Emojis help us express ourselves in ways we don’t have time to express, or don’t have the forethought to express, or are afraid to express.
Human beings have never been more connected. With the smartphone, we are never out of touch from each other – and constantly in touch with people around the world. And with a simple invention, we are now able to communicate with people who are separated from us by language, borders, oceans…
Now, Sony Pictures Animation takes you into the secret world inside your phone for a rollicking adventure in The Emoji Movie.
“Emojis help us express ourselves in ways we don’t have time to express, or don’t have the forethought to express, or are afraid to express,” says Tony Leondis, one of the writers and the director of The Emoji Movie. “When I get a heart-eyes emoji from my mom, it actually means something – it makes me smile. In this world of technology, the human heart has found a way to connect.”
Hidden within the messaging app is Textopolis, a bustling city where all your favorite emojis live, hoping to be selected by the phone’s user. In this world, each emoji has only one facial expression – except for Gene (T.J. Miller), an exuberant emoji who was born without a filter and is bursting with multiple expressions. Determined to become “normal” like the other emojis, Gene enlists the help of his handy best friend Hi-5 (James Corden) and the notorious code breaker emoji Jailbreak (Anna Faris). Together, they embark on an epic “app-venture” through the apps on the phone, each its own wild and fun world, to find the Code that will fix Gene. But when a greater danger threatens the phone, the fate of all emojis depends on these three unlikely friends who must save their world before it’s deleted forever.
The film is directed by by Tony Leondis from a screenplay by Tony Leondis & Eric Siegel and Mike White. Story by Tony Leondis & Eric Siegel.
Eric Siegel (Screenplay / Story) is currently writing the Untitled Twain/Tesla Project for CBS Films. He is the author of several plays including “Wish,” which received its world premiere off-Broadway in 1999 (Critics’ Pick, Backstage Magazine). His poem “Somethin’ Else” was published in Artillery magazine in 2013.
Mike White (Screenplay) is an award-winning writer, director, actor and producer. His writing credits range from the indie black comedies Chuck and Buck, The Good Girl and Year of the Dog and the recently released Beatriz at Dinner to main-stream comedy hits School of Rock, Orange County and Nacho Libre. His TV credits include the short-lived but critically praised “Freaks and Geeks” and “Pasadena.”
“Everybody’s using emojis – they’re part of our everyday life,” says producer Michelle Raimo Kouyate. “I always enjoy animated movies that go inside a world that you deal with every day, but never gave a thought to.”
And for T.J. Miller, who voices the lead role of an emoji named Gene in the film, that’s the perfect jumping off point for a movie. “Parents use emojis with kids and kids use emojis with parents, so everyone is in on the joke from the get-go. From the first scene, you think, ‘Oh, I use that emoji all the time, my friend uses the dancing woman emoji,’” he says. “And when you add the fun of having Sir Pooptrick Stewart playing Poop, Sofia Vergara playing Flamenca, Anna Faris playing Jailbreak – she’s so dynamic – Maya Rudolph is so funny, Steven Wright, one of my icons in the standup world, Jennifer Coolidge and James Corden are never not funny… I was excited to join them because it seemed like the project had the elements to be a great and very surprising movie.”
At the center of The Emoji Movie is – no surprise – a phone, belonging to a teenage boy named Alex. And at the center of his phone is Textopolis, where all emojis live. “Textopolis is a hustling, bustling community that serves only one purpose: to help Alex communicate,” says Leondis. “They wake up in the morning, go to their jobs, and each emoji has a central and very important role to play.”
All emojis are meant to be one thing – the single emotion that they are meant to express. No matter how they might be feeling inside, Smiler’s always got to be smiling, Crier always has to cry even if he just won the lottery, and Christmas Tree has got to be… Christmassy.
But then there’s Gene, an emoji born expressing every possible emotion – which leads to everything going wrong for Gene.
“In a world populated by emojis only expressing one emotion, an emoji with every expression would be very threatening,” says Leondis. “Not coincidentally, in our world, being different is sometimes threatening to other people.”
“The thing about Gene that really appealed to me is that he feels like he’s broken – not just different, but broken – and could be fixed somehow,” says Kouyate. “As he goes on this journey to ‘fix’ himself, he realizes that he’s not broken at all – the thing that makes him different makes him stronger. That’s the huge metaphor of the movie – and I think that’s a universal feeling.
With his friend Hi-5, Gene seeks out the codebreaker emoji Jailbreak, who promises that she can fix Gene – if they can just make their way to The Cloud. Of course, that journey changes Gene, but not in the ways he expected.
