Redesigning an icon is an immensely difficult task. IP holders must tread lightly – the considerations of fans and critics alike maintain that every decision will be a precarious one. With Lara Croft’s iconic look so engrained in popular culture, Crystal Dynamics had to meticulously research and iterate upon her physical presentation before a final direction was chosen for the franchise reboot. Its biggest challenge was finding a middle ground between familiarity and freshness, vulnerability and strength, and the all-important trifecta of brains, brawn, and beauty.

On Tuesday we took a look back at how Lara Croft has evolved throughout the ages. Now, Global Brand Director Karl Stewart and Art Director Brian Horton address Crystal Dynamics' rational for the redesign, the iconography of Lara Croft, and how they hope the new look will help once again make her a culturally relevant hero.

The Origin’s Origin
Karl Stewart: This was originally supposed to be a continuation of Underworld. Instead, it became a case of us realizing that it was not the way we needed to go. We had to stop in our tracks and reevaluate everything in order to choose a new direction. The origin story came about through lots of research and deciding how to reposition Lara to get her where she needed to go. A reboot wasn’t at the top of the list to begin with, but it certainly shone through as the direction the franchise needed.

An Issue of Relevance
Brian Horton: We wanted to make a version of Lara that you would recognize as Lara Croft, but that felt relevant to today’s gaming audience. I think people are looking for realism in their games and they want to believe in their characters. We want people to care for Lara at the end of the day. And if they can look at her and go “this is someone that I want to help through this survival journey,” then we have met our goal.

Horton: For me, every character design starts with who that person is and what motivates them. What we chose to do very early on was not to start with the surface qualities and to focus more so on who Lara is as a character. We felt that if we could understand that, then the surface qualities and how the character looked would be derived from that biography. So we knew we wanted to make an origin story. We knew we wanted to make a young Lara Croft, and we wanted her be a blend of someone that has a level of vulnerability and inner strength. She has this aspirational quality. She wants to be someone and to pull away from the perception of who she is because of her legacy of being a Croft. She is her own person and she is trying to make her way in this world. So that was the focus early on – trying to understand who she was inside.

Once we understood that biography, the next step was to make her as believable and relatable as possible. We wanted to make a girl that was somewhat familiar, yet had a special quality about her – something in the way her eyes look and her expression in her face that makes you want to care for her. That was our number one goal when we started thinking about her visualization – that people would have empathy for Lara, while at the same time knowing she has this inner strength that will allow her to become a hero. That was the first order of business.

Horton: What dropped away pretty quickly was the hardness that she had. She is strong and we love Lara Croft for that strength, but she was almost so strong that we were always one step away from her. That was one thing that we all agreed on right away – to try and soften her up enough so that you could step into her life. All of the character design decisions came from trying to make her believable. We didn’t want to make her a sexual object. She is a character that we want you to believe in.

…but Familiar
Horton: A lot of it comes down to study. We spent a lot of time researching actors and people that you look at and say “we like these people,” and you can’t help but want to get to know them. We wanted that mix of someone who is aspirational, but familiar at the same time. We want people to be asking themselves where they know that girl from. Then people will care about her. How we did that is a mix of iteration. We spent a lot of time iterating on Lara.

Iconography of Lara Croft
Horton: We started doing a battery of concepts, beginning with silhouettes. Then we started to build up features and dissect who she was as a character and the things that made her iconic. The things that we absolutely kept were the brown eyes, the signature quality of her lips having that M shape, and the relationship between the eyes and the nose and the mouth. Those were things we knew we wanted to maintain. But we also knew we wanted to bring her into a more believable proportionality and surface quality. That was another big push for us. We wanted to bring her into this world and ground her as much as possible. 

We realized that Lara’s hair was a big part of her visual language – the iconography of Lara croft includes her ponytail. But we also knew we didn’t want to do something like the classic braid. We wanted to have the hair itself tell a bit of the story. So the hair moves and helps to sell the drama. We felt that it was an important aspect to keep because when you are always seeing a character from behind, the hair moving and whipping around in the wind is a very important component. Her hair comes down to about the middle of her back. The idea is to have it at the right length to give it some great secondary motion in action sequences. 

Eyes Up Here
Stewart: We did some initial tests where we brought in the vision for the new Lara Croft, and then we matched it up against the previous iterations. In the tests of the previous iterations it was clearly evident that people moved around the image more to the items and her chest and her waist size. But with the new image, people spent most of the time piercing her eyes. Anybody who has seen the image says “I know that girl.”

A Head Short
Horton: What it came down to is that we wanted to have certain proportionality when we put her next to the men. We wanted a clear size difference. She isn’t going to be as tall as the men around her – about a head shorter. This reinforces the feeling that she’s against all odds. The relative proportion is more important than the actual number [5’ 7”] – making her feel like a scrapper of sorts, even though she will always find a way through her self-determination. She will find a way to survive even if she doesn’t have Amazonian proportions in the game. The emphasis on acrobatics isn’t nearly as important as the fact that she is capable.

Capturing Beauty
Horton: We went through an exhaustive process once we finished the concepts. We came up with the characteristics of a girl that we wanted, and then we did a casting session and cast a couple of models that had different characteristics we liked. The bone structure was important, but we also didn’t want to get a model that was too sculpted. We wanted a little bit of that baby fat – just a little bit of roundness on the face to give her that more youthful look. We full-body scanned both of them to capture those traits before we started our own model.