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Last Updated: Tuesday, 27 March 2007, 07:33 GMT 08:33 UK
Inventors in the frame
Wallace and Gromit images
Inventors' blueprint: The creative powerhouse hired by the Patent Office

By Sean Coughlan
BBC News education

"Britain's foremost inventors", Wallace and Gromit, are spearheading a Patent Office project to encourage young inventors.

When Oscar-winning animator, Nick Park, was eight years old he'd already decided on his career.

"I really wanted to be an inventor," he says. Inspired by film versions of stories by HG Wells and Jules Verne, he says he planned "to build a time machine and visit the dinosaurs".

Nick Park
Nick Park says that he always wanted to be an inventor

And by way of practical preparation for such an ambitious project, he kept a "Box of Useful Things" under his bed.

"I collected bits of old toys, electric motors, clockwork things, mainly broken bits and pieces. I don't think I ever used any of them."

If this all begins to sound like the slippers and surrealism world of his most-famous creations - Wallace and Gromit - he says that this is no coincidence.

Nick Park finds such imaginative tinkering irresistible - and even when not making films he says he's likely to be in a corner with his sketchpad coming up with ideas for Wallace to invent.

'Cracking ideas'

This passion for invention is being harnessed by the Patent Office - for a project to promote creativity and inventiveness in primary schools.

Wallace and Gromit invention
One man and his dogged pursuit of an idea

Wallace and Gromit, described by the Patent Office as "Britain's foremost inventors", are spearheading the Cracking Ideas initiative, which will invite youngsters to come up with their own inventions.

Wallace, the creator of automated trousers and elaborate knitting machines, follows in the long tradition of "eccentric inventors", says Mr Park.

It's also part of his own family story. He says that it was only after making A Grand Day Out that "I suddenly realised that I'd made a film about my dad".

"He liked to build things - like a shed or a caravan. He had the attitude 'Why buy it when you can make it?'"

This inventiveness also reflects a rather obsessive attention to detail. Mr Park says he has designed his first board game, featuring Shaun the Sheep and a sheep-rustling story, but it's taken him 10 years to make it.

"That makes me a bit of an eccentric, doesn't it? It took me ages to think up the mechanism. The best board games are very well worked out and also very simple."

Animators might only generate two seconds of film each day - and the first Wallace and Gromit film took seven years to create, he says, so much so that "making the films themselves is a bit like being a mad inventor".

"With anything creative, you get fired up and absorbed by the idea - the invention takes over the inventor."

Creative control

It also requires a "single-minded and stubborn" streak to make sure that the original vision is kept intact.

Big budgets and Oscar-sized expectations can make this even tougher - and he says that the ending of production company Aardman's partnership with the US studio, Dreamworks, should make it easier to stay in "creative control".

His current project is another Wallace and Gromit short film, (he says he's not sure if it'll be for television or cinema), with an expected release date at the end of next year.

The model motorbike and development sketches from A Close Shave

This will use his trademark plasticine modelling rather than computer generated images - and he says "we don't mind the fingerprints, it has its own charm". The downside of the sleekly-designed computer images, he says, is that "it can look like the characters are wearing rubber masks".

With such well-established figures as Wallace and Gromit, he says the real challenge is to guard against becoming predictable.

"It's something that's on my mind, I have to constantly challenge myself to keep a sense of originality all the time," he says.

The Patent Office project for primary schools also includes a competition - with schools being invited to send in their best inventions - with the winner to be turned into a model by the Aardman studios.

There is a serious side to the project, says the Patent Office's Miles Rees.

There has been much talk about the struggle to get youngsters interested in science - and he hopes that this will help young children to think creatively about innovation.

It will also show them the need to protect ideas - and he says there have been cases where young people have come up with brainwaves, which have then be swept up by commercial operators. Any decent ideas will be patented, he says.

In terms of what to expect, Mr Rees says an early suggestion has been for a purpose-built ladder for spiders to get out of the bath.

What would Wallace come up with? "Probably something like a solar-powered torch. You know, something that wouldn't actually work at night time," says Mr Park.

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