Film Forward

This Animator Is Using His Talent To Transform Kids With Disabilities Into Superheroes

"We're not perfect, but we're still stars."

Earlier this year, Sesame Street introduced a new character named Julia, the show's first Muppet with autism. It was an important moment for the estimated 1 in 68 children affected by autism, who are underrepresented in most popular media.

Animator Joshua Leonard hopes to add to that representation, and then some.

The creator of Leonard Studios is channeling his talent and experience into a new cartoon called Team Supreme, which features a group of young superheroes unlike any we've seen before. Every member of the team is a child with a functional need who also has a superpower. And according to Leonard, that's not too different from real life.

"What inspired me to create Team Supreme was the fact that I know a lot of people who have a child with a special need, one of those special needs being autism," Leonard explained to A Plus. "I was able to learn and study from their lifestyles, which is where I found out about splinter skills. That's when someone on the autism spectrum can master something like memorizing the names of everyone who worked on a Disney film after watching it a few times. That's like having a superpower!"

Courtesy of Joshua Leonard
Courtesy of Joshua Leonard

Team Supreme's main character is Zeek, short for Ezekiel, a boy with autism. Time slows down for Zeek so he can figure out the precise angles necessary to quickly defeat his opponents — a power Leonard likens to splinter skills.

Zeek and his younger sister Sweet Pea are trained by their father Dr. Jackson, a scientist who has adopted the other members of Team Supreme. They include:

Thumper, who was born prematurely and with impaired hearing. Leonard describes him as "the strongest kid out of the team," with enhanced eyesight. 

Shock, the oldest of the kids, who was hit by a car and had his arm amputated. According to Leonard, "Dr. Jackson enhanced his arm by inventing an electric device that can be switched different ways."

Li, who was born blind and can hear from miles away.

Red (Angel), who has albinism and wears a special suit to protect her skin from the sun. 

Mech, who is paralyzed from polio, and whose wheelchair can transform into a mechanical suit that allows him to walk.

Zeek, Team Supreme's protagonist / Courtesy of Joshua Leonard
Zeek, Team Supreme's protagonist / Courtesy of Joshua Leonard

This variety of representation is a step forward for the portrayal of people with disabilities in media. A report from GLAAD showed that 1.7 percent of regular TV characters in the 2016-17 season had a disability. That's a record high, up from 0.9 percent the previous year, but considering the U.S. Census reported in 2010 that 19 percent of the population has a disability, there's still plenty of work to do.

Leonard is particular about the terms he uses to describe his characters, and the qualities that make them — and the real children who inspired the cartoon — so special. "I don't call them disabilities anymore, but special needs instead, because they are capable of doing amazingly unreal things that I can't do."

An animation of Zeek and Shock

In addition to much-needed representation, Leonard hopes his project can educate people, as well as emphasizing the importance of diversity in various forms. As his website describes, "Team Supreme is more than just a cartoon, it's also a brand for people all over the world to believe in themselves, no matter their look, religion, color, ideas, etc."

"I hope to open the eyes of everyone who doesn't quite understand what it means to have a special need," the animator told A Plus. "I feel like being an animator of color, I needed to be extremely diverse in my cartoon by choosing kids with special needs so people will see that although we're all different, we're still amazing human beings. That's why the star in my Team Supreme logo is crooked. We're not perfect, but we're still stars."

The animator with his characters / Courtesy of Joshua Leonard
The animator with his characters / Courtesy of Joshua Leonard

The project is already making a positive impact. "I haven't shown them personally," he said of the children who inspired the cartoon, "but my friends who are their parents have, and they're extremely excited about it. They're excited about finally having a cartoon where the characters are like them."

The project even has a kid's touch, thanks to Leonard's 11-year-old daughter. He calls her his "executive producer" and told A Plus that she helps him with ideas.

But Leonard has inspired more than just the kids in his own life. Team Supreme recently caught the attention of Shekira Farrell, a fellow artist who transformed her son Jaiden, who has autism, into the cartoon's main character Zeek "to show love and support to an amazing and necessary concept." She shared photos of the costume on Facebook and added the hashtag #RepresentationMatters.

Leonard says the project is "in the beginning stages," but he hopes to make a pilot episode by early next year to pitch to networks such as Netflix. "My plans for Team Supreme are huge," he told A Plus. "My goal is to have a successful cartoon, action figures, video games, and in the future, a feature film."

He clearly has the work ethic. The animator describes himself as "a very busy, busy person." He's a full-time animation student with a 4.0 GPA and a full-time job, in addition to running his company. The current Atlanta resident previously lived in Biloxi, Miss., where Hurricane Katrina left him homeless for months. He also happens to be trained in mixed martial arts, so we'll go ahead and call him a superhero as well.

If you want to show your support for the project, you can shop themed merchandise (pictured above) in the Team Supreme Shop, where Leonard says a portion of the sales will go toward autism awareness.

You can learn more about Team Supreme on the Leonard Studios website, as well as Facebook and Twitter. To borrow the team's catchphrase, "Let's GoOO!!!"

Courtesy of Joshua Leonard
Courtesy of Joshua Leonard

The ways we watch TV and movies have evolved, and it's time for the talent in front of and behind the camera to do the same. Film Forward speaks on the initiatives to diversify the film industry and the stories it tells. New articles premiere every second Thursday of — and throughout — the month.

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