For the inaugural season of Disney’s “Launchpad” shorts incubator, the studio centered on the theme, “Discover,” encouraging audiences broaden their worldview through their short films.
But another word that could describe this first group of films and the filmmakers who crafted them over the last 19 months is “Perseverance.”
When Aqsa Altaf, Stefanie Abel Horowitz, Ann Marie Pace, Moxie Peng, Jessica Mendez Siqueiros and Hao Zheng got the call that they’d been selected to become the first class of filmmakers in Dec. 2019, no one expected they’d have to overcome a five-month production delay caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.
“It has taken us almost three years to get to this point,” Mahin Ibrahim, director of Disney’s diversity & inclusion, market, who oversees the “Launchpad” program, tells Variety.
The drive to continue on came down to the simple fact that the mission — spotlighting underrepresented stories and storytellers in the marketplace — was simply too important to let it fail.
“At its core, the program is about giving access and opportunity to those who have historically not had that in Hollywood [including people of color and LGBTQ+ filmmakers], and to tell stories on a global platform that represent the child within ourselves who we haven’t seen on screen before,” Ibrahim explains. “This program became a way to reflect on what we would have loved to see kind of growing up.”
The filmmakers had started the script development process in Feb. 2020, with a curriculum of courses presented with the American Film Institute (AFI) that included seminars on inclusive set practices and anti-discrimination techniques. However, due to the shutdowns, the filmmakers couldn’t begin production until September, with post-production wrapping in Jan. 2021. It was a challenge, but the “Launchpad” team banded together to get it done.
“We had a lot of institutional support,” says Phillip Domfeh, senior manager of the incubator program. “I’m really proud to say that Disney in its totality really came behind these filmmakers, from our production executives to every part of the team that helped make each film. It’s just beautiful to see.”
“What they accomplished during COVID, positions them not only as filmmakers and storytellers, but leaders,” he continues. “It’s not hard enough to tell a really beautiful story, but to do that facing a once-in-a-hundred-year turmoil has shown that these guys are the real deal.”
Ibrahim adds: “If our filmmakers were able to get through a COVID shoot successfully, they can definitely direct a multi-million dollar budget feature film. They are pros.”
But, for all of Disney’s confidence, the filmmakers still had a few doubt of their own to push through. Zheng — who co-wrote and directed the short “Dinner Is Served” — was the first of the six to go into production.
“I felt very nervous because I’d never shot anything in COVID,” Zheng admits. “I have a pretty big, crowd scene with extras and things, so my mentors were having phone calls with me, trying to sort out ideas on how I can cheat things, and to do it safely on set.
“[But] at the end of the day, nobody knows that you shot in COVID,” he adds. “The audience is only seeing the quality of the film, so you still need to make the best film you can.”
One of the top concerns for Pace, whose film “Growing Fangs” is a teen vampire comedy, was that she might not be able to connect with her actors while directing from behind a mask and face shield.
“What I learned was the connection between your actor isn’t face to face, it’s the soul,” Pace says. “Even with all the things on, we felt the connection. We did a lot of Zooms before the shoot — hours of just talking about character, life experiences and whatever else. And that really translated once we got on set.”
Though all six artists (selected from more than 1,100 applicants) were already accomplished filmmakers, the Disney “Launchpad” program gave them their first taste of working in the studio system, with the kind of financial and technological resources behind them and global distribution platform ahead, where they could celebrate their heritage and share their unique perspectives on the world.
The filmmakers also worked alongside mentors — executives from across Disney’s studios, including Walt Disney Animation Studios, Disney Live Action, Marvel Studios, Pixar and Lucasfilm — to develop their projects from concept through marketing.
“We really wanted to give these short films the love and intention the way we do every film and series on Disney theatrically and within our streaming services,” Ibrahim says.
Altaf, the writer and director of “American Eid,” says the program stood out because the film school education wasn’t theoretical. It was practical, and also personal.
