Disney's 'Launchpad': Meet the Next Generation of Disney Storytellers (Exclusive)


Inside six diverse short films that 'speak to the child within all of us.'

Disney+ is hoping to diversify your streaming queue with Launchpad, a collection of live-action shorts from an array of filmmakers who represent underrepresented backgrounds. Chosen for their undeniable raw talent and mentored by execs from the various studios, each of the program's initial six directors created unique, moving mini-movies around the theme "Discover."

"Launchpad, at its core, is about giving access and opportunity to those who have historically not had it before in Hollywood," Mahin Ibrahim, director of Disney's Diversity & Inclusion, tells ET. "And what we realized was that we really could leverage the power of a global platform like Disney+ to speak to the child within all of us who haven't seen themselves onscreen growing up."

Senior Manager Phillip Yaw Domfeh adds, "I'm really grateful that I have the opportunity to help create the future of the industry and the industry that I want to be in." So, what does the future of Launchpad look like? "I've been saying, 'Launchpad to the moon.' We want it to go all the way!"

"We take it seriously and we say, 'We really want to be lifting up the next generation of Disney storytellers,'" Domfeh explains. "But the hope for this program -- the hope for empowering underrepresented filmmakers -- at the end of the day is to change the industry at large. So, if we are setting an example for what's possible, if we are uplifting voices that are going to be the storytellers of tomorrow, then our work isn't done, but it's in the right direction."

Season 1's shorts include American Eid from writer-director Aqsa Altaf, Dinner Is Served from Hao Zheng, Growing Fangs from Ann Marie Pace, Let's Be Tigers from Stefanie Abel Horowitz, The Last of the Chupacabras from Jessica Mendez Siqueiros and The Little Prince(ss) by Moxie Peng. ET spoke with each filmmaker about the inspiration for their short and rewriting the future of Marvel, Star Wars, Pixar and beyond.

American Eid

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.

What was the initial idea that became your short? And what was the most important thing for you to accomplish with it?

Aqsa Altaf: I immigrated here myself when I was around 22 and I immigrated alone -- I didn't have any family here -- so I didn't have a community when I first moved here. And every Eid that came along, because we didn't get days off, I couldn't go back home. I was all alone on a holiday that meant so much to me and nobody around me even knew what it was. I talked to a lot of immigrant children that have immigrated here at a young age and they all said the same thing: They wake up on Eid, they find out they have to go to school and all of a sudden this is their new home and you have to embrace it for what it is. I just wanted to tell a story where the new home embraces you for who you are as well, because I think an immigrant story goes two ways. It's about you embracing a new home, but your new home embracing you.

Now that you're in the Disney family, what is your dream Disney gig, whether it's in the world of Marvel or Star Wars or Pixar or what have you?

So many! Star Wars, I would say. The universe of Star Wars is so flexible in terms of bringing in new voices. I just read the George Lucas biography, and he said that when he gave off Star Wars to the world, he hoped that when new filmmakers came on board, they brought something to it that was prevalent to their generation, like it was to his. And I hope that one of these days I can bring something to that universe that's prevalent to our generation and add to the legacy that was created by George Lucas. That's the dream!

American Eid may have the first Disney Universe's first shout to Ms. Marvel. [Ameena has a Ms. Marvel poster hanging in her bedroom.] How did that come about?

I was so happy that I got the permission to use the poster. I was screaming right off the bat. It was important to me to include Ms. Marvel because when I read the comics, I just felt so seen. All of a sudden, I felt like, "Wow, my culture and religion is cool. It matters! It's a Marvel superhero!" So, I wanted to include that poster because I believe my character, Ameena, would be a huge Ms. Marvel fan, and I also wanted to add that because I believe that we all have the superpower in us to do good and to bring about change. We just have to embrace it.

Ms. Marvel is getting her own series on Disney+ this year. What is your biggest hope for that series?

I'm going to, first of all, cry watching it. I don't think I'm mentally and emotionally ready for it, but I think it's going to be huge. Everything we have seen in Western media about Muslim women being oppressed and not being empowered is going to get broken. All of those stereotypes are going to get shattered, because if anything, our culture and our religion does empower women at every level. I think Ms. Marvel is going to show that, and I'm so happy for little Muslim girls to see themselves as superheroes on the big screen.

Dinner Is Served

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.

What was the initial idea that became your short? And what was the most important thing for you to accomplish with it?

Hao Zheng: When I first came to the States when I was 15, I was a junior in a boarding high school in New York. And especially coming as a junior, everyone there already knew each other, and nobody understood me. To all of them, I'm a total stranger. So, I was desperately trying to find a way for them to recognize me, to see me. I applied for every position I could on campus, but then, I failed, like, one after and other, and the only thing left was this maître d role in the dining room. I thought that was a perfect position for me and people would see me. But I didn't realize how hard that would. I practiced really hard, but still on my trial day, I was very nervous and I felt like I was going to fail again. At one point, I don't know why, I was so desperate and I ran up to the front of the stage and then I started singing this Chinese song in Mandarin. It was so awkward. It's one of the most awkward moments in my life.

