Jesse Hill tries to keep his emoji use to a minimum in his personal life. "They're pretty ugly," the 34-year-old video producer/cool dad from Austin, Texas said over the phone last week. "We recognize them now so they're important symbols—they're burned into our mind—but I don't think we're going to be using them in ten years." Nonetheless, he's used them to demonstrate his emoji-aptitude when texting with possible clients—like AT&T, which hired him to make a series of festive animated emoji videos last year; or Universal Music Group, who called on him to make an emoji video for Kendrick Lamar's "i."
"That's the video I'm most proud of," he states, claiming that Kendrick's product manager personally requested the video, but ended up shelving it after the song received a mixed reception from fans. Hill believes that it was decided to be "too poppy and too cute" for Kendrick's brand, and he doesn't blame them. "If I had anything to do with Kendrick's branding, I would not want to make an emoji video for him," he says.
Hill quickly became the go-to guy for brands looking for emoji video content after a video he emoji-fied for Beyoncé's "Drunk in Love" went viral. Hill says that project began with a whim that the song could be staged entirely in emoji. To test the theory, he downloaded a set of emoji he found online and animated them where necessary in Final Cut; all in all, it took some six hours of work. The video has since been viewed 1.4 million times, and Queen B herself has shared it. "I made a joke that I would make that video and it would go viral, and the day I put it up it did, so that was affirming for sure," he told us over the phone this week. "The feeling of going viral that quick—I'd never experienced it and I don't think a lot of people do."
And now, he's over it. Below, he talks Beyoncé, the ill-fated Kendrick project, and the future of emoji.
Do you think of yourself as being especially fluent in emoji? I'm probably just as fluent as everybody is. Like a spice, I try not to use too much of it.
Were there any stumbling blocks while emoji-fying "i"? While making the Kendrick video, I definitely thought, "I don't want to use white emojis to represent the voice of Kendrick Lamar." But I failed—I ended up using the white arm. I feel like these emoji videos have helped encourage a conversation about the representation of people of color through emoji—and, you know, there aren't really very many. If I'm going to approach a video, I like having emoji ethics.
Where there any particular lyrics that were tough to crack? There are words in the language that can't be represented by the five hundred characters of emoji that are available. On "i," Kendrick says "I don't mind," which was hard to figure out—but I just ended up using "i", "b," and "cool" emoji to say "I don't mind" and it worked.
Do you think it would be possible to make an emoji-fied video for "The Blacker The Berry"? I should do an emoji video for that song and make it as dark as I can—I think I'm too late, though. He released that song two hours after I released the emoji video for "i" and I was like, "Fuck, I'm not going to get any fucking news about this, all the SEO is going to be geared towards his new song."
How important do you think timing is to the success of these videos? "Drunk In Love" came out three months after the song had been released, which was perfect—at that point, everybody knew the song, so that extra little surge was perfect for Beyoncé. I didn't end up releasing the "i" video until five months after it dropped—and I love that song, but even though it won a Grammy and everything, I'm tired of listening to it at this point.
Have any other artists approached you to create emoji videos? I'm probably ruining my relationship with Universal as we speak, but I did one for Gwen Stefani's "Spark the Fire" that hasn't gone out yet. They provided me the emojis that she uses in her video and had me animate it with them. Truthfully, I don't like the song at all, but it was a package deal with Kendrick, so I did both of them.
Do you have plans for future emoji videos? Companies have approached me to do ads using their new emojis—so I'm that guy now, and I've told everybody that's tried to hire me, "I guarantee you probably have an intern who can do this better than me." Really, I work with six animators who are better than me. I never thought I was going to make a career out of emoji.