“Every step of the way taught us how to be more collaborative, more kind and be a good leader, but also to be true to yourself as an artist. I think that combination is very important as directors,” Altaf says. “And I get to tell a story about Eid on a platform like Disney. If I look back at my nine-year-old self, she would never believe that this happened.”
The film’s story about a young girl who emigrates to the U.S. and doesn’t understand why those in her new home do not celebrate the holiday, mirrored the filmmaker’s own immigrant experience in her twenties. Altaf also praises the Disney team for encouraging her to frame the story in a more authentic way.
“I feel like immigrant stories so far have been about assimilation, but about not about what makes us so special as immigrants or that America has to accept us for who we are and celebrate our cultures, what’s special to us, our religions,” she explains.
“At one point, I did have in the script comparing Eid to Christmas to give the audience an understanding,” Altaf shares. “One of the notes we got was, ‘We don’t need it; Eid can stand on its own.’ … As somebody who emigrated here, I constantly questioned if I should be filtering this through any sort of understanding for a “Western audience.” And I think that’s a very important, that while reaching a global world through Disney, we don’t necessarily have to have a Western gaze telling the story or making it digestible.”
Mendez Siquieros’ film, “The Last of the Chupacabras,” meditates on her Mexican American heritage, with a little bit of added Disney flair in the form of a colorful puppet that formed the chupacabra referenced in the film’s title. The story was inspired by filmmaker’s great-grandmother who died at age 100.
“I realized after she died that I didn’t gather the information that I should have from her,” the filmmaker explains. “That left me feeling like a bit of a failure to my own culture, and realizing that the responsibility is on us to keep our cultures alive.”
The film is subsequently a commentary on the way we look at culture in American and the fear that is often prevalent of losing ones own culture if you celebrate someone else’s.
“The best way for me to represent that was through a creature that was also very fearsome, so I looked to the chupacabra,” Mendez Siquieros explains.
“The first time that my [lead character, Chepa, named for her great-grandmother] met our chupacabra was such a emotional, beautiful experience to watch,” she adds. “This creature that was birthed out of all of these incredible artists, that started as an idea on a page with a one-sentence description and came to life. All of a sudden, you have this creature meeting a real human being, and it’s like you completely forget that it’s a puppet. I just becomes something really emotional and alive.”
While some of the films are more biographical than others — for example, Zheng’s “Dinner is Served” and Peng’s “The Little Prince(ss)“ also tell fictionalized versions of their filmmakers’ real-life experiences — they’re all representative of tales only their creators could tell.
“I think we all draw a lot of inspiration from our own life,” Peng explains, sharing that their film about a young Chinese American boy who dresses and acts feminine and is shunned by his new best friend’s father, was loosely based on something that happened to them as a kid.
“[The father] came over to our dinner table and told my dad that I was not very normal, and that my dad needs to fix me so I can be like his kid,” Peng recalls. “I started to cry because I felt like I somehow like let my parents down. I was like four or five. My dad just took my side and told him like, he loves me for who I am. For me, this story is about acceptance, and how to stay open minded when literally your neighbor is different.”
These shorts are intended to make audiences feel something, which is why stories like Abel Horowitz’s “Lets Be Tigers” — a sweet story of a babysitter working through her own grief by explaining it to her young charge — were selected for the program.
“My grandfather was turning 100, my parents were turning 70, and my nephew was turning four,” Abel Horowitz says, explaining the short’s premise. “I was thinking about the passing of the baton of life and not being the kid anymore and I was feeling sad about that. Which made me think about how we talk about sadness in our culture, how we share about it and how we talk to kids about tough stuff.”
The second season will focus on the theme of “Connection,” with a new track established for writers. Applications are currently open and will close on June 11th, with the program set to start in December. But, to close out the season and celebrate the films’ premieres, Ibrahim has planned a virtual toast with the filmmakers to celebrate their hard work and a truly unforgettable experience.
“We got to work with Disney. That’s not even a dream you’re supposed to have,” Abel Horowitz notes. “I think the other thing that was unexpected to all of us, was that we all really loved each other and became instant friends, and then got to go through this really big, wild studio experience together.”