“Gene goes from self-doubt, to accepting himself, to someone who celebrates his differences,” Leondis continues. “Celebrating our differences is something that’s really important, even more today than ever.”
Gene’s journey has real-world complications. Alex has been trying to get the courage to text a girl he likes – and if he doesn’t send the right emoji, it could spoil his chances forever. When Gene’s journey puts the phone on the blink, Alex starts to believe that the only solution is to wipe his phone… and everyone in it.
“Gene and Alex’s journeys mirror each other,” says Leondis. “It’s about a boy who’s trying to express himself to a girl, but doesn’t feel free enough to express his emotions. Gene has all of these emotions but he’s told to suppress them, so he doesn’t know how to express his emotions either.”
Gene’s journey takes him through several of the world’s most popular apps – including Candy Crush Saga, Dropbox, Instagram, Just Dance, Spotify, Twitter, WeChat, and YouTube – with each app becoming its own distinct world as the three emojis make their way to The Cloud. Popular apps Crackle, Facebook, Shazam, Snapchat, and Twitch also appear in the movie.
“We go through Candy Crush, where Gene’s in danger of being deleted – his worst nightmare,” explains Kouyate. “We go into the Just Dance app, where Gene has to truly express himself. We go to Spotify, where Gene rides on different kinds of music streams. We go to YouTube, where thousands of videos play on screens all around them, and Instagram, where photographs come to 360-degree life.”
“It’s such a privilege to play in these worlds, which are such a huge part of everyone’s everyday life,” says Leondis. “Every app that we picked needed to challenge Gene and move him forward on his journey emotionally, but also be a widely known, interesting app that a kid would have on his or her phone. That’s how we merged our adventure through these apps with our story about communication and a little guy who just feels different.”
Visualising The World Of Emojis
For the look and design of The Emoji Movie, Leondis turned to production designer Carlos Zaragoza. Zaragoza and Leondis worked closely with Visual Effects Supervisor David Alexander Smith to achieve the final look of the film. “We have some of the best artists in the business working on this movie, all led by Carlos and Dave, and all were really committed to make the very best movie possible,” says Leondis.
The head of the art department, responsible for creating the entire look of everything on the screen, from the characters to the world, Zaragoza says while a movie about emojis would seem to be drawn from the current moment, the animators found inspiration in the oldest animation references. “Ultimately, we are giving life to objects, food, musical notes – so for me, it was going back to the animated shorts of the 1930s, where everything was animated; objects had life. That’s one of my favorite periods of animation, so I was happy to work in something like that.”
Zaragoza says that his greatest challenge was to bring over 300 emojis – some of the simplest designs around – to three-dimensional, expressive life. “Emojis are graphic designs, icons, pictograms,” he says. “We use them to represent a concept, but they aren’t very complex. But for our story, we needed a complex character who could convey so many different emotions – it’s so important to show how a character feels. So we had to keep the graphic look while making them very versatile.”
Zaragoza’s team was also responsible for the look of the world inside the phone – Textopolis and each of the separate apps that Gene, Hi-5 and Jailbreak make their way through on their adventure. “The fun of designing a movie is starting from scratch and designing something that never existed and is not in the real world,” says the production designer. “I was lucky to lead an amazing design team. They are truly storytellers. Any individual design is helping to tell the story.”
“I liked the idea of going inside the phone, because I knew there would be a huge opportunity for creativity, a lot of places we could expand and create looks that we haven’t seen before,” says Smith. “Each app is different and each character is fairly different. We could mix that with a real-world feel in Alex’s world.”
“In design, sometimes you show the audience something familiar in a way they’ve never seen before to engage with them,” Zaragoza explains. “That’s what we are doing with Textopolis. It looks like a city, but it’s surreal, absurd. Everything looks like an icon, an emoji: the buildings, the vehicles, the signs, objects… Fun and beautiful but, at the same time, a trap for someone who is different; the city looks like a golden cage. We played with that a bit, giving everything rounded corners, graphic simplicity and a colorful appeal
Due to the many unique environments and the sheer amount of characters – over 250 individual emojis were created from scratch for the movie – making the film was often challenging, but to director Leondis, it was equal times fun and rewarding. “The crew went above and beyond,” he says of the experience, “Sony is a fantastic place to make a movie. My hope is that the joy we had in creating these amazing and colorful characters and worlds comes across to audiences as they see the film.”