Picture Character gives faces to the mysterious emoji creation process

Most people have had the experience of scrolling through the keyboards of their phones in search of a specific emoji, only to find it as absent. A very small percentage of those people have really come together to create their own emoji by submitting proposals to the Unicode Consortium, the Silicon Valley group in charge of approving the emoji that appear on our phones. Picture Character, which premieres at the Tribeca Film Festival today, is a documentary that follows the determined creators of emoji who enroll in the process that can sometimes span years, and comes with its emotional ups and downs.

Named after the Japanese translation of "emoji", Picture Character is a fun and joyful look at its history and future. The directors Martha Shane and Ian Cheney approach the emoji from several angles: from its origin as simple symbols made in a grid of 12 x 12 pixels until its appearance as a new form of language and communication. There is a beautiful scene with Shigetaka Kurita, the inventor of the emoji, while transmitting the designs he created for the Japanese telecommunications company NTT Docomo in 1997, which are now exhibited in the lobby of MoMa in New York.

picture character gives faces to the mysterious emoji creation process

Shigetaka Kurita draws his original smiling emoji face.
Photograph by David Allen

The heart of the documentary is found in the three groups of creators that follow as they prepare to present their emoji: a hijab, the drink of mate argentina and a drop of blood, as a symbol of the menstruation – to the Unicode consortium. It is difficult not to be impressed by the emoji hijab creator, Rayouf Alhumedhi, who is 15 years old, while practicing the presentation he will give to the Consortium; or celebrate with the Argentine duo at the moment they discover that their emoji mate has been approved; or the root of Plan International UK, the charity of girls' rights behind the emoji period, as they move forward despite initial setbacks. Since then, the three symbols have been accepted and are making their way into our phones.

Beyond winning the latest bragging rights, emoji creators can take pride in introducing new symbols that open up ways for more people to see and be included. There are 550 million Muslim women who can now use the emiji hijab to represent themselves, a well-liked traditional drink highlights South American culture, and a period of emoji normalizes and destigmatizes menstruation.

The film also questions whether the Unicode Consortium can be the proper guardians of the emoji as a new form of language. Anyone can propose an emoji, but is it really the best solution that Unicode Consortium, whose members are mostly white, male technology executives, decide which ones are approved? The members of the consortium admit that they are not sure either: "The future of the emoji will not necessarily involve Unicode," says one.

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Rayouf Alhumedhi, creator of the emoji hijab.
Photograph by Lucy Martens

. Given the time that emoji take and their degree of clarity in our daily life, it is surprising that Picture Character feels like the first time we put real faces on the governing body behind the cultural phenomenon. How many times have we just accepted the new lot of emoji that appears on our phones with each update, without thinking about the people who realized the need, designed it and decided that it should be there?

The movie is inspiring – the next time you find yourself looking for a missing emoji, instead of shooting an annoying tweet "Why is not there an emoji? X?", Maybe you should take the matter in your own hands and write a proposal on your own.

Picture Character is now shown at the Tribeca Film Festival from April 28 to May 5.

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