By Daryl Paranada ’19
Alumnus Hao Zheng ’15 talked about his experience as one of six filmmakers who participated in Disney’s Launchpad program, an incubator for underrepresented filmmakers, during a virtual Q&A hosted by Emerson’s Office of the Arts on Wednesday, June 23.
“The process really amazed me,” said Zheng. “I had two mentors. They were overseeing Mulan, Disney’s live action feature. In the beginning, I thought they were probably not going to have much time for me… They’re really always there for me. Even now after the process. They’re almost like therapy for me.”
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The panel was hosted by Susan Chinsen, creative producer with Emerson’s Office of the Arts. It featured five of the six filmmakers who participated in Disney Launchpad: Aqsa Altaf (American EID), Stefanie Abel Horowitz (Let’s Be Tigers), Ann Marie Pace (Growing Pace), Moxie Peng (The Little Prince(ss)), and Zheng (Dinner is Served).
The 12-month program is an “opportunity for six underrepresented filmmakers to build a short for Disney+ within the studio system,” said Mahin Ibrahim, Disney’s director of diversity and inclusion, who also spoke on the panel. “Our goal really is to give access and opportunity to those who have not had it before.”
Inspired by life’s journey, the six live-action shorts for Disney+ are based on the theme, “discover.” In the Launchpad, writers and directors are paired with Disney creative executives who serve as mentors. With the full support of the studio behind them, the filmmakers learn how to collaborate and work effectively with their studio partners. As part of the program, the filmmakers were provided with the opportunity to share their perspectives and creative visions that show audiences what it means to be seen.
The six filmmakers were selected from more than 1,100 applicants. Once selected, they spent time developing their scripts and taking courses before launching into production. The shorts include stories with themes like not fitting in, finding comfort in unexpected places, and embracing who you are.
“The mentorship process was so valuable,” said Altaf, whose short is about a homesick Muslim Pakistani immigrant who wakes up on Eid to find out she has to go to school. “To have that mentorship and guidance… it’s so huge as a filmmaker, especially when you’re starting out. It fuels your soul.”
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Zheng’s short is about a Chinese student at an elite U.S. boarding school who realizes excellence is not enough when he tries out for a leadership position no international student has ever applied for. His short, which he co-wrote and directed, was the first of the six to go into production. Producing the shorts during COVID presented challenges for all the filmmakers, which they overcame with the help of Disney and their mentors. When asked about what advice he’d give to aspiring filmmakers, Zhao said to be patient.
“There’s a lot of self-doubt. You may feel like, ‘I’m a genius,’ in the morning and then you may just feel like, ‘I’m nobody,’ in the evening. Embrace those feelings,” said Zheng. “Those feelings are always changing. Tell yourself to be really patient, because it’s O.K. to not know the answers.”
Zheng credits his time at Emerson with helping communicate his vision while on set.
“When I was a sophomore, I crewed for a lot of upperclassmen on the weekends. I made sure I tried different positions on sets,” said Zheng. “With those technical backgrounds, it helps you communicate with your crew and your collaborators.”
The second season of the Disney Launchpad Shorts Incubator will launch in December 2021.
“This is really what we need today,” said Chinsen at the end of the event. “It gives me so much hope for the future of Hollywood, knowing this is the next generation coming up and this is the work that Disney is doing.”
The Launchpad shorts are available now on Disney+ for all subscribers.