Throughout the years Disney is known for its innovative and heartwarming family-friendly content and with the addition of Disney+, the company has expanded its outreach and commitment to diversity by bringing important stories to their platform.
Streaming on Disney+ on May 28th, the Launchpad Shorts is a testament to meaningful stories that’ll be sure to impact viewers.
Introducing a collection of live-action shorts from a new generation of diverse storytellers, out of over 1,100 applicants, six filmmakers were selected to the program and given the opportunity to be mentored by members of Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures Production, Walt Disney Animation Studios, Disney+, Lucasfilm, Marvel Studios, and Pixar, as they worked to tell stories about “what it means to be seen.”
Spanning across different cultures and ethnicity, the first season of Launchpad Shorts focuses on “Discover,” encouraging audiences broaden their worldview through their short films.
In celebration of Launchpad’s release, The Koalition attended the virtual press conference featuring the six filmmakers from season one: Aqsa Altaf from American Eid, Hao Zheng from Dinner is Served, Anne Marie Pace from Growing Fangs, Moxie Peng from The Little Princess, Jessica Mendez Siqueiros from The Last of the Chupacabras, Stefanie Abel Horowitz from Let’s Be Tigers and Mahin Ibrahim, who is Director of Disney’s Diversity & Inclusion, and Phillip Domfeh, Launchpad Senior Manager.
During the conference we learned about the meaning of the shorts, the determination to finish a project during a pandemic, what season two could look like and more.
Launchpad is one of the most involved and expanse programs Disney has launched. This hands on approach also involved creative executive mentors for the selection process, including managers and studio heads giving advice and feedback. In a process that took months, this massive 360 approach from top to bottom resulted in these extraordinary six filmmakers.
“We’re proud of our amazing filmmakers. They themselves have said from day one they are not just filmmakers but a filmmaker family. You can see that bond, that connection, you can feel that collective heartbeat across all of them and so they have brought that to their films, as well as the spirit behind the collaboration on set. 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.” I’m very grateful to work with these amazing filmmakers,” said Ibrahim.
For Aqsa, she had the privilege to work with three amazing mentors. “Mary Coleman and Pixar and Vanessa Morrison from Disney streaming and three incredible empowering women, just to be under their shadow was such a learning experience at this point in my career. They have been empowering, inspiring, encouraging at every step of the way. I recall one of one of the most important things during our script development was that they were constantly so good about giving notes in the sense that it was an objective soundboard for me. It was never like, this is what you have to do, but this is the elements. What is the story that you want to tell? That is just so humbling to have that experience.”
“I think when you watch this collection of films, there’s so much beauty and life affirmation. Not to the expense of telling the truth exploring tough themes being true and honest and recognizing your pain on moments where you haven’t felt like you belonged or understood. The way they just so nimbly navigated all of that as storytellers is just something I hope will lead to discoveries for our audience members,” Ibrahim chimed in.
“I think these filmmakers made amazing work. Honestly, it’s been an honor to be able to support them and to be on this journey with them. I think when you watch this collection of films, there’s so much beauty and life affirmation. Not to the expense of telling the truth exploring tough themes being true and honest and recognizing your pain on moments where you haven’t felt like you belonged or understood. The way they just so nimbly navigated all of that as storytellers is just something I hope will lead to discoveries for our audience members,” said Phillip.
For the inaugural season of the shorts incubator, the studio centered on the theme, “Discover,” encouraging viewers to widen their scope with shorts that represent an array of people and their culture, introducing people to a world beyond their experience. However, another word used to describe the first season 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 were informed they were accepted into the program on December 2019, no one expected they’d have to overcome a five-month production delay caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.
“We had a lot of institutional support and it’s really not just the people you see here. Obviously, these filmmakers spearheaded the vision, but I’m really proud to say Disney in 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,” said Phillip.
“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. To do that facing a once-in-a-hundred-year term is something that shows these guys are the real deal. They’ve really got it and we’re really proud of them,” Phillip continued.
Pulling from their own experiences and cultures or even the metaphorical, the filmmakers found their inspiration within their own families, educational experiences, and cultural differences.
“The Last of the Chupacabras” showcases 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. For Jessica, she was inspired by “the fact that my great grandma might not have Chapa who is aptly badly characters named after, lived till she was 100 years old. She died five days after her 100th birthday. My family has always been very, very proudly Mexican, very proudly Mexican American family, and have always been indigenous to the land that we were from in Arizona originally.”
Jessica continued, “The best way for me to represent that was through a creature that was also very fearsome. I looked to the chupacabra and paired that in this fable together to 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.”
Meanwhile, for Hao Zheng’s “Dinner is Served” features a Chinese student in an elite US boarding school trying to apply for a leadership position no international student has ever applied for. “It’s pretty much based on my own experience when I first came to the States. I was 15 back then. I went to a high school in New York, and I just felt like nobody knew me when I first landed,” he said.
“I really wanted to have people see me, so I literally applied for a position when I came on campus. I participate in anything I can. Then at the end of the year, when I applied for those positions, there was only one position left, the maitre’d of the dining room. That position is like every night during dinner, that person is the one everyone sees because they announced the dinner,” Hao Zheng continued.
For Moxie, “The Little Princess” is very dear to my heart because it was based on my life experience growing up in China as a child. I was five. I was like Gabriel. I was very into feminine stuff and to pink and princess. I became friends with this kid in our neighborhood who is running around and who’s wild. His dad started to have a suspicion of us and think I’m a bad influence. One day he came over to our dinner table and he told my dad that I was not normal and I need to be fixed. I started to cry [and feel like I] just let down my family. My dad got very upset and he took my side and really stood up for me and said that he loved me for who I was.”
With these six shorts, Disney passion and dedication to support today’s filmmakers further enhances not just the the film community but encourages viewers to take a look internally at our shared experiences.
Anne Marie who is Mexican-American and bisexual, “I think in so many ways, my story in and of itself is about being multifaceted in your identity and she’s struggling with the acumen and half samphire. It’s something I grew up with being Mexican-American and bisexual and coming from these different identities and having my foot in either world and trying to figure out what that meant and what my identity was amongst that.”
I think something I had to learn later in life was being a part of multiple identities doesn’t make you any less of that identity, but it all compounds and makes you fully who you are. In the story, that’s what I wanted, which I discovered within myself as a filmmaker, it’s something that I take forward in all of my storytelling of really grasping from all the different experiences and taking them as a part of myself to fully be able to make these stories complete,” Anne Marie continued.
For season two, Mahin has seen from day one Disney’s commitment to diversity and inclusion and taking the programs commitment to cultivate talent seriously, not just for Launchpad but for all the films and series Disney works on.
“It’s critical conversations we have every day, especially as Disney+ continues to launch in regions throughout the world. As we’ve seen from the industry start to really make [more] content, I think this is really just the start of Launchpad as a standout example and I know Philip has really great new ways of expanding the impact for season two as well. Applications are now open.”
Phillip expanded with, “This is just the beginning, this is the first step. 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 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 Launchpad as a writer or director or writer, director.”
“We’re going to look at it as six different kinds of pods that we’re building story first. We might have one pod that’s still just a writer director who’s really got it all. We may build another pod with a director and two co-writers. Who knows, but really, the vision is that just going back to something Mahin said earlier, we had 1100 applicants and we’re only able to bring in six filmmakers. I think we did amazing work with that, but there’s more work to be done. We’re just going to keep just growing this program and hopefully, next time we’re doing this, we’re going to have way more squares on the Zoom.”
Disney+’s Launchpad Shorts releases on May 28th.