Picture Character gives faces to the mysterious emoji creation process

Most people have had the experience of scrolling through their phone keyboards in search of a specific emoji, only to find it absent. A very small percentage of those people have actually stepped up to create their own emoji by submitting proposals to the Unicode Consortium, the Silicon Valley group in charge of approving which emoji show up on our phones. Picture Character, which premieres at Tribeca Film Festival today, is a documentary that follows the determined emoji creators who sign up for 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, lighthearted look at its history and future. Directors Martha Shane and Ian Cheney approach emoji from several angles: from its origin as simple symbols made in a grid of 12 x 12 pixels, to its emergence as a new form of language and communication. There’s a nice scene with Shigetaka Kurita — the inventor of emoji — as he beams over the designs he created for Japanese telecommunications company NTT Docomo in 1997, now exhibited in the MoMa lobby in New York.

Shigetaka Kurita draws his original smiley face emoji.
Photography by David Allen

The heart of the documentary lies in the three groups of creators it follows as they prepare to present their emoji — a hijab, the Argentinian mate drink, and a drop of blood, as a symbol of menstruation — to the Unicode Consortium. It’s hard not to be impressed by hijab emoji creator Rayouf Alhumedhi, then 15 years old, as she practices the presentation she’ll give to the Consortium; or celebrate with the Argentinian duo the moment they find out their mate emoji has been approved; or root for Plan International UK, the girls’ rights charity behind the period emoji, as they push forward despite initial setbacks. All three symbols have since been accepted and are working their way into our phones.

Beyond winning ultimate bragging rights, the emoji creators can pride themselves on introducing new symbols that open up ways for more people to feel seen and included. There are 550 million Muslim women who can now use the hijab emoji to represent themselves, a beloved traditional drink shines a spotlight on South American culture, and a period emoji normalizes and destigmatizes menstruation.

The film also questions whether the Unicode Consortium can be the appropriate guardians of emoji as a new form of language. Anyone can propose an emoji, but is it really the best solution that the Unicode Consortium — the members of which are mostly white, male tech executives — gets to decide which ones get approved? Consortium members themselves admit they’re not sure either: “The future of emoji will not necessarily still involve Unicode,” one says.

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

Given how long emoji have been around and how engrained it is in our daily lives, it’s surprising that Picture Character feels like the first time we’re putting actual faces to the governing body behind the cultural phenomenon. How many times have we just accepted the new batch of emoji popping up on our phones with every update, without thinking about the people who realized a need for it, designed it, and decided it should be there?

The film is inspiring — next time you find yourself searching for a missing emoji, instead of firing off an annoyed “Why isn’t there an ‘X’ emoji?” tweet, maybe you should take matters into your own hands, and draft a proposal of your own.

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

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