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Facebook teams up with a Pixar animator to recreate emoticons

emoticonIt seems since the dawn of the Internet that the emoticon has always been there: Winking, smiling and, in many cases, plain confusing people altogether with its combination of characters that could, conceivably, translate into a face or something only recognizable as an inside joke. Let’s be honest: Emoticons be can somewhat frustrating – an emotional shorthand with good intent just sometimes doesn’t work. It’s no wonder, then, that Facebook is looking for a way to reapproach the idea – and, smartly, it’s doing so with the help of an illustrator who works at Pixar.

The illustrator in question is Matt Jones, whose resume also includes a stint as storyboard artist on the Academy Award-winning Wallace and Gromit cartoons. “Facebook was canny enough to realize that traditional emoticons are quite bland,” he told Buzzfeed of his role in creating the social network’s future emoticons. “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’ stint at Facebook is currently at a freelance capacity, ending our dreams of a meeting between Mark Zuckerberg and Toy Story‘s Woody any time soon. He came to work with the social media giant via Dacher Keltner, who was already working with Facebook to revise emoticons in his role as the co-director of the University of California-Berkely’s Greater Good Science Program. Keltner provided Jones with a copy of Charles Darwin’s “The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals,” which featured photographs and descriptions of human and animal emotion, with Jones tasked to visualize the abstract feelings.

“I was skeptical when I handed Matt these emotions, like gratitude, relief, awe, and guilt, which no one has studied,” Keltner said, but his skepticism was defeated when he saw Jones’ illustrations. “He does simple lines for facial muscle movements,” Keltner continues, “and when you look at them, you just say, ‘wow,’ because there is so much expressiveness [in each drawing.]”

The new characters will be lacking some facial features – noses and shoulders didn’t quite work on the necessary scale, apparently – but will have eyebrows, somewhat surprisingly; Jones credits this choice to his animation background, explaining that “as long as you have eyebrows, you are safe.” They may also be multicolored, another break with tradition, but even that is a fraught decision. “You don’t want to offend anyone. Colors will be a racial issue.”

For now, the characters are still in the development stage, with animation and a sense of space next on the agenda to be worked out. Whether or not Jones and Keltner’s work will recreate the basic form as we know it remains to be seen, but if nothing else, it should offer up an attractive alternative to the traditional winks, smiles, and confused mouths that look like number 3s.

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