Demi’s Panic is the first film that Lorena Hernández Leonard, MS ’11 has ever worked on professionally. Now the animated short is making rounds on the festival circuit with buzz that it’ll land on the Academy Awards short list.
The film is about the anxiety and panic we’ve all been experiencing since the pandemic began. In it, Demi, a young Latina living in New York City, starts having nightmares and panic attacks at the beginning of the pandemic. Her nightmares become society’s reality.
Plymptoons Studios animated the film with Leonard’s Rock Farm Productions, which she co-founded with her husband, Danny Leonard. While we can’t see COVID spreading, the Leonards wanted the animation to show COVID particles following Demi and everybody else.
As co-producer, Leonard, who is Colombian, wore many hats, particularly making sure the script was accurately depicting multicultural lifestyles. Danny wrote the script, the first script he’s written that turned into a film.
“First and foremost, my part was sitting with him and having discussions about culture, and what we needed to bring into the script to make it culturally relevant to us and ethnically diverse families,” said Leonard. “Things such as dialogue, what the main character looked like, and the music that played in the background. There is a part of the film with the mother who is Latina, and she gives Demi something to protect her. We had a long conversation about what she gives her and that it’s culturally correct. She gives her an amulet-like thing.”
Leonard networked with Emerson colleagues and professional connections to find a composer to create an original score that utilized Colombian instruments.
The script is very personal for the couple, who to this day don’t know if their preschool age daughter had COVID or not because doctors refused to test her due to a shortage of tests in the beginning of the pandemic. She was very sick, with a bad cough, a fever that wouldn’t break for days, and no appetite.
“We went through a very emotional rollercoaster. [Danny] suffered for the first time ever from clinical anxiety and panic attacks,” said Leonard. “He thought we don’t know who has it, where the particles are coming from. At that time, you went to the grocery store with masks and gloves, and you thought you could just touch something and get it.”
The Leonards wanted to make the particles real, so viewers could see the virus. Demi goes along in her life, interacting on the job, with friends, her boyfriend, not knowing the virus is around her.
“There’s always been a big issue of mental health disorders with stress and anxiety,” said Leonard. “With COVID it’s really spiked, and we wanted to bring that onto the screen, and we wanted to connect with everybody. We felt isolated, but when you have a mental health disorder, you are not alone. We wanted to connect to the reality of it.”
Leonard said her Emerson College experience helped tremendously in numerous ways with this film and in her mainstay jobs in communications, marketing, and advertising. She lauds her degree for opening doors for better jobs, and giving her the confidence to go after those jobs, and to ask for more pay (which she got).
Demi’s Panic recently won Best Animation Film at the Big Apple Festival and is an official selection at the Woodstock Film Festival, HollyShorts Film Festival, Napa Valley Film Festival, Film Fest Tucson, Arlington International Film Festival, Spark Animation (Canada), World Festival of Animated Film Varna (Bulgaria), Short Shorts Films Festival and Asia (Japan), Toronto Shorts International Film Festival (Canada), and the Future Film Festival (Italy). It’s also been screened in South Korea, Spain, and San Francisco. It is longlisted among 84 animated films from around the world for the Academy Awards.