Whirling through art history by sliding down bright blue flowers in a Henri Rousseau landscape and gliding through Salvador Dali’s masterpieces may seem like an unfathomable journey. But to filmmaker Josh Kapusinski, it’s an odyssey that began in mid-Michigan, traveled “across the pond” and has come full circle to this year’s East Lansing Film Festival.
[flower] Twenty-four-year-old Mason, Mich. native Kapusinski became interested in visual arts as a broadcast cable production major at Western Michigan University, and after spending a year of his undergraduate career studying at the University of Leicester in England, he fell in love with the country. Following graduation from WMU in 2002 he headed back to the United Kingdom to pursue a master’s degree in media production at the University of Sunderland.
“I think it’s really cool to inspire people visually,” Kapusinski said. “It’s a way of giving back, and I think that’s fun.”
Last year Kapusinski and his fellow film students began outlining their graduation film projects and deciding how to make them happen. Kapusinksi sought to create life within a still image, but neither he, nor his film partner Tian Qian, were quite sure how they were going to do it. By the time they met with their advising professor they had narrowed down their ideas to one concept, but when they pitched it, he wasn’t exactly impressed. He promptly asked for a “Plan B” and off-the-cuff, Kapusinski introduced an idea he and Qian had only toyed with, the concept played out in the imagination of a young girl who gets caught up in various pieces of classic art at a museum. Fortunately the professor loved the idea and “Penny’s Crossing” was born.
Since its initial pitch, the nine-minute film has garnered acclaim in small circles throughout the world. After its completion last summer, “Penny’s Crossing” has been accepted to the Beijing Film Academy Film Festival in Qian’s native China as well as domestic film festivals such as the New York Short Film Festival, the New York Get Shorty Film Showcase and of course the East Lansing Film Festival.
“Penny’s Crossing” will be featured in the student film contest beginning at 4:30 p.m. on Sunday, April 3, in Theater D in Wells Hall. A total of ten short student films from Michigan, Indiana, Illinois and Wisconsin students will be shown in the 108-minute program the directors are scheduled to attend. The films range in genre from documentaries to comedies but all should prove to be entertaining and eye-opening.
“I thought the student work that was submitted was among the best of all the submissions this year. I kept having to go back to my notes and really confirm what I was watching was indeed a student film,” Erin Kay Burke, Lake Michigan Film Competition Program Director said. “Time after time, I was surprised and delighted by the student work, and I hope to continue seeing such quality from the ‘future of film.'”
[clock] “Penny’s Crossing” tells the story of a 10-year-old girl who becomes enthralled with the exhibits on her visit to an art museum, and her daydreams land inside the paintings. Penny starts her journey with the romanticism of Henri Rousseau and travels through Salvador Dali’s surrealist visions (mixed with some Andy Warhol’s pop art) before ending in Wassily Kandinsky’s geometric montage of abstract expressionism. Along the way she floats on music notes, wanders past melting clocks and hops through a checkerboard into whirling circles and whizzing squares on her tour of the more than 100 paintings used to construct the film.
“I just thought this was a very unique way to tell a story and visually engaging to the spectator; to involve the audience with the art on such a visceral level was mesmerizing to me,” Burke said.
To create the story, filmmakers shot Charlotte Eleanor Bell, as Penny, in stills on a chroma-key “green screen” with a digital camera. They then painstakingly cut her (and her trademark umbrella) out, superimposed the images on the canvases and brought her to life in the classic paintings. Next, little elements of each painting were also animated to bring the whole concept together. Kapusinski explained this was naturally the most difficult part of the entire process, but it was also the most exciting. Although tedious, both Kapusinski and Qian specialize in editing and were actually enthusiastic about having so much post-production work to do. The pair knew what they wanted to animate and how they wanted each scene to look, and the multitude of ideas and small details translated into hundreds of hours in front the computer with editing software.
But Kapusinki still believes coming up with the initial idea, writing the story and shooting the scenes, was harder than the editing. “It was like a post-production explosion,” Kapusinski said. “We just wanted to skip everything else and get to the editing.”
As with any such project, there are bound to be setbacks along the way and Kapusinki and Qian were not immune to slip-ups. The filmmaker jokingly tells the story of how he and Qian envisioned Penny with a unique umbrella and he was sure he found the perfect prop while shopping one day. However, when he brought the transparent polka dot umbrella to the studio it was a few takes before either of them realized the green screen was visible through the clear plastic. Luckily, Bell had brought her own slightly squared and vibrantly red umbrella to the set and it soon became a mainstay in the piece.
Now home from England, Kapusinski splits his time between working at a production company in Kalamazoo and marketing the film. Together, he and Qian compiled a teacher’s guide with suggested classroom activities and lesson plans to help guide discussions. He is also working on creating a pitch for educational networks like PBS, hoping the film may be the makings of a pilot for an “edutainment” series.
Although Kapusinksi admits he never saw himself making such “soft” films, he has really taken an interest in art in general, as well as art education, since the making of the film.
“I think it’s important to bring art education to young people in an entertaining way,” he said. “It’s exactly what is needed to bring change.”
For more information about the film, or to purchase the DVD and educator’s guides check out www.PennysCrossing.com. For movie times and locations for the East Lansing Film Festival and to look at other student film submissions, please visit www.ELFF.com.

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