In the new animated film “The Emoji Movie,” senior animator Rebecca Pérez gets creative by giving life to the various emojis one would find in his or her cell phone. Actor T.J. Miller lends his voice to Gene, a “multi-expressive” emoji who sets off on an adventure to become a “Meh” emoji like his parents.
During an interview with me late last week, Pérez, who has also animated films like “Kung Fu Panda 2,” “Turbo” and “How to Train Your Dragon,” talked about the challenging aspects of animating the digital images found in smartphones, and how creative she was able to get on a project like “The Emoji Movie.”
What was your initial thought when you found out someone wanted to make a film about emojis?
My first thought was, “How are we going to make a film about emojis?” But I think the way it turned out is very relevant. I think so many people use emojis on their phone to communicate and tell stories. They sort of created a whole film around the personalities that the emojis have. They make it relevant and heartwarming. By the end of the film, you really feel for these characters.
Were you part of the decision-making process on which emojis were going to be included in the film?
As an animator, we take the existing characters and designs [the studio] has chosen. My assumption is that they chose the characters that were most common and most popular that people use – for example, the Meh character and Poop and High Five. They made a story around the relevancy of those particular characters. It’s really humorous and funny. I think a lot of people are going to relate.
What specific characters did you animate for this film?
I worked on the main characters for this film, so High Five and Meh, the Gene character, and Jailbreak. I think my favorite character was High Five, who is voiced by James Corden. He is super funny and over the top. You’re going to laugh every time you see him on screen.
So, after you get the designs of these characters, what’s the next step as an animator? I mean, you’re not animating something like pandas or snails, so you can’t go study the movements of real-life pandas and snails, so what do you do?
Well, when you have a design of the character and he’s a circle and has a mouth and he has two legs and two arms, you think, “How does that character move?” Those are the discussions you have as an animator. You think, “OK, well, this is a character that is a hand (High Five) with two legs. How do you make that expressive?” So, you start looking at your own hand and creating the expressions and the emotions of the character. There’s a dancing scene in the film, so you have to think, “How would you do that with your hand?” High Five is so cartoony and over-the-top, it’s super fun as an animator to able to be able to do that with a character like him. It’s sort of once in a lifetime opportunity.
As you got into it, were you surprised at how much creativity you could have with these characters?
Yes! I think that’s the challenging part for an animator. It’s more fun and you get your juices flowing more when you have a limited character that you have to do more with. It gets you thinking outside the box. I had to make these characters walk and fight and dance. You have to think outside of the norm as an animator. These are the type of projects that make you creative as an animator.
Were their opportunities to use other emojis that weren’t the main characters?
There were a lot of those opportunities. Part of the story takes place inside a phone app where you can select your emojis. Think of “Hollywood Squares” where each square has its own emoji. You may have a scene primarily about two of the main characters, but in the background you have a variety of characters. They’re all emojis that you don’t necessarily use on a day-to-day basis, but they are in the background, so you have opportunities to jump in there and animate them. When you see the movie, look in the background and see where the animators throw in a joke or something fun.
You bring up a good point. I have hundreds of emojis in my phone, and I don’t think I’m ever going to use something like the flag of Norway anytime soon.
Yeah, they’ve added all these new emojis you wouldn’t even think you would ever use. They exist in the background of the film. So if you see it, you’ll be able to catch animations in the background that were driven by the animators to add an extra level of laughs and jokes.
Can you give us an example of something in the background audiences should look out for?
There’s one scene where the shot pans across and you can see in the background the devil character and the angel character having a moment together. They’re dancing, and you can tell there’s an attraction.
In your everyday life, which emoji do you wish you used more?
I wish I could use the Meh emoji more. I rarely use it. I mostly use the laughing or winking emoji. I’m used to those two primarily because I’m always telling jokes.
I think some people use emojis too much – like they have a whole conversation with only emojis. Do you think were at that point in society where technology has taken over the way we communicate?
I don’t think technology has taken over, but I do think technology has made it easier to communicate. Say for instance, you’re busy running an errand or you’re in the middle of something, it’s much quicker just to show an emotion with an emoji then to type out a full conversation. Technology has made us all a little more lazy, but at the same time, it’s sort of fun to be able to show a picture to describe your feelings.
So, if my wife texts me today and asks if I liked last night’s dinner and I didn’t, would you advise me to use the vomit face emoji?
(Laughs) If it was your wife, I’d tell her that her meal was delicious and that you appreciate she cooks for you.
Are you ever going to be able to look at the emojis in your phone and not think about this movie?
No. I don’t think I will. Now, every time I look at an emoji, I remember what I did with this film. It’s funny because my girls, every time they see an emoji at the store or on my phone or wherever, they say, “Hey, you worked on that film!” I don’t think any of us will look at emojis ever the same again.