But for some reason I felt really happy during that moment. I felt like I didn't care about whether I got the position or not anymore. And obviously, everyone saw me now. That was the [story] behind this short film. I grew up always moving and I always felt lost. Especially when people ask me, "Where are you from? And where's home?" For me, I really don't know how to answer that question, because I was born in a place, I was raised in a place, and then I come to the States. I'm just hoping that I get to share my story and those other kids like me who are still figuring out our own identity, who are trying to fit in the world or trying to be seen, feel that they're not alone. And they're heard.

What would it have meant to you to see a Disney film like the one you made when you were young?

I grew up watching a lot of Disney movies, but they were all like Lion King or different princes and princesses and magical worlds -- all those are very inspiring and are very magical and very happy -- but I've never really seen myself as an international student coming from a foreign country being represented on the big screen in mainstream Hollywood. So, for me, if I were a kid seeing this film, I would feel like I'm seeing myself. I would feel that I'm not alone.

Now that you're in the Disney family, what is your dream Disney gig?

I would love, love, love, love to do a superhero movie. Because as a kid, I always dreamt about myself becoming a superhero. It's an escape but it's also really empowering. I can imagine what that would be if I get to do one.

Growing Fangs

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.

What was the initial idea that became your short? And what was the most important thing for you to accomplish with it?

Ann Marie Pace: The short is about a girl who's struggling with being half human and half vampire, and I think in my own life, something I struggled a lot with was being Mexican-American and bisexual and feeling like I had a foot in either world and not quite knowing where I belong or what my identity was fully. Something I had to learn in life is that if you are from multiple identities, it doesn't mean you're any less of that identity. It all makes you fully who you are. So, with Val, I wanted her to find that message and that reality but in a way that still celebrates the fact that she's Mexican and she's queer and those elements don't become the conflict. Instead, the conflict is this monster element. Growing up, I always really related to monster stories, as being an outsider story of someone who's scared or misunderstood and I think anyone who's ever felt like an outsider can really relate to that.

What would it have meant to you to see a Disney film like the one you made when you were young?

It would have been everything. I didn't see Mexican representation or queer representation growing up and even from a young age, I was able to internalize that and think that what that meant was those parts of myself weren't important. And I would then try to hide those parts of myself for many years of my life. So, I think seeing yourself onscreen just tells you that your story is worthwhile and you are important, and I hope that kids and adults alike will feel that after seeing all of our films together.

I love the world-building of Growing Fangs. Could you see yourself returning to these characters or this world to tell more stories, whether in a feature or series or another short?

Oh, absolutely. I'd love to continue expanding this world. There's so much more for Val to discover and the magic within the high school would be really fun to continue to explore and figure out how classes work there. Like, they probably wouldn't take Driver's Ed, they'd learn how to turn into bats. I think it would be so fun to do. And I think there's a lot of fun to be had with bringing in cultural elements partnered with the sort of eerie monster element. We could really find a lot of interesting stories with that.

Now that you're in the Disney family, what is your dream Disney gig?

I think it would be so cool to tell a Disney story -- whether it be a Disney princess story or whatever -- of a queer character. I've always wanted to see that. I think we're ready for that and I'd be so excited to dive into something like that.

The Last of the Chupacabras

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.

What was the initial idea that became your short? And what was the most important thing for you to accomplish with it?

Jessica Mendez Siqueiros: The Last of the Chupacabras was inspired by a longing that I've been exploring for some time to rekindle my own relationship with my heritage. My family has lived in what is now known as Tucson, Arizona, and the surrounding areas down into current-day Mexico for so many generations -- but that land has gone through so many identities over the past several hundred years. When you are indigenous to land that was once yours, then Mexico, and now finds itself in America, you go through so many cultural identity shifts that feel out of your control. It wasn't until my great-grandmother passed away that it became really apparent that it was in no way out of my control. The opposite, it was my responsibility to preserve our story. Because all of those generations fighting to maintain our culture would slip away with my generation if we let it. It was on me to educate myself, to become a steward of my own heritage, and to not let anyone take that celebration away from me. That's what I hope people take from the film: the courage to own their stories, to celebrate them, to ask the questions of their elders that will keep traditions going for generations to come.

The little Chupacabra in your film is so uniquely designed and truly adorable. How did you land on its look for the short?

We had incredible designers involved in the process, including Willie Real and Paul Andrejco, both incredibly storied designers and in Paul's case, puppet builders. From the beginning, I knew that I wanted something that felt very handmade. There was never any desire to hide the fact that this creature is a puppet, because I grew up visiting Mexico and buying small wooden trinkets of all kinds -- not just alebrijes, but all manners of small handmade toys. They lived in our house with us growing up and simply felt like home for me. I wanted the Chupacabra to feel like home for her in the same way. And with that, our incredible artists brought that to life.

What would it have meant to you to see a Disney film like the one you made when you were young?

You know, so many of the beautiful Launchpad films are a celebration for kids seeing themselves for the first time onscreen. But rather than think of my younger self, I really think of what it would have meant to my grandmother, what it means to my family now, what it will mean to myself when I reach my older years. Because representation isn't just important for young children, it matters for the older generations who didn't get to see themselves and now are. That means the world to me, because everyone still has that child inside longing to see themselves represented in the world.

