SANTA BARBARA -- A sea of cameras flashed as Oscar-nominated stars Daniel Day-Lewis and Sally Field strolled down the red carpet at the Santa Barbara International Film Festival.
Among the dozens of photographers vying for a shot of the celebrities was Merced's own Nickole Aaron, 39.
"It's so exciting and thrilling," she said. "It's competitive and it gets crowded. The professional photographers really want their money shot."
Getting up close and personal with the A-listers wasn't the only highlight of Aaron's trip to the annual festival.
"The exciting part was being able to sit and watch the films," said the self-professed movie buff. A photographer since 1987, Aaron is now writing her own screenplay -- a drama about a teenage girl being bullied in middle school.
Aaron got to see four films, including her favorite -- "Buzkashi Boys" -- an Afghan movie nominated for Best Short Film at this year's Academy Awards.
This was Aaron's second year attending the festival, which was held in January. In addition to meeting Day-Lewis and Field, Aaron saw other Oscar royalty such as Amy Adams, Jennifer Lawrence and Ben Affleck.
Aaron lined up two hours early to get up-close pictures and autographs of Day-Lewis and Field. She described both of them as "very sweet and down-to-earth people."
Field stopped to speak with a 4-year-old boy who was screaming "Hi, Sally" as she walked by. Aaron said she asked the boy if he was warm as he camped out in the chilly weather to catch a glimpse of the stars.
"It's nice to see them as real people, interacting with the fans," Aaron said.
Aaron plans to attend next year's film festival, but for now, she's getting ready to watch Sunday's Oscar telecast from home with her mom.
And she even has some Oscar predictions.
"I'm thinking it's probably going to be Jennifer Law- rence (best actress) because she won the Screen Actors Guild (Award)," Aaron said. "And for best actor, I can't help but root for Daniel."
Aaron predicts the trophy for best picture will go to "Argo" or "Lincoln," but hopes that "Beasts of the Southern Wild" wins because it's a "unique movie."
As she watches Day-Lewis and Field grace the red carpet at the award show on Sunday, Aaron won't ever forget her experience.
"I admire people that have a passion for what they do," she said. "They're about the work -- not just collecting the money."
Reporter Ramona Giwargis can be reached at (209) 385-2477 or email@example.com.