By Jesse Tellez/El Inde
Alexandra Cerna was eager to pack her 16mm film camera and venture from her home in Tucson to the rolling fields of yellow grass and cottonwood trees that surround the 144 year-old Empire Ranch near Sonoita, Arizona. The historic ranch off State Route 83, with its rusted tin-roofed barns and old-fashioned windmill, was to be her headquarters for a weekend in early November as she and her crew started filming “Treasures Beneath My Tree.”
Production for the short film came to a stand-still, however, when Cerna was notified that a member of her Los Angeles-based film crew tested positive for COVID-19.
“One of them got COVID and they’re all roommates so my set got canceled … Again!” Cerna, a senior at the University of Arizona, said. The first time was in March, while Cerna was working on her junior year film.
Filming dates for “Treasures Beneath My Tree” were pushed back after Thanksgiving, adding to the list of ways the COVID-19 has impacted Cerna’s school year as one of fifteen seniors in the BFA film program. Cerna wrote her script last semester before the pandemic hit and had to cancel filming. “Treasures Beneath My Tree” is the revamped version of the ill-fated short film.
“I already had all (the) cast and crew and everything set and then we literally were not allowed back at school,” Cerna said, “We physically couldn’t be around each other so our sets just got canceled and now we are creating our senior films.”
Cerna said the basis of “The Sound of Trees,” which follows a young girl who is able to see her deceased sibling when she visits a tree, came to her in a dream. She did not want to give up on the project, so she incorporated parts of the plot into her senior film.
“I’m still using the same actress and everything, but I wrote a new script and it’s going to be shot in a different location but it still has the same feeling and overall message to it,” Cerna said of “Treasures Beneath My Tree.”
In a pre-pandemic world, the public would fill the seats of The Loft Cinema each May to watch the fictional shorts created by undergraduate filmmakers like Cerna at the UA’s School of Theatre, Film & Television’s annual “Magic Hour” screening. This May, Cerna and classmates instead live-streamed the films they made while quarantining on the school’s website. With “The Sound of Trees” put on the back burner, Cerna debuted a more personal film, “Closer To You,” at the virtual Magic Hour.
After the death of her aunt in March, Cerna made “Closer To You” to symbolize how it feels to lose a loved one. Filming it at home with the help of her brother, Cerna created what is now one of her favorite projects.
Dressed in a white gown with flowing blue butterfly wings attached, Cerna can be seen in “Closer To You” as the camera descends toward her, laying in a field of navy blue. The aerial shot was made possible by filming with a drone, which she was excited to include in her at-home film, along with other new techniques.
“When we shot underwater I used a fish tank, I put a camera inside of a fish tank and dunked it halfway under the pool, so we got really creative with it,” Cerna said.
The young artist, who recently turned 22, spent the summer at her family home in Scottsdale with her parents and three siblings, often creating videos for her YouTube channel or trying out her new holographic roller skates. In late June, Cerna and her older sister Marie began experiencing flu-like symptoms, such as body chills and fevers. They had contracted COVID-19, as did their brother David, who was asymptomatic.
“We didn’t want to get my parents sick and we all live in the same house and three of us had it out of six so we stayed in our rooms for so long. We would walk around the house but with masks,” Cerna said.
The three sick siblings spent time together skating, imbibing, and keeping themselves occupied while isolating from their parents and youngest brother, who steered clear of getting the virus.
Come August, Cerna’s battle with COVID was over and she returned to Tucson to begin her senior year, with the majority of university courses still conducted online. Alongside her classmates, she returned to the drawing board for their senior thesis films, which they will premiere at the school’s “I Dream in Widescreen” event next spring. The film showing, normally held at the historic Fox Tucson Theatre downtown, is set to be turned into a drive-in theater experience.
“[A drive-in screening] would adhere to the guidelines of the CDC, but also we could kind of celebrate together ’cause it’s a pretty big deal in our program. It’s kind of almost as important as graduation, if not more so, just because it’s all you work up to in the program,” Kirstyn Kubicki, Cerna’s classmate and fellow UA senior, said.
Kubicki’s film that will premiere at the event, “In Loving Memory,” is about a woman recounting her childhood with her late mother and touches on how people eulogize loved ones in spite of painful memories.
The mother and daughter in the film will be portrayed by a real life mother-daughter duo instead of two strangers, as Kubicki had to find ways to keep people safe while interacting on set. As she wrote the script for “In Loving Memory,” Kubicki kept in mind that she would have to keep the cast limited to one or two characters and use one central filming location, a house rented via Airbnb.
When a member of Kubicki’s film crew discovered he had contracted COVID-19 in early November, Kubicki quickly hired someone new and required medical testing for the cast and crew before returning to set the following week, in addition to the preexisting face mask and social distancing rules. Despite the hurdles, Kubicki is excited to finally film and start editing the film due next semester, with safety at the top of her responsibilities as the film’s creator.
“There’s all these little things that you can do to kind of still have control over your story but also adhere to what is happening in the real world,” Kubicki said.
Cerna also prepared her set for “Treasures Beneath My Tree” in accordance with COVID-19 safety guidelines, which required filming actors from at least six feet away and limiting how many people could work on set. According to Cerna, the outdoor “oasis” at Empire Ranch, nestled in the Las Cienegas National Conservation Area, provided for better ventilation and space to social distance. The quiet, rustic property also happened to fit the film’s dreamy mood.
“The movie is really supposed to feel surreal and calm and nature-driven, so it’s like a perfect spot,” Cerna said.
The film’s abstract, music video-esque style that contains no dialogue is one Cerna is familiar with, as she has a passion for making videos, typically under five minutes long, that rely on visual elements and sound. “Treasures Beneath My Tree” will feature an original score by Tucson musician Twillian Ün Pomp, aka Freeze-Dried Freq, to create a “cool electronic, dreamy feel” that Cerna likened to the ‘80s synth music from the show “Stranger Things.”
Although filming has been postponed for Cerna, she remains optimistic about the end result and values the extra time she has received for the film.
“[The COVID-related delay] honestly was a blessing in disguise because more pre-production is always good, so now I can just work on perfecting it even more,” Cerna said. “I just had to look at it in a good way because I was like, ‘I can’t constantly be disappointed.’”
Professor Jacob Bricca, who teaches the senior capstone film production class, says Cerna and her cohort have had a uniquely challenging semester due to the pandemic. Nearly all of their junior year films were scrapped last March when the UA’s campus shut down, limiting the amount of on-set experience these students had coming into their senior year.
“Not only are they trying to do this in a pandemic, but they’re trying to do this in a pandemic having had less experience,” Bricca said.
Key parts of filmmaking, such as finding locations to shoot, have also become more difficult for students this year, but Bricca says they are finding ways to adapt and keep their cameras rolling.
“I think everything is harder this year, there’s just no other way around it, but in general, I think [the students’] attitude has been, you know, ‘If we can find a way to at least do it, we’re happier trying to do it under adverse circumstances than just cancelling it,’” Bricca said.
With the spring semester still to come, Bricca says he hopes the seniors will be able to bring their artistic visions to life in the way they want, gain experience in the quick problem solving that comes with making films, and foster a sense of community with each other and those they connect with while making these films.
As Cerna’s final months before graduation approach, her artistic vision for “Treasures Beneath My Tree” continues to unfold.
Next May, as audiences drive up to the silver screen to watch scenes of a young girl transported to a dreamscape of shimmering lights and music as she relives memories associated with trinkets from a treasure chest, Cerna hopes they are reminded of an important message: to never let go of your inner child.