The Emoji Movie director Tony Leondis discusses the film’s inspiration and developing a movie out of the concept of emojis. It was first reported that Sony Pictures Animation was developing a movie based on emojis in 2015, with the studio officially announcing The Emoji Movie in spring 2016. Though many wondered how Sony could develop a film out of the broad concept of emojis, Warner Bros’ 2014 hit, The LEGO Movie, certainly proved Hollywood could take a toy concept and craft an entertaining family adventure movie out of it.

With the release of the first trailer for The Emoji Movie, the film’s premise became clearer to moviegoing audiences. The movie follows Gene (T.J. Miller), an emoji who doesn’t quite fit in because he wants to express more than just the emotion assigned to him. In order to become more “normal”, Gene goes on an adventure with his new friends Hi-5 (James Corden) and Jailbreak (Anna Faris), but he learns a greater lesson about self-acceptance and the power of being different along the way.

Related: The Emoji Movie is ‘An Epic Adventure Film’

Following a presentation of footage from The Emoji Movie, Screen Rant had a chance to interview director Tony Leondis about how he and co-writer Eric Siegel crafted a film all about emojis, where their inspiration for the film came from, and how each of the characters fits into this world.

The Emoji Movie Alex Jake T Austin 1 How Toy Story Inspired The Emoji Movie, According to Tony Leondis

How was it taking a concept like emojis and crafting a story out of it?

So basically, when I was thinking of the new project, I was thinking, ‘God, I love Toy Story. What is the new toy?’ That’s really what I was thinking, ‘What is the new toy out there that hasn’t been explored?’ And I looked down on my phone and someone had sent me an emoji, and I was like, ‘Emojis are the new toys, they’re the toys of the 21st Century.’ Kids use them, parents use them, grandparents use them, and they’re a way for us to express ourselves. So that’s when I thought, ‘Oh my gosh, that’s a world I want to explore.’

So that’s how it happened, I was looking for the new world, and then I thought, ‘OK how do you delve into that world?’ I was wondering, should the emojis maybe come out into our world? And our producer was like, ‘I’m more interested in the world of the phone,’ And that got me thinking, OK the world of the phone. I guess they live in the text app, where else would they live? And the wallpaper is just this amazing road through all of these different worlds and each app became its own world and that’s how it came from there.

And the idea that, what is an emoji? Boy, it’s the same thing every time. Like when you look at the little set, they sit in these little cubes, that’s why it was like, ‘Oh they sit like the Hollywood Squares waiting to be picked.’ And they all do the same thing every time. When you press a smiley face, you better make sure that when you get it and send it to someone it’s a smiley face. So if they were alive, what would that be like to have to smile all the time?

How do you relate to the story of Gene and his journey throughout the movie?

Well for me growing up a gay kid, I always felt kind of other than everyone else and excluded in a way. So the idea of being different in a world that expects you to be one thing. And I realized soon after that, everyone feels different, everyone feels other. We all feel like there’s maybe something wrong with us or we’re different. That’s what we try to find in animated movies, those concepts that everyone can connect to. So for me it was very personal and very broad at the same time, very universal – personal and universal. That’s where it came for me, and the idea of how we all when we grow up different or feeling excluded, is that the path is you start to appreciate your differences and a lot of times it’s because someone else will love you for them or the challenges you go through in life and you start to realize maybe different isn’t bad and hopefully at the end of our journeys we can realize being different and being ourselves, we cherish that part of ourselves, and so that’s the journey that [Gene] goes on.

And Smiler is the antagonist, what was your inspiration for that character?

Well, let’s say L.A. How everyone smiles, but then they’ll cut you – y’know, they smile to your face and then they cut you right in the [back]. Or, I’m a New Yorker, so in New York you don’t have to smile, you just, if you’re going to cut someone, you do it right to their [face]. But yeah the idea of how often antagonists always feel like they’re right and they’re doing good, I love that concept. So Smiler, she’s the first emoji and Maya [Rudolph] just plays it so beautifully. She can play happy on the outside and f-cked up on the inside funnier than anyone and she plays it kinda like a really friendly sorority girl who’s really popular all the time and she’s going to like cut you down. And a lot of times when you are growing up and feeling other, it’s those people, the big popular ones, that are the ones who are the most antagonistic sometimes. So that was the inspiration.

The Emoji Movie Smiler How Toy Story Inspired The Emoji Movie, According to Tony Leondis

Throughout the movie we see Gene form these relationships with Hi-5 and Jailbreak, how are they instrumental to his journey?

Gene is not only going through the journey and he changes, but he’s also the catalyst for Hi-5 and Jailbreak, so in a way they all change each other. So Jailbreak is the first person that likes Gene for who he is… Well, let’s start with Hi-5. Hi-5, who is James Corden, is so brilliant and the improv, he’s just so wonderful. He is someone who just wants fame, all he cares about is fame, he doesn’t want friends, like people on social media today, it’s all about followers, followers, followers. So Hi-5 through his relationship with Gene comes to realize through Gene’s kindness and his open heart – because he’s so expressive – that true friendship is the only thing that matters in this world and it’s not fame. So that’s his journey.

