ToonSeum exhibit focuses on Kensington Falls' sports-animation hits
You may not have heard of Kensington Falls Animation, but if you've attended a game of one of Pittsburgh's professional sports teams over the past 25 years or so, you've likely seen their work.
Now, the animation studio founded in New Kensington in 1979 (hence the name) is the subject of an exhibit at the ToonSeum, Downtown. Titled “Pittsburgh Scores! The Pro Scoreboard Art of Kensington Falls Animation,” it features original art, stills and final versions of animated spots seen on Jumbotrons at Pirates, Steelers and Penguins games, among other local sports teams.
“One of our first productions was the opening titles for a show on PBS called ‘Connections' back in 1979,” says studio co-founder Mike Schwab. “In the early '80s, we were producing syndicated commercials out of an advertising agency in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., that were distributed nationally.”
Over the years, the studio produced traditional character animation TV spots, educational and corporate animations, motion graphics and titles for the likes of Arthur Treacher's Fish & Chips, MTV, RentWay and Sears Family Dental Center, among many other companies locally and nationally.
One of the studio's early local successes was the “Kennywood Laser Loop TV Spot,” designed by Robert Griffing of Marc & Co. Advertising Agency. It achieved the studio's first Telly Award for Regional Animation Production in 1981.
By 1984, after moving to Ambridge in 1982, the studio started to produce sports animations for the Detroit Lions, Houston Astros, Ladbroke Racing, New York Yankees, and other sports-related franchises.
This exhibit focuses on the work they did for the Pittsburgh Maulers, Spirit, Penguins, Pirates and Steelers. It offers a mini-retrospective of sorts, at least in terms of its Pittsburgh sports-related output, starting with the Pittsburgh Maulers Football Club's scoreboard animation and TV spot tag, “Maulers Are Here” from 1984. It, along with the Pittsburgh Spirit Soccer Club's “Hot Legs Are Back — Spirit Soccer” scoreboard animation, became finalists at the 1984 International Film and TV Festival of New York.
After this initial success in scoreboard animation, the studio decided to approach the Pittsburgh Pirates with a traditionally themed pirate-ship animation simply called “The Pirate Ship.” Used for a Pirates' TV spot tag and scoreboard animation in 1986, it was the first of several scoreboard animations Kensington Falls would go on to produce for the next 24 years, such as the T-shirt toss, hot dog skits, bloopers, game openers, tour of the stadium, the three versions of the Pirate laugh, and rally animations, most notably the “Pirate Train” from 1989.
“It's something special to sit in a crowd of 50,000 fans of all ages screaming ‘Woo-Woooo!,' ” Schwab says of the rally animations like “Pirate Train,” which won them and the Pirates scoreboard team “Best of Show Presentation” at the 1991 I.D.E.A. Scoreboard Animation Conference.
One of the earliest original drawings on display is of a sequence from the Pittsburgh Penguins TV tag “The Eye of the Penguin.” In it, an anthropomorphic penguin is depicted skating down the ice, outskating opponents, checking one over his back and scoring. “We used the same hand-drawn character animation for three TV campaigns,” Schwab says.
Pirates fans will no doubt recognize the “Swashbuckling Pirate Game Opening Animation,” which features the traditional Swashbuckling Pirate wielding his sword. For Schwab, this one is special because he acted it out and developed the animation from his own live action, using it as a reference. “I completed most of the artwork, as well,” Schwab says.
Finally, “The Steeler Rally Ball” rounds out the Pittsburgh sports teams represented in the exhibit. Pointing to an original drawing of the ball that he drew himself, Schwab says, “I was responsible for most of the animation, artwork, bass playing, and the rebel yell, ‘Goooooooooooo!' ”
Even though he acted as the animator, producer, director and/or conductor in one aspect or another in all of the animations included in the exhibition, Schwab is quick to point out that most of the work hanging on the walls of the ToonSeum is the result of the labor of many talented artists that have worked with him over the years.
“Most of those talented artists went on to work at Disney, Warner Bros., Industrial Light and Magic, Blue Sky and several other major animation studios,” he says.
Looking back on all of the scoreboard animations Kensington Falls has produced, Schwab says, “I'm not sure that you should think of the animations as much ‘sports' as just entertainment.
“The whole purpose of any of our animations, whether rotoscoped (traced from live-action reference) or cartoon has been to entertain and, inform,” he says. “People like animation, and, therefore, it's a good source of entertainment. Most of the animations present characters that tell a story, and, in this case, the subject happened to be sports.
“I just feel that animation is just another way to present an idea and, when compared to live action, it gives an audience the opportunity to individually draw their own conclusions,” he says, to “fantasize as compared to seeing live action that has to be taken for its face value.”
Kurt Shaw is the art critic for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.