'Launchpad' Primer: Everything You Need to Know About Disney's Short Film Series, in the Words of the Filmmakers

This week, Disney+ has an exciting new way to showcase young filmmakers from underrepresented backgrounds. Their new short-film series Launchpad goes live to the world on Friday, May 28, with six stories that offer diverse viewpoints on everything from Chinese to Jewish to Mexican cultures. We have a review of the series coming tomorrow, but there’s no better way to get a rundown of what each of these short films are about than by hearing from the filmmakers themselves.

/Film sat down virtually with these young artists recently to hear their stories, the messages they want to share, and how they learned on the job with Disney. Here is everything you need to know about Launchpad, via the words of the filmmakers who made it.

American Eid 

The Filmmaker: Writer/director Aqsa Altaf

What It’s About: “When I immigrated [to the United States] when I was 21, I didn’t have my family with me. I didn’t have a community. A special holiday [like Eid] for me growing up [was] something I looked forward to every year. All of a sudden, [it was] a very lonely day for me. There was nobody around to celebrate it. Nobody even knew about it, which just added to the loneliness. I just felt like I wasn’t home, even though this was supposed to be my new home. And then I just started talking about [Eid] and advocating for it. The more people knew about it, the more they wanted to hear about it. So when this opportunity [for Launchpad] came along, I thought, ‘This is perfect. I always wanted to make an Eid film [for Disney].’ It was a lifelong dream.”

Why It Matters: “The whole time [my Launchpad mentors] told me that I have to tell a story that was true to myself. They were an objective sounding board. I had to tell a story that was true to myself. but also not watered down for a Western gaze. I don’t need [in this story] to compare [Eid] to Christmas for people to understand what Eid is, on its own terms. That’s the power of stories.”

What They Learned: “Casting was a little bit of a challenge because of how hard it is to find underrepresented actors. We had the Disney casting team, the one that casts all the big movies. They knew that agents and managers are going to be very limiting if you reach out to them, because underrepresented talents are not tapped. The only way to reach out is get flyers and get somebody from the community to reach out. That’s true representation. That was really helpful. I think that really helped us find the little girl. Otherwise I don’t think we would have found her.”

Let’s Be Tigers

The Filmmaker: Writer/director Stefanie Abel Horowitz

What It’s About: “I was thinking about this passing of the baton of life. I was a babysitter when I was in my early twenties and I took care of this incredible four-year-old who was sweet and loving and smart. But one day he tried to shoot me dead with his gun. And I [said], “Do you know what that means?” And he said no. I said, “Well, if I was dead, I wouldn’t be able to come here anymore. I wouldn’t get to play with you.” And he got really sad and that made me think that this is the ultimate tragedy of our lives, that we’re all going to die. And then everybody that we know is gonna die at some point, and we’re gonna really go through suffering and loss over and over again. 

Why It Matters: “My question was, how do we deal with [death] in our culture and how do we share it? How do we talk to children about it? I personally am really bad at that. I’m the child of a therapist and I want to be happy all the time and I’m good at listening, but not so good at talking. So I wanted to explore that, that brave act of vulnerability and how it can create connection and community and remind you that you are not alone in this world.” 

What They Learned: “I know that making a film is always a big collaborative effort, but because we got to go through this program with six of us, five other directors, I really got to go through it as part of a team and got to write a film with five other filmmakers who cared, giving these criticisms. And now I think the whole process wants to be a team sport. And if I can make it that way, I’m going to do it.”

Dinner is Served

The Filmmaker: Co-writer/director Hao Zheng

What It’s About: Dinner is Served is based on my own story. When I first came to the States for high school, I pretty much experienced everything [in the short]. I applied for a maitre’d position, because I felt that’s the spotlight position on campus. Everyone will see you. But I didn’t realize how hard that would be, having to memorize 30 people’s names and trying to pronounce everything right. And I was nervous too. [But] I knew the story that I wanted to tell.”

Why It Matters: “I wanted a powerful ending where the character owns his voice and himself, almost as an act of rebellion, because I think that takes a lot of courage. My mentors [were] very supportive and they gave me a lot of notes throughout the journey. But what I was moved by is that they always made sure to check on me, that I was protecting the story I wanted to tell.”

