Jeanette Hernandez still remembers the day Danny Hastings, then a third-grader at St. Francis-St. Stephen School, asked her what he needed to do in order to become a movie director.
"Not an actor, but a director, (which was) funny for a kid that age," recalled Hernandez, who teaches humanities, Spanish and art at the Geneva school.
Perhaps Hernandez remembers that moment so clearly because Danny, now 16, already has become an award-winning filmmaker. A junior at DeSales High School in Geneva, Danny has won four awards at the Finger Lakes Film Festival since its inception in 2008. What’s more, the first film he submitted to the festival — which won first place for his age group — was a project he’d created for Hernandez’s eighth-grade humanities class, and he submitted it to the festival upon his former teacher’s recommendation.
"I had no idea I was going to (win), so it was a surprise," Danny said.
Danny’s first win at the festival probably surprised him more than it surprised Hernandez, who’d known for several years that Danny possessed great talent.
"My nickname for him is Danny Spielberg," she said. "I sensed that some of the other adults who competed with him were impressed and maybe a little intimidated by his talent."
Danny’s talent really began to shine through while he was in humanities class, where Hernandez has her students watch and review classic films. She discusses Hollywood history and directorial styles and has her students study stop-motion animation, sometimes also known as stop-action animation.
"Film is basically a flip-book of images. This whole technique of filming it was perfected by our own local George Eastman in conjunction with Thomas Edison," Hernandez explained.
Each year Hernandez has her eighth-graders make their own stop-action animation films using a computer program called Windows Movie Maker, which creates slideshows from still photos. The still photos run together like a movie when sped up, and the program allows users to edit the footage and add credits and a soundtrack. Each of Hernandez’s eighth-grade students must put together a 90-second video clip in which at least one object moves across the screen and rotates at least 180 degrees. Students also must add soundtracks and credits to their clips.
"Danny did his in reverse. He animated the movie to the soundtrack," Hernandez said. "When he proposed the idea, I had said that it sounded like he may have taken on an impossible task, and he can revise it if he needs to."
Danny, however, dug into his project with enthusiasm.
"I didn’t want it to be just an average thing," he said.
He chose Neil Diamond’s "Forever in Blue Jeans" for his soundtrack because he could visualize the way he’d portray the lyrics, and because Mary Ann Bender, middle-school teacher at St. Francis-St. Stephen, has a well-documented affinity for Diamond. He then commandeered his family’s kitchen, set up his makeshift lighting equipment and set about the task of animating various denominations of United States currency.
"It took three days and I was on my kitchen floor with an umbrella, a lampshade and a camera taking like 1,000 pictures. Looking back, I don’t know how I did it. It was like a mini studio," Danny said.
The finished product opens with a shot of a $100 bill unfolding itself. Diamond’s voice sings, "Money talks," as the Benjamin Franklin portrait on the bill opens its mouth and begins to sing along as various coins dance around it. Throughout the video, various bills and coins appear to talk, sing, dance and move in and out of piggy banks and jeans pockets.
"It stood out. It was magnificent, and made me proud to be the teacher that got this," Hernandez said.
The next year, "Money Talks" was named the Finger Lakes Film Festival’s best film produced by a student in kindergarten through 12th grade. Danny’s films won in that category in the 2009 and 2010 festivals as well, and he also won best animated film at the 2010 festival.
"Three years competing, four awards, and Danny is not out of high school yet," Hernandez said. "He has an insightful Groucho Marx view of things and his eyes are open to all kinds of stimulus that are catalysts for his next films."
Events that occurred at DeSales during Danny’s freshman year served as the catalyst for "The Freshman Song (All That Matters)," the stop-action animation that won best animated film in 2010. Danny wrote a song about the events, enlisted some of his classmates to sing the song to the tune of the school’s alma mater, and used photo cut-outs of his classmates and teachers to animate the film.
Danny’s other award-winning films are year-in-review documentaries that feature video clips of 2008 and 2009 world news and pop-culture events set to the lyrics of Don McLean’s "American Pie" and The Beatles "Let It Be," respectively.
Although Danny spends a lot of time on his projects, he still finds time to be involved in sports and extracurricular activities at DeSales and volunteer at his parish, Geneva’s Our Lady of Peace, and in the Geneva community.
"He is wrapped in a warm cocoon of dear friends, as social as any kid could be," Hernandez said. "I always thought he had a way of freezing time to get everything done and still be the well-rounded Renaissance man that he is."