When you first hear the words Disney’s Launchpad, fans immediately think of the famous pilot from Disney’s DuckTales, Launchpad McDuck. It pops up in the Google search when you look up Disney’s Launchpad, but now, Disney is using the word for something greater (sorry, DuckTales fans) and something that will have a lasting impact on diversity and inclusion in filmmaking and storytelling in Hollywood.
Disney’s Launchpad Shorts Incubator is a new filmmaker (and soon-to-be writer’s) program dedicated to amplifying underrepresented voices. The new series — which will appear on Disney+ this Friday, May 28 — will feature six live-action shorts from a new generation of dynamic storytellers. Six filmmakers from underrepresented backgrounds were selected — Ann Marie Pace, Aqsa Altaf, Hao Zheng, Jessica Mendez Siqueiros, Moxie Peng, and Stefanie Abel Horowitz — and provided the opportunity to share their perspectives and creative visions that will show audiences what it means to be seen.
With its inaugural year being during the time of a global pandemic, Disney’s Diversity and Inclusion director Mahin Ibrahim and Launchpad senior manager Phillip Domfeh had to adjust so much of the in-person program to work virtually and then work with the production team to film their shorts.
“We had a lot of institutional support and it’s really not just the people that you see here,” said Domfeh during the Launchpad global press conference last week. “Obviously, these filmmakers spearheaded the vision, but I’m really proud to say that Disney in totality really came behind these filmmakers from our production executives to every part of the team that helped make each film.”
The Launchpad mentors and program directors worked closely with the filmmakers to ensure COVID protocols were followed. And, the results were beautiful.
“Mahin and I say this constantly, what they accomplished during COVID really just positions them as true, not only filmmakers storytellers, but leaders, captains of teams and it’s not hard enough to just tell a really beautiful story,” Domfeh emphasized. “To do that facing a once-in-a-hundred-year term while is something that’s really, I think just shows that these guys are the real deal. They’ve really got it and we’re really proud of them.”
Each of the storytellers pitched their stories to Disney and came up with the following:
Written and Directed by Aqsa Altaf
Ameena, a Muslim Pakistani immigrant, wakes up on Eid to find out that she has to go to school. Homesick and heartbroken, she goes on a mission to make Eid a public-school holiday, and in the process, reconnects with her older sister, and embraces her new home, while her new home embraces her.
Growing up in Kuwait by Pakistani and Sri Lankan parents in a Muslim home, Altaf realized there were not many stories surrounding Muslim stories, especially positive ones that celebrates the culture. Instead, Altaf only saw negative stereotypes of Muslims in the media.
“I started internalizing that retrospectively,” says Altaf. “I looked at it started internalizing that as something like me thinking that we’re not just important enough or valuable enough or “cool enough” to be on big screen or be worthy enough and that is just such a toxic thing to think as a child and that’s the inherent aspects and inherent result of lack of representation, whether you like it or not kids internalize that.”
This is why Altaf focused on Muslim girls in American society for her short and the celebration of Eid, the festival marking the end of Ramadan. She wanted to normalize the stories being told and realized the impact of it before the short was even complete. Altaf recalled one of the actresses in the film telling Altaf she wanted to be both an actor and director. Altaf told her she could be both, which filled the young actress with so much joy.
“That just got me so emotional thinking about the generation now is going to have these dreams younger [me] early on [wanted],” Altaf shares. “And, it’s going to be a direct representation that they don’t have to put these blocks together like we did, where we didn’t ever [see] ourselves and behind the scenes on-camera in a big way. That was just very emotional. I just got so excited for the future.”
Dinner is Served
Directed by Hao Zheng, Written by G. Wilson & Hao Zheng
A Chinese student at an elite U.S. boarding school realizes excellence is not enough when he tries out for a leadership position no international student has ever applied for.
Zheng wrote from the heart when creating Dinner is Served. As an international student at an elite U.S. boarding school during his high school days, Zheng also auditioned for a prestigious maitre d’ position. Like the character in his story, Zheng wanted to fit into the school and felt so much pressure to get the job that he started to sing a song to the crowd in Chinese.
“I felt very happy,” says Zheng, despite not getting the position in high school. “Pretty much, that’s the story that I wanted to share with Dinner is Served like how we embrace our own voice, even though it may be awkward, even though maybe nobody will understand.”
Zheng felt the impact already from his story when he yelled cut at the final scene to find the production team in tears and applauding the lead actor who also ends the scene singing his heart out in Chinese.
“That’s the moment that I found out, ‘Oh, wow. Even [though] nobody [understood] the lyrics, the people [understood] him,” Zheng recalls. “That’s very moving for me.”
Written and Directed by Ann Marie Pace
Val Garcia, a Mexican-American teen who is half human/half vampire, has had to keep her identity a secret from both worlds. But when her human best friend shows up at her monster-infested school, she has to confront her truth, her identity, and herself.
Growing up Mexican American and bisexual in a family of anthroologists, Pace wanted to showcase what it meant to be an outsider and finding your place. She felt excited to tell her story and appreciated that Disney gave her this platform to share it.
“I think when you have people tell their own stories, not just the director, but actors and crew members, everyone really telling their own stories, something really beautiful happens and you feel that passion and love and life experience through the screen,” says Pace.
She hopes to expand the short into something bigger due to the nature of the story of coming from two worlds and accepting who you are, especially in high school. She explains, “I hope there’s so much to explore in the world and with her and her journey and just really diving into the magical elements of her high school and what that looks like. I don’t know, their driver’s ed might be learning to turn into a bat and how that plays out. I would love to keep expanding the story and I love the character so much and all the guests involved.”
The Last of the Chupacabras
Written and Directed by Jessica Mendez Siqueiros
In a world where culture has nearly ceased to exist, one lone Mexican-American struggling to carry on her traditions unknowingly summons a dark and ancient creature to protect her.
