-produced animation films have disappeared without trace outside their home markets.
Undaunted, the latest UK features stand out not only in terms of their international ambitions; they also represent bids to build sustainable businesses not wholly reliant on US coin. Valiant will be the first film to use Ealing's new animation studio, which Thompson owns as part of a consortium. The $40million CGI story of WW2 carrier pigeons will occupy the facility for no less than 18 months. Like The Magic Roundabout, the film is likely to employ French as well as UK animators, highlighting the importance of European talent in UK animation productions.
Pathe sees The Magic Roundabout as nothing less than the start of a franchise. The original TV series has a massive following in the UK and France, but is largely unknown in the US. But Pathe is so convinced of the property's commercial potential, it is majority financing the production - a rare move for the cautious French major. Pathe will handle UK and French distribution, but the only pre-sale is to French broadcaster France 2.
"There is huge market awareness," says McCracken. "We are looking at a franchise - sequels, prequels, TV series, spin-offs."
While Nick Park's Wallace And Gromit movie falls into Aardman's five picture deal with DreamWorks, it has a special arrangement. DreamWorks equity finances other Aardman pictures, but Wallace And Gromit is effectively a negative pick-up cash-flowed by a bank. Aardman retains its ownership of the well-established characters, an eccentric inventor and his long-suffering hound, and will largely control merchandising.
"We will effectively recoup from first dollar gross rather than net profits," says Aardman co-founder David Sproxton. "The agreement is much more in our favour."
To put things in perspective, a $50m feature can easily double Aardman's annual turnover of roughly $16m-$24m. Crucial to building an ongoing film operation, Aardman now has three films lined up - Wallace And Gromit, Flushed Away and The Tortoise And The Hare. Sproxton learnt a tough lesson when Tortoise stalled after Aardman tried to rush it through only three months after Chicken Run. By the time Aardman and DreamWorks pulled the plug, up to eight minutes were shot of the $40 million production.
"Because we were working on Chicken Run, we weren't developing another one behind it," Sproxton says. "The biggest risk is going to be after the first movie."