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A Survivor Is Born: The New Lara Croft

by Meagan Marie on Dec 09, 2010 at 08:30 AM

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.

Function over Form
Horton: The Big thing for me – and for us – as we were designing Lara was trying to find something that felt both iconic and timeless at the same time. So there was an exhaustive amount of research done in terms of the wardrobe and gear that was decided on, and how we chose to put them on for compositional reasons as well as functional reasons.

We had goals of a realistic proportionality and a realistic wardrobe, and we wanted them to feel more like clothing – not an outfit. There is no such thing as an outfit for us. She is on this expedition and has practical clothing – cargo pants and layered tank tops and boots – because she is in and among a group that share the same values. Lara is beautiful, but she isn’t fashion forward. She does have two little earrings on one side because we wanted to update her in some respects. But she is more about her own internal world. The end result was a look that is both contemporary and timeless. We didn’t want the look to be too trendy or too hip, but she still needed to feel youthful and relevant, with an earthy and vulnerable quality to her on top of having that inner strength.

Horton: Lara’s tank top starts off light grey. In certain light it looks blue, but it’s grey. One of the things we wanted to do was to let it feel blue at times. We wanted to get the feeling that it is fairly neutral, but when you look at it there is that sort of nod to the past, even though it is very contemporary when compared to the past. We wanted to evoke a feeling that the essence of Lara Croft is there when you look at her. There is still a lot of respect and love for Lara Croft as a character, even though we are reinventing her.

Evolving Wardrobe
Horton: The most important thing to me is that we not have wardrobe changes, but rather wardrobe evolution. The cumulative damage and wear and tear on the clothing is where evolution comes through in the outfit. I’m very excited to see that manifest throughout the game. Lara is just surviving from beginning to end. Through her situation her outfit is going to show the accumulation of that survival story. That is going to mean discoloration and rips and tears. That will sort of progress throughout the entire adventure. There will be other gear and items that will accumulate and change her look a bit, too.

A Step too Far
Horton: At one point, since survival is such an important element, we thought about having her bones break and she would be crippled in some way. And while we realized that it would be fantastic from a fiction standpoint, it would hurt us in gameplay. We want her to get damaged, and that is a huge part of how we present the character, but we didn’t want to go so far as to say that she had splints on and things like that. It was just a step too far from the gameplay goals.

Beyond the Superficial
Horton: We spent a lot of time talking about surface qualities and millimeters and proportions. But really what you look at in the game is what Lara does in the world, and I think that is so much more important than those final surface qualities. Our lead animator has done an amazing job making her feel connected to the world, and I think that is the extra ingredient. No matter how you design a character, it is how she acts in the world that makes her believable.

Stewart: You will see that in a lot of the character performances. A lot of thought has been put into what Lara would do in a situation because she is fresh to the situation. For example, when she hears the scavenger for the first time, her natural reaction is to step back and ask “what the hell is that?” But as you progress she becomes stronger and her animations change, as does her character performance. So there are these stages that you have to go through. It isn’t just about being this beautiful girl and running from place to place.

Horton: It’s about how she plays out in this world, and her interplay with other characters. Those interactions are going to be very different from what we’ve seen in past Tomb Raider titles. She isn’t always in charge. She will have these ranges of being the low man on the totem pole in the beginning and then finding her own voice.

Lest Not Forget…
Horton: As far as sex appeal, we are always thinking about making a character that people want to play, and part of that is a level of attractiveness and being drawn to Lara. But we don’t want to play up sexuality for sexualities sake. We are constantly talking about context and motivation on this project. If for any reason we wanted to put her in a situation that would be alluring, it isn’t to be alluring. It would be because the situation called for it. 

Lara is a lover of archeology and she has these book smarts. Her brains are another huge part of her sex appeal. She is an attractive girl who doesn’t play up her looks, but she is super smart and she is very ambitious. 

Ultimately, what I think is going to be compelling about this – and what our version of sexy is – is the toughness through adverse conditions. Seeing her survive through these moments. Her skin is still bare on the arms and there are going to be rips and tears on her clothes, but it won’t be about being revealing. It’s a way of saying that through these tough situations, there is a beauty and vulnerability coming through. I think that is sexy in its own way. There is a different tone we are going for across the board, and Lara Croft as a sex object isn’t our goal. No unlockable bikinis.