In Conversation: Rock Farm Productions on Demi’s Panic

Meet Lorena Hernández Leonard and her husband Danny Leonard from Rock Farm Productions.

Lorena is a brilliant storyteller and marketer. I was privileged to work under her guidance for a few years before I started freelancing, and we’ve kept in touch. I was thrilled to hear that she and Danny are co-producing an animated short that Danny wrote – and they’re doing so in collaboration with King of Indie Animation Bill Plympton!

May is Mental Health Awareness Month, and so the announcement is timely; Demi’s Panic is a response to the rise in anxiety and depression that has been a direct result of the Covid-19 pandemic, alongside a personal family experience that triggered the idea.

Below, Lorena and Danny share the story that sparked the idea for Demi’s Panic, talk us through the rewards they’re offering to Kickstarter backers and where the funding will go, and delve into the journey of sourcing an exciting selection of music including the awe-inspiring original work of Colombian composer, Daniel Jimenez Afanador.

Read on to find out more, share their interview to help spread the word, and please do support Demi’s Panic on Kickstarter if you can.

LITTLE OBSERVATIONIST: As a marketer and a speaker, you have a strong background in the art of storytelling, so I’m excited to see your latest project come to life. This time you’ve ventured into the world of independent filmmaking. What is your short animated film, Demi’s Panic, all about?
LORENA: This type of project isn’t entirely new to me. I worked in advertising for years, helping produce many TV commercials, and I also worked on a big budget musical in Los Angeles with an A-list headliner. Both of these experiences gave me a little insight into the world of production and that has been very helpful with this film. What is entirely new to me is making an animated short. I’m learning so much from this process and we’re working with a super talented team that, whether they know it or not, are great teachers. 

Demi’s Panic is the story of a young Latina in NYC whose nightmares foreshadow an unprecedented storm, transforming her city and her life. The film is essentially about the anxiety and panic we’re all collectively experiencing during the Covid-19 pandemic, highlighting the mental health crisis that has hit the US (and the world) like a tsunami.

LO: The script was written by your husband, Danny Leonard. Where did his inspiration come from and what drove him to nurture the spark of an idea into the project it is today? 
LORENA: Yes, my husband Danny wrote the script. I’ll let him tell you about this himself…
DANNY: The story came to me last year after a very scary experience with our youngest daughter who was not even 2-years-old when the pandemic hit. She got very sick with a high fever for a week but the doctors would not test her for Covid, so we were left in limbo. I was afraid for her and for the rest of our family, and I experienced anxiety in a way I never had before. The element of the unknown was hard to deal with. I wished there was some way that I could actually see the virus and know what was happening to our daughter and what was happening all around us. So the idea to make this virus visible through a story drove me to write the script for Demi’s Panic. This was a way for me to process the stress and anxiety I felt during the early days of the pandemic.

Photo: Bill Plympton drawing Demi

LO: You’re working with Oscar-nominated animator Bill Plympton. Wow! How did that connection come about? What was his initial reaction to the script? 
DANNY: I have a few friends in the arts and entertainment industry and one of them introduced me to a composer in NYC who works with Bill. She liked the script and passed it on to him. I was really excited for the opportunity to chat with Bill and hoped he would read the script and give me some advice. I never imagined he would say “Let’s make it!” But that’s exactly what he said to me and I was literally speechless… and I’m rarely at a loss for words. Bill said he was drawn to the script because it’s about a topic he wanted to do something with. He liked the story for its timeliness, importance, and simplicity. When the King of Indie Animation says he wants to make your film, you do it! 
LORENA: I was so excited when Danny told me that Bill wanted to make the film. I mean, this is Bill Plympton! I remember watching his crazy animation on MTV on this program called Liquid Television back in the 90s when I was a teen. They were unlike anything I’d ever seen. And then there’s his Simpsons’ couch gags. Have you ever seen one? He recently did the opening couch gag for the Simpsons’ 700th episode which was fantastic. Bill is just a flowing fountain of creativity… his imagination truly has no boundaries.

LO: I hear you’ll be giving away some of his original drawings as rewards for your Kickstarter campaign! What other incentives are you offering to backers? 
LORENA: Yes, we have some really cool rewards for our Kickstarter backers. In addition to original artwork from the film signed by Bill Plympton, as you mentioned, backers can get a credit on the film itself, they can attend the Boston premiere where we’ll also be screening Bill’s Academy-nominated films, and they can be our guests at the afterparty where they’ll meet Bill and get a hand drawn sketch on the spot. We have many other prizes too, so go check them out on our Kickstarter page

Image: Bill Plympton self portrait

LO: What’s your Kickstarter funding goal? Can you give us a rough breakdown of where the money will go and who it will support? 
LORENA: Our goal is to raise $10,000 which will allow us to cover a portion of the production costs; this includes Bill’s animation, an original score, music licensing, sound mixing, voice acting, etc. However, we have a stretch goal of $20,000 which will allow us to focus resources not only to the production, but also the promotion of the film. Additionally, we plan to use a portion of the proceeds from our Kickstarter campaign to support a national mental health organization. The demand for their services has skyrocketed during the pandemic.
DANNY: We want our backers to know that by donating to this film, they’re not only supporting us the producers and all the independent artists involved in this production, but also the organization we’ve selected who is providing much needed help during this pandemic. 