Now that you're in the Disney family, what is your dream Disney gig?

There's so many parts of this company that would be a dream to work with! But having been a kid that grew up watching Vault Disney and so many of the early live-action films like The Love Bug, a part of me longs to work with the Disney Live Action team to create love-letter films to that era. An era when Disney still walked the lot, but to make them for an audience that is inclusive, that represents the makeup of the world. There are so many Easter eggs in my film that allude to that time. It's the Disney my dad grew up with, and to continue that sort of legacy into today would be my dream.

Let's Be Tigers

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.

What was the initial idea that became your short? And what was the most important thing for you to accomplish with it?

Stefanie Abel Horowitz: I was a babysitter in my early 20s and I babysat this little 4-year-old who was really smart and really loving, but one day he wanted to shoot me dead with his little finger gun. And I said, "Do you know what that means?" And he didn't. And I said, "Well, if I was dead, I wouldn't be here anymore. I wouldn't be able to take care of you. We wouldn't get to play," and he got really sad, of course, because who wouldn't get sad at that? And I thought this is sort of the ultimate tragedy -- that we will all die, that everyone in our life will die, and that we will go through sadness and loss of some kind over and over and over again. And so how do we talk about that in our culture? How do we share it and how do we talk to other children about it? I'm the daughter of a therapist and I'm great at listening, but I'm not so good at being vulnerable, and so I think the film is really about making that brave step of sharing the things that are hard, which I think so many filmmakers in this program did. And what a beautiful thing, because you create community, because you get to be reminded of life and friendship and that you're not alone in the world.

Dash McCloud is maybe the most adorable kid I've ever seen on film. How did you find this little man?

He's incredible! Luckily, I got to work with Disney casting and they're also incredible, but I knew he was the one in his first tape. He was really little and really young, and he was doing the lines and he took his whole fist and he stuffed it in his whole mouth and he just kept doing the scene. I thought, if this kid can do lines and be that much himself, we're going to make a good movie. And I think we did.

What would it have meant to you to see a Disney film like the one you made when you were young?

It's kind of a sad film, isn't it? I mean, listen, I'm not good at sharing, so I wonder if I could have been taught to share more. I wonder if I could have felt braver about sadness. I think I really do push it away. So, I wonder if it would've changed things. And I think in the Disney canon, sad things happen all the time. People lose parents at the beginning of these films, almost always, but it's not talked about. We create empathy and we move on so I hope that people feel like they can have hard conversations after this.

Now that you're in the Disney family, what is your dream Disney gig?

I love to tell stories about people and love and when they come together. I like stories of people learning how to relate to one another. I think to me, that has to be at the core. But the wonderful thing about Disney films is they always have that, otherwise it's not that good. I would love to make any big movie with Disney, are you kidding? Already being here feels like this is way beyond what you could expect. If I could do anything else with Disney, I'd be over the moon. So, listen Disney, you tell me what you want, I'm there!

The Little Prince(ss)

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.

What was the initial idea that became your short? And what was the most important thing for you to accomplish with it?

Moxie Peng: The story is based on something that happened to me when I was a child. I was like Gabriel, I was a little bit more feminine, I liked books and art and princesses. I didn't like to, like, go outside. And I became friends with this other kid who was running around and doing sports. His dad started to have a problem with me because he thought I was a bad influence. So, he came over to our dinner table and he told my dad that I was not normal and I need to be fixed. I felt heartbroken and I felt like I let my parents down and I started crying. My dad stood up for me and told him that he loved me for who I am, and if I liked books or art or princesses, it's OK. The message that my dad showed me that day was very clear, that I'm allowed to be exploring and to not know where I'm going to land. I think that's something precious and that's something I want to show the future generation.

What would it have meant to you to see a Disney film like the one you made when you were young?

I'm still processing. I think I grew up watching Disney movies -- I watched Lion King and Cinderella -- and those stories really inspired me. I think Disney has a tradition of nurturing and cultivating storytellers, and I just can't believe that I'm part of that. I just feel so honored to bring that queer and trans kid representation to screen and be able to contribute to the Disney legacy, and more so, to pass this legacy of storytelling to other kids who are still growing, for them to feel seen, for them to see the possibilities of them telling their stories in the future. It's really amazing. I feel like I'm opening up possibilities for some other kids.

The characters in the short, Gabriel and Rob, are so sweet. Could you imagine telling more stories with them, whether in a feature or a Disney+ series or another short?

Yeah. I did do a lot of character studies, and I actually really know Gabriel and Rob's family very well and what you see in this short is, like, the tip of the iceberg. I think it can be expanded to a feature, although I'm also someone who is always more into new stuff, so I don't know. Unless someone pinned me down and was like, "We want you to make it into a feature," I'll probably be like, "I want to make something new!" But I can see it.

Now that you're in the Disney family, what is your dream Disney gig?

I definitely want to make a Marvel film. I like Hulk and I like Iron Man. Iron Man is so funny. And a Pixar film. I also want to make a film for Searchlight, they're owned by Disney now. I want to make a film for each studio!

All six Launchpad short films are now streaming on Disney+.