Plano West creative duo excel at SkillsUSA
Photos: Courtesy
Plano West High School juniors Marcelo Szperling, left, and Joshua Birenbaum competed and won a silver medal in Digital Cinema Production at the SkillsUSA State Competition, April 3-6, in Corpus Christi. Eleven days later, the gold medal team was disqualified, thus giving Birenbaum and Szperling the gold medal. Because Birenbaum is competing in Pin Design at Nationals, Szperling will now have to find a new teammate as he prepares to compete at Nationals, in Digital Cinema Production.

By Michael Sudhalter

Joshua Birenbaum didn’t want to go to the SkillsUSA National competition without his best friend.

Birenbaum and Marcelo Szperling are 17-year-old Plano West High School juniors with a knack for digital creativity.

From April 3-6, Birenbaum won a Gold Medal in Pin Design at the SkillsUSA State Competition in Corpus Christi, and teamed up with Szperling for a Silver Medal in Digital Cinema Production.

Only gold medalists advance to the national competition, which will be held June 24-28 in Atlanta.

Fast forward 11 days past the competition. The Digital Cinema gold medalist team was disqualified, and Birenbaum and Szperling are the gold medal recipients.

Their accomplishment is bittersweet, as students can only compete in a single category at nationals. Birenbaum chose to stay with Pin Design, but now Szperling qualifies for nationals. He’ll find another classmate as a teammate in Digital Cinema.

“It’s really, really awesome,” Birenbaum said. “As an artist, it’s important to get your work out there and  let the world know you’re here. I get to bring my art to represent an entire state and then compete against all of the winners from their respective states as well. It’s a special occasion for me and a huge step in my career as an artist.”

Szperling is grateful to be Atlanta-bound, after initially thinking his season had ended in Corpus Christi.

“I couldn’t describe the pride and joy I feel,” Szperling said. “Qualifying for state (in itself) made me so unbelievably excited seeing our hard work get recognized, but to now have come this far with all of the work we put in and the things we’ve gone through makes me feel nothing but endless excitement.”

SkillsUSA is the No. 1 Workforce Development Organization for Students, with contests ranging from welding to culinary arts and everything in between.

There are 21,792 SkillsUSA members in Texas, about one-third of whom registered for the State competition in Corpus Christi.

According to SkillsUSA, there will be a total of 16,000 students, teachers and partners at Nationals in various categories.

Best friends and teammates

Birenbaum and Szperling have been inseparable since Szperling moved to Plano from Sao Paulo, Brazil eight years ago.

As third graders at Brinker Elementary School, they would make short films in their free time.

“It was our attempt at comedy with our third-grade minds,” Szperling said.

Birenbaum moved to Tokyo in middle school, but the friends picked up where they left off when they reunited as eighth graders at Renner Middle School.

They both had their bar mitzvah at Congregation Anshai Torah in Plano. Birenbaum is the son of Todd and Lisa Birenbaum; Szperling is the son of Ricardo and Carla Szperling.

Their dedication to creativity was on display this year.  At the District Competition in Wylie, they won a gold medal in Digital Cinema Production, and Birenbaum won a gold medal in Pin Design. 

Birenbaum and Szperling were first introduced to SkillsUSA, by their Audio Visual (A/V) teacher Sarah Mateo.

“She said ‘you guys should join — I think you would like it,’” Birenbaum said.

Over the years, the duo graduated from software programs iMovie to Final Cut Pro to Adobe Premiere Pro,  which they currently use.

Szperling said they had a concept in mind for the district competition. In both films, they recruited friends as the on-screen talent.

“We thought, ‘what if we did a skit with two roommates and a button appeared before them,” Szperling said. “Then, we’d see what hijinks would ensue.”

They received the prompt for the movie, which had to be between 90 seconds and three minutes.

“We only had the weekend to film it,” Birenbaum said. “Everything fell perfectly into place. I really like editing. The deadline was midnight on Sunday, and I was at Marcelo’s house until 10 p.m. editing.”

With their gold medal in hand from “The Button,” Birenbaum and Szperling made plans for State. Although both have lived abroad, neither had traveled to the city that Texans like to call “The Sparkling City by the Sea.”

But there would be no swimming or fishing in Corpus Christi Bay on this excursion; it was a business trip.

“We wanted to come up with a broad idea that could be turned into anything,” Birenbaum said of the 3.5-to-5-minute film assignment. “The day we received our prompt, we learned that the genre was an invitation movie, like “Charlie and The Chocolate Factory.” It was a horror and suspense film called “You’re Invited.”’

Even with their success this year, the friends are uncertain if they’ll be able to duplicate that success next spring.

To participate in SkillsUSA, they’ll have to be enrolled in the Audio/Visual 2 Class at Plano West High School. 

“We are taking a lot of Advanced Placement (AP) art courses, and our schedules will be jam-packed with two-hour block classes,” Birenbaum said.

Future plans

Birenbaum and Szperling attended the Interlochen Arts Camp last summer in northern Michigan.

“It was a three-week camp, and the final project was to make a one-minute short film,” Birenbaum said. “The film was fully animated. We did the storyboard, writing and editing.”

Birenbaum’s favorite films are “Across The Spider-Verse,” “Deadpoo” and “Ready Player One,”  while Szperling has an affinity for “Everything Everywhere All At Once.”

Although the friends enjoy filmmaking, they’re not sure if that will be their specific career.

“SkillsUSA helped me with my two biggest passions, which are film and art,” said Birenbaum, who is considering “an art-based field” of character design or possibly the editing/film rout. He’s currently exploring college summer programs.

Szperling plans to pursue a career in animation. This summer, he will attend a 10-day program at Columbia University in New York City.

“I will live in the dorms and do animation, which I am really excited about,” Szperling said.

Wherever their respective careers take them, both Birenbaum and Szperling will always value their Jewish heritage.

“It’s definitely something special and something that brings my family together,” Birenbaum said. “It is very nice to be able to get together with family.”

Added Szperling, “(Most) of my family is back in Brazil. I appreciate having Judaism here and staying close with my family through Shabbat dinners and attending services. It’s good to keep ourselves united.”

Leave a Reply