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If Picture Character, a new documentary from directors Martha Shane and Ian Cheney, had simply accomplished the most basic aspect of its premise — delving into the history of emoji, and the process by which new ones are created — it would have made for a thoroughly instructive and entertaining film. But it goes far deeper than that, exploring issues like representation, the governance of technology, and the evolution of language.
The movie, which just premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival, is centered around the efforts to get three new emoji added to the Unicode lexicon: a woman wearing a hijab, a pot of mate, and period blood. Along with this, it explores how emoji fit in with larger trends in language and the ways emoji have influenced visual art. Hyperallergic spoke with Shane and Cheney via email about making the film and the larger topics it covers. This interview has been edited and condensed.
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Tobias Carroll: What drew you to the idea of making a film about emoji?
Martha Shane: When the idea for this film was brought to me, my first thought was about an extended text exchange I had with a friend back around 2012 that was comprised exclusively of emoji. It was hilarious to see how much could be communicated with this limited set of symbols, and also where the communication broke down. I think those questions around the possibilities and limitations of a set of digital icons were what drew me to the project.
Ian Cheney: My first thought was “How could you possibly make an entire documentary about emoji?” And of course, that’s when I knew I was hooked.
TC: How did you settle on the individuals whom you ended up following?
Martha Shane & Ian Cheney: Jenny 8 Lee, our producer, is deeply involved with all aspects of the emoji world, and she would give us a heads up about new emoji. Ultimately, we were drawn to the three specific emoji in the film (hijab, period, and mate) because of their creators’ dedication to their projects, and because they allowed us to highlight the different ways that emoji can be brought into being.
TC: At one point, Emojipedia’s Jeremy Burge argues that the rise of emoji is connected to the diminishing of phone conversations. Did that resonate with you?
MS & IC: Absolutely. Emoji allow us to add tone to texts, which otherwise can sound cold and be difficult to interpret. Doesn’t a message feel friendlier with a dolphin, for example?
TC: What were some of the challenges of conveying one form of communication using an entirely different medium?
MS & IC: How to visually communicate texting is a gigantic question that all filmmakers today, fiction and nonfiction, are grappling with. How can we make films that give a realistic sense of life in the 21st century without having the main characters staring at their phones a third of the time they’re on camera? We addressed this by relying on animation to depict text conversations, and also through close-ups showing people’s phones during vérité scenes. We think it’s a challenge we’ll continue to explore in our work.
TC: At what point in the process did it become clear that subjects like gender and representation were going to be major themes in the film?
MS & IC: A lot of the major debates that have been happening in the emoji universe for the past five years have been focused on questions about representation, so it was clear from the beginning that this would be a part of the film. Ultimately, while we’re all in favor of a white wine emoji, or a flamingo, or an abacus, the emoji that were tied to these questions felt more closely aligned with those broader debates, and that made them richer subjects to explore.
TC: The opening shots of the film include some images of emoji-inspired art. Later, the film covers MoMA’s acquisition of the original emoji designs. Where do you see the overlap between emoji and art?
MS & IC: Shigetaka Kurita, the creator of the emoji that were acquired by MoMA, pointed out that his first designs faced serious space constraints. He only had a few pixels to work with, but he worked wonders. In a sense, emoji are all about creativity within constraints, and that seems like a fair description of art itself.
TC: An element that I was particularly struck by was the contrast between the individual interviewees from Unicode versus how Unicode is perceived by people not affiliated with it. Do you intend to demystify the process by which emoji are selected? Or, given that Unicode doesn’t allow cameras in their meetings, do you think the process isn’t transparent enough?
MS & IC: We definitely wanted to demystify the emoji selection process, but from a journalistic point of view, we think Unicode’s process still isn’t transparent enough. It was interesting, however, to learn that what we saw as a lack of transparency was viewed by many members of the Unicode Consortium as relative openness. They were comparing the level of transparency they practice with the atmosphere of extreme secrecy many Silicon Valley companies operate in as they design and develop their technologies.
TC: One of the recurring topics is the ways emoji can transcend national and linguistic borders. There are numerous languages spoken onscreen. Was that a conscious thematic decision?
MS & IC: Because emoji are such a global phenomenon, it was inevitable that we would film people all over the world, and the fact that this helped draw attention to questions around emoji as a global language was a lucky side effect. One of the projects that we haven’t been able to tackle yet, but which we hope will happen before the film is released wide, is to translate the entire film into emoji. This was our dream from the very beginning, for people to be able to toggle on emoji subtitles if they so choose. We think it’s the best experiment we could do, using the film itself to investigate the efficacy of emoji as a language.
TC: Was there anything wanted to include in the film, but weren’t able to?
MS & IC: There’s a lot of debate among the designers of emoji about the level of detail and realism that they should have. What was so appealing about the earliest emoji was their simplicity. But today’s emoji, particularly Apple’s, are the opposite of that. They’re increasingly lifelike. It would be fun to explore some of those more design-focused questions, but we didn’t have time.
TC: Emoji are constantly evolving. When making the film, how did you navigate the constant changes within this field? Did you need to set a cutoff point?
MS & IC: We decided to flag some of the key moments in the emoji timeline: their first appearance on cellphones in Japan, their addition to the Unicode standard, the advent of skin tone options. But we left the future a little undefined and unbounded, because we genuinely have no idea where emoji are headed next!