And Jailbreak, there’s a secret that we don’t want to give away, but it’s a lot about a woman’s role in the world and a woman’s place on the phone and how women had very limited options when emojis first came out, for women on the phone and what it must feel like to be a woman with very limited options. And she goes from someone who’s hiding who she [is], down deep she feels like her potential could be, to someone who embraces that as well. In the end, she literally breaks a glass ceiling, metaphorical you’ll see it happen, but she literally breaks a glass ceiling. So it’s through Gene’s openness and love that she’s able to be everything, meet her potential – and [for] Gene, it’s through their friendship that he starts to embrace who he is – and the challenge of the journey, he starts to realize, ‘Oh being different is helping us through this app or it’s letting us achieve this,’ and pretty soon he realizes it’s not a flaw but being different is actually a positive thing.

And Jailbreak, just from the look of her, she obviously doesn’t look any of the standard emojis. Do we find out what her original identity was?

Yes, that’s right. She perhaps – maybe, I don’t know, I’m not going to confirm that. But you’re very perceptive. Yes, it has to do with how women are portrayed on the phone and how you don’t have to be one thing that you’re expected to be and that’s kind of everyone’s journey. It’s a journey of self identity.

The Emoji Movie characters How Toy Story Inspired The Emoji Movie, According to Tony Leondis

So did you feel at all limited by the Apple emojis? Because we keep getting rollouts of new emojis as they go along, did any of those rollouts affect the story?

Well we have about 250 emojis in the movie, so we couldn’t do every emoji anyway. We kind of had to just make our decision on 250 – believe me, 250 is a lot for an animated movie, oh my goodness. So the rollouts didn’t affect us.

So we see the characters venture outside of Textopolis into all these different apps, can you talk a little bit more about these different apps that they go to, Candy Crush, Just Dance?

Yes, they pop into Facebook for a minute and see all the people saying, ‘Look at my baby, look what I ate for lunch,’ which, you know, seems to interest the world, I guess [laughs]. They go into Candy Crush, which is a world of all candy and Gene looks like a little piece of candy. He gets stuck in the game, they have to find a way to get him out of there to continue their journey. Just Dance is the first time emotionally where Gene is actually expressing himself and for the first time, thanks to Jailbreak’s encouragement, expresses all of his emotions into a dance and he just, on the spot, calls it the emoji pop and it stops the whole Just Dance app and he thinks, ‘Oh my gosh, I’m doing it again.’ But instead, they love it and so it’s the first time he’s like, ‘Oh being different is OK.’ So that was all about creating an app that let him go through that journey and start to be OK with himself. So each app really represents a part of his journey.

We go to Spotify where they have to ride a musical stream, that are streaming music, and that’s a little more of a romantic moment. They have to make it to DropBox to get to the Cloud; we have Instagram, where you actually can walk into one of the photos and it becomes a full 3D world. So there’s a scene in Paris where everything is frozen and the characters are by a fountain and the little droplets are frozen in place and it’s just this beautiful little French scene in Instagram… Oh yeah, YouTube where some of the characters are being chased by the antivirus bots and they have to use the video streams to distract them with funny videos and things like that. We have a very funny – have you heard of Pineapple Pen, there’s a very famous video and it’s this very silly thing and it has to do with this character who really looks like he’s expressing himself on the screen and that thematically fits into our journey. DropBox where they take almost like a roller coaster ride through the internet, which gets them to the cloud where they have to face a firewall to get through.

The Emoji Movie Gene Hi 5 How Toy Story Inspired The Emoji Movie, According to Tony Leondis

The production process was very short on The Emoji Movie, and it wasn’t too long ago that you pitched it, did it change at all through the production process?

It didn’t change, it actually didn’t change. I pitched it with Eric Siegel who I co-wrote it with, and Michelle Raimo Kouyate who is our producer, and we started with a very simple narrative which is about a character who thinks he’s broken and wants to fix himself and wants to go on this journey of self-discovery and self-acceptance and the only way we could make it this quickly – and the studio really believed in it and believed in the story. We really worked on, before we pitched it, having a really tight story. So the studio really believed in that story and they let us make and tell that story. Otherwise we couldn’t have done it in two years, and we had to do it in two years because technology’s changing so quickly that we can’t take the usual five, six years on this because who even knows if people are going to like emojis in [six years]. … So with technology, you have to just get that movie out there. Luckily the studio believed in that story and we pretty much stuck to that.

Next: How The Emoji Movie is Like Big Hero 6

The Emoji Movie unlocks the never-before-seen secret world inside your smartphone. 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.

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