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The Scoop on Disney+ LAUNCHPAD

I recently had the chacne to attend a press conference for Disney’s newest project LAUNCHPAD. Moderated by Angelique Jackson, the press conference included Mohin Ibrahim, Director of Diversity & Inclusion, Philip Domfeh, LAUNCHPAD Senior Manager, and the six features filmmakers for season one.

Launchpad is a series of short films about underrepresented stories. The directors were tasked with centering a story around “discovery.”

(Center, l-r): Jenna Qureshi as Zainab and Shanessa Khawaja as Ameena in Disney’s “LAUNCHPAD” Season One short, “AMERICAN EID,” Written and Directed by Aqsa Altaf. Photo courtesy of Disney. © 2021 Disney Enterprises, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

American Eid – Aqsa Altaf

American Eid follows the story of a Muslim Pakistani immigrant, Ameena, living in America. Ameena is on a journey to make Eid a public-school holiday. Along the way, she makes new connections and adjusts to her new home. American Eid is directed by Aqsa Alta and is the first in the series.

Altaf is a Muslim raised in Kuwait by Pakistani and Sri Lankan parents. Altaf is dedicated to telling diverse stories and universal subject matter. Her short film ONE SMALL STEP played at the American Pavilion at the Cannes Film Festival 2019 and she was nominated for the Young Director Award 2019 at Cannes Lions. 

Dinner is Served – Hao Zheng

The second film in the series is directed by Hao Zheng and is inspired by events in his life. Dinner is Served is about a Chinese student attending an American boarding school. The film tells his story as he applies for a leadership position that no international student has ever held before.

Zheng was recently named Forbes’ 30 under 30 honoree. Zheng’s short films receive international praise including the Student Academy Award, AT&T Film Award, and Best International Film Award from Show Me Shorts New Zealand.

Scene from Disney’s “LAUNCHPAD” Season One short, “DINNER IS SERVED,” Directed by Hao Zheng, Written by G. Wilson & Hao Zheng.  Photo courtesy of Disney. © 2021 Disney Enterprises, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

The Last of the Chupacabras – Jessica Mendez Siqueiros

The Last of the Chupacabras is a take on a Mexican tradition and ancient mythical creature called the Chupacabra. One last Mexican American is trying to carry this tradition on and unknowingly summons the creature. The Last of the Chupacabras is directed by Jessica Mendez Siqueiros. 

Let’s Be Tigers – Stefanie Abel Horowitz

The fourth film in the series is Let’s Be Tigers. Avalon, the protagonist loses her mother and is having trouble processing it. Avalon finds comfort in a 4-year-old she is babysitting.

Let’s Be Tigers is directed by Stefanie Abel Horowitz. Horowitz is best known for her short film Sometimes, I Think About Dying which has won multiple awards at short film festivals. 

The Little Princess – Moxie Peng

Gabriel is a 7-year-old Chinese kid who loves ballet. Gabriel’s femininity becomes an issue when he befriends Rob, another Chinese kid from school. Rob’s father dislikes Gabriel’s feminine ways intervenes between Gabriel and his son.

Peng is a queer, non-binary filmmaker from Hunan, China. They recently graduated from NYU’s Filmmaking MFA program in 2020.

The Last of the Chupacabras – Jessica Mendez Siqueiros

The Last of the Chupacabras is a take on a Mexican tradition and ancient mythical creature called the Chupacabra. One last Mexican American is trying to carry this tradition on and unknowingly summons the creature.

The Last of the Chupacabras is directed by Jessica Mendez Siqueiros. Siqueiros is a Chicana writer/director whose films have screened at over 75 film festivals. 

Growing Fangs – Ann Marie Pace

(L-R): Olivia Sullivent as Dora, Keyla Monterroso Mejia as Val Garcia and Gilberto Ortiz as Jimmy in Disney’s “LAUNCHPAD” Season One short, “GROWING FANGS,” Written and Directed by Ann Marie Pace. Photo courtesy of Disney. © 2021 Disney Enterprises, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

The director of Growing Fangs, Ann Marie Pace, takes a more sci-fi take on her story as the film is about a Mexican American teen, Val Garcia, who is half-human/ half-vampire.

Problems arise when her human best friend switches to Val’s monster school. Growing Fangs is the last film in the short series. Pace is best known for her work on Beyond the Gate (2017) and Broken Pines (2017). 

