It’s a shame that 2017’s The Emoji Movie exists—though, by all means, get that money, Patrick Stewart (in the role of “Poop”) and Maya Rudolph (“Smiler”). It’s just… that animated cash grab soiled a perfectly good title for a superior emoji treatise that would follow only two years later: the 2019 Tribeca Film Festival-selected documentary Picture Character.
You might (might) recognize this film today as The Emoji Story, as it was acquired by production company Utopia in December 2020 before having its name changed and finally becoming available on most VOD platforms. But this comprehensive look at the world of 1,182 unique emoji (and counting) first sneaked onto our radar during South by Southwest 2019. Emoji activist and dumpling emoji () creator Jennifer 8. Lee was presenting on the newly adopted “interracial couple” emoji (which she helped shepherd to reality alongside partners at Tinder) and mentioned she had produced an upcoming project. Lee’s panel essentially demystified the unseen emoji creation and approval process for a small Austin Convention Center conference room, and her film would set out to do the same for a much wider audience.
“It’s kind of a maze and takes a really long time—generally between 18-24 months—from when you have an idea and when it hits your iPhone,” Lee said during that SXSW panel. She would know. In addition to her successful dumpling campaign, Lee is one of the leaders of EmojiNation, a group that set out to diversify emoji after learning firsthand how limited the selection process can be. After all, the emoji that now run rampant on our smart devices and social media feeds all get approved by the tiniest, 12-person selection committee made up of older techie representatives from big corporations (Netflix, Google, Oracle, IBM, Apple, Facebook, Adobe, Microsoft, Shopify) alongside a few unexpected guests (German software company SAP; the Chinese telecom company Huawei; and the government of Oman). Each organization pays tens of thousands a year for the privilege of having someone voting yes or no on everything from “mate” (a customary Argentine drink) to “anglefish.” Lee eventually joined the Unicode sub-committee on emoji (a non-voting role open to anyone with a $75/year Unicode membership) to better learn the emoji vetting process and look through submissions.