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Facebook Taps Pixar Artist for Emoticon Reboot

Facebook turns to Pixar story illustrator Matt Jones to help reinvent the smiley.


Facebook has turned to Pixar story illustrator and former Aardman Animations storyboard artist Matt Jones to help reinvent the smiley, according to a report by Buzzfeed.

"Facebook was canny enough to realize that traditional emoticons are quite bland," Jones said. "At Pixar we consider emotional states every day with every drawing we make. Our work is informed by the years of study we do, constantly studying people's gestures and expressions in real life."

Jones was studying facial expressions for his work on Inside Out, the new film by director Pete Docter (Up, Monsters, Inc.), slated for release on June 19, 2015. Docter had brought in psychologist Paul Ekman, a pioneer in the research of facial expressions, as a consultant on micro-emotions, the small mini expressions that happen between more major ones. At the same time, Ekman's protégé, Dacher Keltner, co-director of University of California-Berkeley's Greater Good Science Program, was starting work with Facebook to improve their emoticons. When Keltner heard about the project at Pixar, he approached the company, which is how he found Jones.

Keltner started off by giving Jones some of the classic universal emotions (anger, disgust, fear, happiness, sadness, and surprise) to translate into emoticon-style drawings. Liking what he saw, he then handed over Charles Darwin's The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals, which explores similarities between human and animal facial movements and is one of the seminal works on the facial emotive expressions.

"I was skeptical when I handed Matt these emotions, like gratitude, relief, awe, and guilt, which no one has studied," says Keltner. But Jones delivered: "He does simple lines for facial muscle movements, and when you look at them, you just say, 'wow,' because there is so much expressiveness."

"If we can crack a universal language, that will be true success," says Jones. "What we need to aim at is instant readability, just like what we do in cartoons."

Jones' favorites are the faces expressing negative emotions, like disgust, since it's a good chance to "draw a gross cartoon character." By contrast, the positive ones, like maternal love, are subtler and hence more difficult. "As long as you have eyebrows, you are safe," he says.

He tried adding noses (for sneering) and shoulders (for shrugging), but they don't quite work on the emoticon scale. Instead of a shrug of the shoulder, he'll use a tilt of the head, a curled bottom lip, or a raised eyebrow.

Right now, Jones is experimenting with colors beyond the default yellow used in most other emoticons. He tried the familiar blue color Facebook uses, but said the emoticons just looked like they had hypothermia. He's experimenting with multiple colors: red for anger, green for envy. "But you don't want to offend anyone," he explains. "Colors will be a racial issue."

Jones is also considering whether emoticons can be three-dimensionally turned to the side, to indicate things like love or devotion. "Holding your head straight forward is an emotional reflex in itself," he points out. "It's quite rigid and I'm trying to break that." He is considering whether the face has to live within the confines of the circle, or if eyebrows can float above, or tears fly out.

As a Pixar artist, Jones is pushing for animation. "I love on Facebook when you hit the 'like' button on your iPhone, and the thumb will kind of pulse a little," he says. "I'm encouraging them to put movement into the emoticons. Hopefully we can evolve them into living little living characters."

Jennifer Wolfe's picture

Jennifer Wolfe is Director of News & Content at Animation World Network.