Personal Stories

Almost all of the directors pulled inspiration for their films from personal experiences including Moxie Peng, Aqsa Altaf, and Stefanie Abel Horowitz.

Jessica Mendez Siqueiros, director of The Last of the Chupacabras, said her inspiration came from her grandmother who passed away at 100-years-old. “I realized after she died, after I had 25 years on this earth with her, that I didn’t gather the information that I have from her,” Siqueiros said. She said she wanted to represent the fear of losing your culture using a mythical creature. 

Hao Zheng’s film Dinner is Served is about his experience as a Chinese student in an elite U.S. boarding school. “Pretty much, that’s the story that I wanted to also share with Dinner is Served like how we embrace our voice, even though it may be awkward, eventhough maybe nobody will understand,” Zheng said. 

As a member of the LGBTQ+ community, Moxie Peng was inspired by personal experiences growing up and included life events in the film. “Just to shoot that dinner scene was very, like, nerve-wracking for me because I was like, I don’t want to mess up this because it’s my story,” Peng said. Also, adding that the young actor who plays the main character Gabriel was able to grasp the message of the movie. The young actor comforted Peng after learning certain parts of the movie were a part of Peng’s childhood. 

Melba Martinez as Chepa in Disney’s “LAUNCHPAD” Season One short, “THE LAST OF THE CHUPACABRAS,” Written and Directed by Jessica Mendez Siqueiros. Photo courtesy of Disney. © 2021 Disney Enterprises, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

Things Got Emotional 

During the press conference, the directors were asked about a moment they will remember most on set when the series airs. Many of the responses were about an emotional moment that resonated with them about each of their film’s meanings.

Many of the directors have a bicultural background and were encouraged by Disney to hire a diverse cast. Ann Marie Pace, director of Growing Fangs, reflected on the first time she sat around and looked at how diverse her crew was. “I had a realization that all of us on set together had experienced at one time or another, what it’s like to be an outsider in our own way,” she said.

On the set of American Eid, Aqsa Altaf remembered the child actor for Ameena talking about what she wants to be when she grows up. “That just got me so emotional, thinking about like, the generation now is going to have these dreams younger early on,” Altaf said referencing her and other Muslim Americans struggle to overcome stereotypes. 

Stefanie Abel Horowitz recalled the moment the young actor ran off crying tears of joy at the end of a shoot. “I think, for me, I want the making of the film to be more enjoyable than watching the film,” Horowitz said. “I really want to create community, it’s what my work is about.”

The Process

Mahin Ibrahim, director of Disney’s Diversity & Inclusion, and Phillip Domfeh, LAUNCHPAD Senior Manager, explained the project’s extensive selection process for season one. They received over 1,100 applications for the first season which they narrowed to six.

The interview process consisted of in-person and phone calls with creative mentors, managers, and studio heads weighing in with feedback. “A really 360 approach from top to bottom and gave us, again, these amazing six filmmakers to work with so extremely, extremely happy about that,” Ibrahim added.

Why Short Stories?

The directors were asked about how feature films can bring awareness to social and cultural subjects. Horowitz explained that she loved the short film format because of the difficulty of having to tell a whole story without being able to tell the actual, complete story. 

Peng agreed with Horowitz. They said the short film format allowed them to deepen their craft and dive into who the characters are to create a powerful message in the short time they have. 

Pace added, “I think the short form format allows diverse filmmakers that haven’t gotten a chance to tell their stories to really express it in a shorter format.”

What’s Next for LAUNCHPAD

LAUNCHPAD is already working on a season two with the theme of connection. The production team is looking to diversify even more and broaden their impact by bringing in more writers. You can now apply for the second season as a writer, director, or writer/director. 

Some of the creators offered advice to future participants. Aqsa Altaf suggested that markets often hold back new creators from putting their stuff out there. “My advice for filmmakers is, really just write what you really believe in and the market will find you,” Altaf offered. 

Horowitz, who didn’t attend film school, suggested that new creators should just “make stuff” without fear of making mistakes. “The real thing about getting good at this is not about getting perfect, it’s about learning to roll with your mistakes and figuring out how to make those mistakes into something great,” she said. 

“What an amazing inaugural class, but undoubtedly, we’re going to have season two, and I feel pretty confident in saying, and beyond,” Philip Domfeh added.

Launchpad will premiere May 28 exclusively on Disney+.

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