Inspired by her great-grandmother who lived to almost 100 years old, Siqueiros wanted to share how proud she was of her Mexican heritage. After her great-grandmother’s passing, Siqueiros felt the responsibility to keep her culture alive. That was when she realized she wanted to bring the chupacabra alive.
“When I was prompted with what to propose for Launchpad, I started to think about what that meant on a mythical level,” says Siqueiros. “The way that we look at culture in this country can also be with such a perspective of fear, a perspective of losing our own culture for fear of celebrating somebody else’s. The best way for me to represent that was through a creature that was also very fearsome. I looked at the chupacabra and paired that in this fable together to comment on that and comment on how, through celebrating our own cultures, it’s not a challenge to the American mixing pot, that it’s actually a celebration of what we can be. I think reflective of that too, the moment that I’ll never ever forget is the first time that grandpa met our chupacabra.”
After creating the puppet of the chupacabra for the film, Siqueiros felt emotional seeing it.
“It was a beautiful experience to watch this creature that literally out of all of these incredible artists that started as literally just an idea on a page with one-sentence description and came to life,” Siqueiros recalls. “Then all of a sudden, you have this creature meeting a real human being, and you completely forget that it’s a puppet and it just becomes something really emotional and alive.”
Let’s Be Tigers
Written and Directed by Stefanie Abel Horowitz
Avalon’s not ready to process the loss of her mother, but when she’s put in charge of a 4-year-old for one night, she finds more comfort than she ever could have expected.
Horowitz was actually inspired by one of the children she was babysitting to create this story. The child pretended his fingers were guns and shoot at Horowitz. Being a child of therapists, she proceeded to ask him if he understood what that meant. He did not and was sad to learn the idea of death and the aftermath of it. She wondered about the conversation surrounding death, especially for kids.
“We’re all going to experience suffering and loss over and over and over again,” says Horowitz. “How do we talk about that in our culture? How do we share that? How do we talk to kids about difficult things?”
Let’s Be Tigers is meant to serve as a reminder to Horowitz and everyone that it’s brave to share your sadness, your pain, and your feelings if you are suffering. And, by sharing that, it creates community and togetherness that reminds you that you’re not alone in these difficult moments.
“My favorite moment on set was at the very, very end, and we were doing a shot that was stressful and emotional, and the sun was going down,” Horowitz recalls. “We were all amped up making a movie. We felt like we got the shot and called CUT. As the assistant director wrapped the film, little Dash [the young child in the short] just cut off running to his mom, and jumped in her arms and started crying. He said, ‘I’m crying because I’m so happy.’ I think, for me, I want the making of the film to be more enjoyable than watching the film. I really want to create community, it’s what my work is about. It’s what I want the set to be like, it’s what I want people to take away. I felt we accomplished that in that moment and were really happy.”
The Little Prince(ss)
Written and Directed by Moxie Peng
When Gabriel, a 7-year-old Chinese kid who loves ballet, becomes friends with Rob, another Chinese kid from school, Rob’s dad gets suspicious about Gabriel’s feminine behavior and decides to intervene.
Moxie Peng wanted to share a story close to their heart. As a queer and non-binary filmaker who grew up in China, Peng’s focus has always been to address the working class and the intersectionality of the queer community. In The Little Prince(ss), Peng based the story on their own life being non-binary and very into femininity and being a princess. In a conservative town like Hunan, China, Peng was met with discouragement from the neighborhood over their femininity. Peng was fortunate to have supportive parents who love them and always encouraged Peng to be who they were.
“I think that event really resonated with me because it was the first time I really discovered that the word can be unfriendly,” says Peng. “I also discovered that there will be people who will accept you for who you are. I think I carry that message to me and I felt like when I see Launchpad, I really want to bring that to the story and to showcase that queer and trans kids are not alone. We always care. We are always having each other’s back.”
One of the child actors [Kalo Moss who plays Gabriel] in the film went up to Peng and asked if the story actually happened to them. The actor apologized to Peng that they had to go through that and hopes that Peng was able to move on from the experience and find people who loved them. Peng was extremely touched.
“He’s only seven and the fact that he told me this and he was understanding the story is a healing process for me, it was really amazing,” Peng remembers. “It also comforted me that day. I knew that this kid would be able to decipher. On set, we just got really patient. The adults were all ready. They did amazing. We were just waiting for Kalo to get into his emotional state and he got there and then we did the same. I think that moment, when he talked to me, was really just [the] magic that made me believe that this story is worth telling.”
The Launchpad Program Continues…
The program plans to continue for a second season with the addition of a writers program. The second season will emphasize ‘Connection’ as the theme. Applications are open now until June 11 with the program starting in December of this year.
“This is just the beginning, this is the first step,” says Domfeh. “What an amazing inaugural class, but undoubtedly, we’re going to have Season two and I feel pretty confident in saying and beyond. As we look to Season two we’ve really just been thinking about how do we bring more people into this amazing experience that these six filmmakers have had. One change we’ve made which we think is just going to continue to broaden the impact is bringing writers into the program as a separate track. You can now apply for Disney’s Launchpad as a writer or director or writer/director.”
Ibrahim encourages everyone to apply because being part of this team of filmmakers also felt like creating a family. She immediately saw the bond and connection between the team, even over Zoom. She emphasized that it is shown through their beautiful shorts too.
“I love what one of our mentors Nicole Grindle from Pixar shared, “What you see on screen is emblematic of what happened off-screen and the culture of inclusivity and collaboration that they fostered behind the scenes,” Ibrahim shares. “I’m very grateful to work with these amazing filmmakers.”
Disney’s Launchpad premieres in May 28 on Disney+.