MORRIS PARK — The night after Alba Garcia-Rivas learned that her former art student — a 23-year-old twin who was studying to become a special-education teacher — had died suddenly in her sleep, Garcia-Rivas lay awake in bed.
A scene played in a loop in her mind: the woman's identical twin staring into a mirror and seeing her sister.
Garcia-Rivas had an idea — what if the mirror were a portal that the twins could pass through to reunite?
A skilled fantasy-doll maker based in the east Bronx, whose Claymation film in graduate school earned her an invite to the Student Academy Awards, Garcia-Rivas resolved to build a stop-motion movie around the portal idea, which she couldn’t shake.
Less than a year later, Garcia-Rivas has written the script, built the set, designed the stop-motion puppets and launched an online campaign to raise the $20,000 she will need to begin production.
Perhaps most importantly, she has not only received the blessing of her former student’s sister, but also she has cast her as a motion actor who will play out the story of a heartbroken twin who travels through space and time to rejoin her sister.
“It’s another kind of therapy for me,” said Katherine Gómez, 24. “I prefer to do that more than anything else.”
Katherine and Emely Gómez were born eight minutes apart. After that, they rarely separated.
When they started at Lehman College a few years ago, the sisters rode the same early-morning bus together, even if one had no classes until the afternoon. They always met for lunch.
When Emely’s fiancé, a Lehman alum, proposed to her on campus, he disguised the event as one of Katherine’s art projects so that she could be there to witness it.
Meanwhile, Emely kept busy.
As a Lehman graduate student, she studied special education, took a job at the college health center and worked as a teacher’s assistant at a special-needs school. In her spare time, she got certified as a fitness instructor, made ceramics and trained to become a church dancer.
“We think the reason she was doing a lot was because her inner consciousness knew that her clock was ticking,” Gómez said.
Starting about three years ago, Emely began to suffer seizures in her sleep. After she went on medication, they mostly went away.
Then, last November 9, after many months without incident, Emely had a seizure while she slept. She never awoke.
Nine months later, Gómez thinks she may still be in shock.
To cope, she has made her sister and her the focus of each of her graduate school art projects. In one video, she used a green screen to record two of her selves, who transform into twin specks of light.
Still, she feels like part of her body is missing. She continues to say “we” when she means “I.”
“It’s like I’m walking in a dream,” she said. “I’ll never get used to it.”
Early this year, just a couple months after Emely’s death, Gómez received a call from her middle-school art teacher, Garcia-Rivas, in whose home animation studio Gómez had interned as a budding college art student.
Garcia-Rivas explained that she hoped to make a silent, stop-motion-animated film inspired by the twins.
In it, an inventor builds a machine to help her deal with the death of her twin sister.
The machine creates a space-time portal, which reveals a woman in the distant past who appears identical to the deceased sister. The inventor wants to cross through the portal to meet this woman — but nothing can pass through the portal alive.
Gómez visited Garcia-Rivas’s basement studio to see the 300-page storyboard. As both women cried, Gómez agreed to participate.
“We are grieving together on this film,” Garcia-Rivas said. “And we are rejoicing over a beautiful life that [Emely] lived.”
Stop-motion filmmaking is a painstaking process.
Garcia-Rivas estimates that she will need to create about 500 separate faces with unique expressions for the pair of 10-inch puppets. Every two faces will take about four hours to generate on her home 3D printer.
Once filming begins, a full day of production will yield some five seconds of action. The final film will be about 10-minutes long.
Still, Garcia-Rivas and her husband, fellow artist Julio Garay, will keep their day jobs as graphic designers for the Department of Justice in Manhattan. They plan to film every night, weekend and vacation day, with their 6-year-old daughter by their side.
Garcia-Rivas wants to hire a professional film editor and a composer, as well as production assistants who can keep recording while she is at work.
For those costs, as well as other equipment and production materials, she hopes to raise $20,000 on Kickstarter by September 12. So far, 16 funders have pledged $1,614.
Garcia-Rivas considers the film something of a second chance.
Her senior thesis at Manhattan’s School of Visual Arts — a short stop-motion adaptation of Oscar Wilde’s “The Happy Prince” that took more than year to produce — drew praise from Disney animators and led to a Student Academy Award invite.
But, deep in student debt, Garcia-Rivas couldn’t afford a plane ticket to the event.
Now, she is determined to produce this latest film and enter it into international festivals. To draw attention to her fundraising campaign, she has been handing out homemade flyers around her neighborhood and in Times Square.
“I want my daughter to learn that when you want something, you go out and get it,” Garcia-Rivas said.
Meanwhile, Gómez has been acting out scenes from the storyboard in front of a camera in her bedroom. The videos will serve as a blueprint for the puppets’ movements.
Almost every night, Gómez finds Emely waiting for her in her dreams. The sisters rarely speak then; they simply look at each other and smile.
“My dreams,” Gómez explained, “are my portal.”