LO: May is Mental Health Awareness Month, and Covid-19 has had a hugely negative impact on the current state of mental health in the US and beyond. It is an apt time to announce this film. In line with the topic of mental health, what do you hope your storytelling will communicate?
LORENA AND DANNY: We’re hoping the film will shed light on this crisis because, unfortunately, talking about anxiety and other mental health issues is still a taboo topic in this day and age. The majority of people experiencing mental illness do not talk about it nor do they seek the help they need. They suffer in silence. The pandemic has exacerbated this issue and we want those watching this film to know they are not alone. Their feelings are valid and their emotional health is of utmost importance.  

LO: How has your family’s bicultural identity played a role in both the storytelling behind Demi’s Panic and the collaborations you’ve made to bring the film to life?
DANNY: Our family is the inspiration for this film. Lorena is Colombian and I was born and raised in the Boston area. Our daughters are growing up in this duality of being bicultural and bilingual. When I imagined Demi, I thought about our oldest daughter who is now 9-years-old. I thought about what she might be like in her 20s as a young professional living her own life. Where might she live? Who might her circle of friends be? What might she do for work? And how might our relationship be as a family? 
LORENA: Since Danny’s script mirrors our family’s dynamics, we thought it was important to be representative of today’s American population beyond the characters. We recognised the need to elevate Latinx talent in our film because the Latinx community and Latinx stories continue to be largely under-represented in the media. This led us to seek out talent that was a true portrait of our family and of the many families across the country. 

Photo: Daniel Jimenez Afanador

LO: Who are some of the key Latinx artists who deserve shoutouts and recognition for their role in the creation of Demi’s Panic?
DANNY: I’m a music lover and it is a constant in my life. Music is also an extremely important element in a film so we wanted to incorporate great music that could seamlessly move the story forward. While listening to Alt.Latino on NPR I came across a Latinx artist named Roberto Carlos Lange, who goes by the artistic name Helado Negro. His music was mesmerising and I knew it would work well for Demi’s Panic. We ended up licensing his song “Catch That Pain.” The song’s title resonated with me because of the theme of the film. I also love the timeless bolero “Quizas, Quizas, Quizas” (“Maybe, Maybe, Maybe” in English) and although there are many versions of this song that have been recorded over the years, the recording done by Trio Los Panchos in the 1940s is my favorite. They were a NYC band, so it fits in that sense, and their version is beautiful and nostalgic so we licensed that song too to accompany a very poignant scene in the film.
LORENA: I tapped a producer friend in Los Angeles who connected me with a music composer who is also from Colombia, Daniel Jimenez Afanador. Not only did we hit it off right from the get go, but his music was just amazing. He has this talent for mixing traditional Latin sounds, specifically Colombian music, with more modern electronic and even orchestral music. Working with him has been phenomenal because he really understands the message and emotions we are trying to convey in the film. Danny and I are often saying “Wow, Daniel is a genius!” every time we listen to one of his compositions for the film. Daniel is actually a recipient of the Reel Change Fund for Diversity in Film Scoring. The grant, which helps support composers of diverse backgrounds that are historically under-represented in film scoring, is being applied to composing the score for Demi’s Panic. This means he’s been able to collaborate with other talented musicians in Los Angeles and in Colombia to enhance the sound and power of the music. For me, the best part is that these musicians bring in very authentic Latin sounds using instruments like the Marimba de Chonta and the Llanero harp. This just elevates the score to a whole new level. 

LO: Little Observationist is all about appreciating life’s little luxuries (many of which happen to give a small boost to our mental health). Name a couple you’ve enjoyed recently.
DANNY: Finding a creative outlet has had a positive impact on my mental health. Writing this script is one of the things that really helped me process the anxiety I was feeling. And meditation! I learned meditation through martial arts and used to meditate regularly but fell off the wagon – I blame Lorena. But when the pandemic hit I felt the need to go back to my meditation practice and I’m glad I did.
LORENA: Hey, I was the one that got you back on that meditation bandwagon! But in all seriousness, I agree with Danny. Creativity has been a huge contributor in preserving our mental health. I’m happiest when I’m involved in something creative, something that brings meaning and purpose to my life. Co-producing Demi’s Panic has been super beneficial in how I feel about the challenges we’re currently facing with this pandemic. Plus it’s so much fun! Of course it’s still a lot of work and sometimes very stressful but nothing worth doing is ever easy, right? Also yoga is my “little luxury.” I can escape the world for one hour a few times a week and recharge to take on the next challenge. 

Photo: Working at Bill Plympton’s studio

LO: Lastly, where can we connect for news on the progress of Demi’s Panic, and how can we best support this project (whether we have money to donate or otherwise)?
LORENA: Ah, yes, thanks for asking! You can connect with us by following Rock Farm Productions on Instagram @RockFarmProductions and Twitter @RockFarmProds, and support us by letting your friends and family know about this film, re-sharing posts on social media, and of course, by making a donation to our Kickstarter campaign. And a huge THANK YOU, for supporting us!

Thanks Lorena and Danny! Best of luck with fundraising and film production. We’ll be watching…!

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