What They Learned: “I was the first one in production [during the pandemic] and I didn’t know anything about how we’re going to do things. Me and my DP learned a lot throughout. Cutting shots and things. And having a mask and a face shield, you know, having that distance with our actors, that was a first for me as well. How do you communicate with your actors? But they were so patient.” 

Growing Fangs 

The Filmmaker: Writer/director Ann Marie Pace

What It’s About: “[Val is] struggling with being half human, half vampire. For me, that came from a place of being Mexican American and bisexual. When I was growing up, I felt a struggle between the worlds and what my identity was and where I fit amongst those worlds. I had to learn later in life, but if you’re a part of multiple identities, it doesn’t make you any less of that identity. It all compounds. So that was the idea I wanted to explore and show her journey, but in a way that still celebrates the fact that she’s Mexican and and this other element becomes this vampire element.”

Why It Matters: “I’m going to look back at this time and feel that it was a pivotal moment in my career. And just my self-growth, being a Mexican and I came out later in life and to get to tell a story on a platform such as Disney+. It became healing to me and a huge part of my self-growth and journey.” 

What They Learned: “I thought it was so cool that Launchpad really was diverse, from not only cast, but crew, from top to bottom. On set the first day, I remember looking around and just being really taken aback, how diverse everyone was in bringing their own life experiences to the story. Everyone had at one point or another felt like an outsider in their own specific way. And to have those personal experiences telling a story about an outsider, it felt really profound.” 

The Little Prince(ss)

The Filmmaker: Writer/director Moxie Peng

What It’s About: “I went back to an event that happened to me when I was a kid. When I was a child, I was into feminine stuff, [like] pink and princesses. I was friends with this other kid who was into sports and running around, and his dad started to feel uneasy about us, and [thought] I’m a bad influence. So one day, he decided to come over to our dinner table and told my dad that I was not normal and I needed to be fixed. My dad took my side and said he loved me for who I am.”

Why It Matters: “The message of my dad [showing] me that love and acceptance and freedom, allowing me to explore and not putting a label on me, made me very grateful. He really showed me how we can have grace when we are facing challenges.”

What They Learned: “Because it’s a studio project, it’s bigger. Your crew is bigger, your team, every part of the team is bigger. But it also means that your time is more costly. So to try to tell my story the best I can, but also under certain time pressures was definitely a huge challenge for me, plus COVID. And it just takes more time. Doing studio films…it’s like jumping out of the plane. It’s scary, but to have this [Launchpad] community, it’s like we’re jumping out of the plane together with parachutes.”

The Last of the Chupacabras 

The Filmmaker: Writer/director Jessica Mendez Siqueiros

What It’s About: “The film was inspired by…my great grandma. She died five days after her 100th birthday. My family has always been very, very proudly Mexican, and have always been indigenous to the land that we were from in Arizona originally. I realized after she died that I didn’t gather the information that I should have from her. 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. When I was prompted with what to propose for Launchpad, I started to think about what that meant on a mythical level. The way that we look at culture in this country can be with such a perspective of fear, 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: the chupacabra.” 

Why It Matters: “Getting so incredibly specific about your story…with the lineage of my family comes with so many complex layers. At a certain point, you just realize as a filmmaker that you have to get so incredibly specific about who you are. I think that’s the biggest gift that we can give through our storytelling is this story. There’s no way that I could possibly be a blanket for what Mexican-American means or for what in this huge umbrella term of Latinx means, but what I can do is get incredibly specific about my experience and the layers of culture that I have on my life and share those stories.” 

What They Learned: “I’m obsessed with the short film format and it’s not just because I haven’t gotten to do the other one. Short films [are] a very difficult medium because you have to tell the whole story, but you literally can’t tell the whole story. That’s the beautiful balance: you get to work schematically. You don’t necessarily have to work with answers. You don’t have to give everything away about a character. You can just say, ‘This is what I want to prompt the audience to think about and leave it in a really curious point and not have to necessarily give that satisfaction.’ It’s a great format.”

Launchpad streams on Disney+ on May 28, 2021.

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