'Picture Character': Film Review | Tribeca 2019

Taylor Gentry
Everything you always wanted to know about emojis, but were afraid to ask.

Martha Shane and Ian Cheney's documentary explores the history and cultural impact of emojis.

Chances are, you use them every day and know very little about them. I'm talking about emojis, those cute graphics which apparently no email or text message can be without anymore. Martha Shane and Ian Cheney's documentary, whose title is the English translation of the Japanese word emoji, delivers a quick primer on their history and several human interest stories about people petitioning to get new emojis established. If you had no idea such a thing was even possible, then Picture Character, receiving its world premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival, will prove enlightening.

The film includes many clever touches relating to its subject matter, such as an emoji version of the pre-show theater announcement and graphics of emojis related to the topics being discussed scattered liberally throughout the proceedings. We learn that emojis came into prominence when, as one expert puts it, "the phone call died." Emojis help to set the tone for electronic communications which can often be prone to misinterpretation. The most popular are, you won't be surprised to learn, smiley faces and hearts.

Emojis don't spring into being all by themselves. They must be approved by something called the Unicode Consortium, whose name makes it sound like an evil organization in a dystopian sci-fi thriller. It's actually a nonprofit based in (where else?) Silicon Valley, composed in part of representatives of all the major tech companies. Anyone is free to petition for a new emoji and make an argument for its existence. In recent years, bagel and sloth emojis have been approved, while Jesus and condom emojis have been rejected.

The documentary presents the stories of three such applications, including a Saudi Arabian teenager wanting an emoji of a woman wearing a hijab, so she feels represented; two Argentinian women petitioning for one based on mate, a type of tea that is iconic in Argentine culture; and an American group who think there should be one representing menstruation. As you might imagine, the last have some difficulty coming up with a suitable graphic design. (No spoilers here as to which of them get approved.)

Michael Everson, an expert in computer encoding, says that emojis are hardly new, pointing out that there are many graphic images in the texts of medieval manuscripts. He's invented numerous emojis himself, including the popular Vulcan salute, but complains that the glut needs to be controlled.

Shigetaka Kurita agrees with that notion, and he should know. He's the Japanese interface designer who invented emojis over 20 years ago. His original designs featured 176 emojis; the current total is 2,823. He thinks they've become too complicated, but is nonetheless thrilled that they've become ubiquitous. "I just thought it was something that would make people happy," he says, while touring a Museum of Modern Art exhibition inspired by his creation.

The film ends amusingly with a montage of people making arguments for new emojis, including Sen. Angus King of Maine, who thinks there should be one devoted to one of his state's biggest exports, the lobster. And that's one of the more serious proposals.

Directors: Martha Shane, Ian Cheney
Producers: Ian Cheney, Jennifer 8. Lee, Martha Shane
Executive producers: Fred Benenson, Peter Hess Friedland
Cinematographers: Emily Topper, Ian Cheney, Lucy Martens
Editors: Frederick Shanahan
Composers: Simon Beins, Ben Fries
Venue: Tribeca Film Festival (Spotlight Documentary)

81 minutes