LOS ANGELES -- If emojis were alive, their job would not be easy: called on at all hours to show up on screen happy-faced, with heart-shaped eyes, as mini-pizzas or ... piles of poop. They form the indispensable background to our digital lives.
It is almost impossible to imagine a text message without emojis. These thousands of symbols establish the tone to our communications: happy, sad, annoyed, frustrated, ironic. New York's Museum of Modern Art (MOMA) last year recognized their importance, adding them to its collections.
Filmmaker Tony Leondis could not resist the temptation: He has designed a world in which these fantasy figures exist. His "The Emoji Movie," a Sony animation, reaches US theaters in July.
"I want to know what the story is behind the phone" where emojis dwell, he told reporters at a round-table discussion attended by AFP. "What is that world? And build from there."
And so was born the city of "Textopolis," located deep in the smartphone of 15-year-old Alex. There, all life revolves around a unique industry: making emojis.
Imagine a vast control room, its walls covered with tiny cubicles, each containing one of the fun figures, just waiting for young Alex to employ them in a text.
In Leondis's world, the emoji industry works 24 hours a day, in shifts, with each figure ready to jump to the screen at a moment's notice.
The work is tedious and allows no change in character: a happy-face emoji must always be happy; same for an angry one.
And if an emoji has more than one personality, it is considered a failure of the system.
Enter Gene (voiced by T.J. Miller), an emoji born without a filter and having multiple expressions.
Frustrated, Gene embarks on an adventurous effort to become "normal" like other emojis, with the help of his friend "Hi-5" -- the "Give me five" hand, voiced by James Corden -- and of hacker Jailbreaker (Ilana Glazer).
The protagonists wander through "the cloud" and pass through various cell-phone applications, like Instagram, Spotify and even Candy Crush, where Gene risks being mistaken for a yellow candy and getting crushed as part of the game.
Other voices are provided by Colombian actress Sofia Vergara, as a flamenco dancer, and Jennifer Coolidge, Maya Rudolph, Jake T. Austin and Patrick Stewart.
Gene, like his father and mother, is supposed to carry on the family tradition by representing the indifferent emoji "Meh."
His family is the supplier of that expression, adding to the pressure on Gene to fall in line.
"He not only feels like an outsider, he feels like a failure," says Miller, who took part in the round-table. His adventure is a "last shot at fitting in."
NO LONGER COOL
The film by Leondis, who also directed "Lilo & Stitch 2," has blockbuster potential, according to specialized website Exhibitor Relations: It predicts $350 million to $400 million in world ticket sales.
The filmmaker explained that the biggest challenge was to create his own design of a cell phone and original emojis not resembling those of any commercial brand. Every illustration was subjected to an almost clinical inspection by the studio's legal department.
The film's writers decided that emojis do not eat or drink. "You're not gonna eat Pizza," quipped Miller. "That's cannibalism."
Their scenes of everyday emoji life are full of humor.
"So, I told management, I can't work like this. These lights, I'm melting in here," says Ice Cream Cookie in a typical office conversation.
Or... "This is such a lot of..." one employee says, before realizing that he is speaking in front of the excrement emoji (Stewart), who tells him dead-seriously, "No, go ahead, finish that sentence."
There is a sort of VIP area where the most popular emojis can gather. A security guard at the door refuses to let Hi-5 enter because he is no longer a member. Alex had traded him in for the clenched fist emoji -- cooler, at the moment, in adolescent eyes.