July 28, 2010

Fans Interview Guardian of Light Artist Kam Yu

LCGOL Senior Artist Kam Yu
LCGOL Senior Artist Kam Yu
Tomb Raider fans have lately been offered the opportunity to question the developers who've worked on Lara Croft and the Guardian of Light lo these many months. Keir Edmonds, Square Enix's Group Community Manager, put out the call on the major TR forums, and the fans responded. Today we feature a Q&A with Crystal Dynamics' Senior Artist Kam Yu.

NightWish (tombraiderforums.com): In what way did you change Lara's look since TRU? Are you responsible only for the infamous thighs

Kam: Actually, we didn't approach this project with the intent of radically changing Lara's appearance. In Underworld, we were able to establish a look that could be used in other games like LC:GOL. However, some degree of optimization needed to be done on the model, the textures and materials. Also, a few improvements, like the thighs, were done to enhance her looks and visibility in the game. Personally, I think the more muscular thighs look better than the skinny ones!

Lara Fan 4Life (tombraiderforums.com): What was the reasoning behind getting rid of Lara's backpack and gloves for GOL, which have appeared in nearly all of Lara's past game models, so why leave them out for the GOL model? 

Kam: This was a really hard decision for us to make. On one hand, the backpack and gloves are an integral part of Lara's image. However, we had to make compromises in order to increase her visibility in the game. Since this game features an isometric, top-down camera, Lara appears much smaller than she does in her main titles. Having a simpler, cleaner outline was essential in this case to make her stand out against the background. But aside from the backpack and gloves, Lara does have all her other accessories that she's come to be known for.

aussie500 (tombraiderforums.com): Lara seems a bit more rounded now; is this an overall attempt at a realistic figure or just our imaginations. The baked-on shading (sorry I have no idea of the technical term, but the painted shading that is there all the time) also adds to the realistic look this seems a new approach to shading, did Square Enix have any influence on using that method? Or is the new shading a natural progression of what was started in TRU.

Kam: Lara, up until now, has been consciously designed to look not quite "real". Even though we've made her rendering appear more realistic with better technology, her proportions and face are based, in part, on precedence set by earlier games. Our goal has been to retain that certain look that has made her famous.

As stated, our technology has been steadily improving since Underworld, which was our first next-gen console game. The ability to use ambient occlusion, normal, specular, blend and decal maps helps push the realism of our characters. In addition, there have been a lot of advances in materials and lighting. We now use rim lighting, subsurface scattering, directional ambient and spherical harmonics to enhance Lara's appearance in the game.

All these improvements were started years ago at Crystal to coincide with the "next gen" consoles.

Altair (tombraiderforums.com): In creating character models, especially Lara's, do you feel as though you are under pressure to create the perfect representation of a character?

Kam: First of all, working on Lara has been one of the highlights of my career! I truly believe she is still one of the most interesting characters in video games today. Moreover, she is one of the most recognizable characters in the industry. Her fans are among the most loyal in gaming (MANY THANKS!). That is why it's also the most nerve wracking thing I've done in my career. There is a constant struggle between the desire to innovate and the need to remain true to the legacy of Lara Croft.

I'm responsible for 3 versions of Lara: Legend, Underworld and LC:GOL. Even though each version may differ slightly, the fundamental thought process has always been the same: Lara is a unique individual, unlike anyone you have ever seen before! We didn't want her to look like just anyone walking down the street (or a runway, for that matter). That's what makes her so compelling!

larafan25 (tombraiderforums.com): Did you greatly increase the LENGTH of Lara's legs in comparison to the rest of her body for Tomb Raider: Underworld?

Kam: Yes, there was a conscious decision during the production of Underworld to increase the length of her legs. We did this for a couple of reasons. First, with the camera always slightly above her, we didn't want her to look short. That's always a danger when it comes to third-person type games. The longer legs also made her appear more graceful when performing her characteristic moves like climbing and jumping.

Zebra (tombraiderforums.com): Do you know why the braid was replaced by a simple ponytail in Tomb Raider: Legend? We did see early trailers and screenshots with Lara having a braid. I think the most popular explanation was that you had problems with the hair physics or something along those lines and that you chose to use a ponytail instead. If that is correct, what's the big difference between the hair physics of a braid and those of a ponytail? If that is incorrect, what was the real reason for getting rid of the braid?

Kam: The question of the ponytail is not an easy one to answer. People probably don't realize how many agonizing hours I've spent trying to decide whether Lara will wear the classic braided ponytail or a straight up non-braided one. Luckily for me, decisions like this are what I'm consumed with every day! While others crunch numbers, I get to decide how high the ponytail rests on the back of her head and how long her hair flows.

What it comes down to is this: Lara's hair is defined by the fact that she is fashionable yet practical. She wears her hair tied back to facilitate her predilection for spelunking (i.e., she an active explorer). Over the years she has been inclined to change it according to her moods. She never follows trends. That's not her way. Her ponytail is a part of her self-expression. That is not to say that one day she won't feel an urge to return to her braided roots (pardon the pun).

Braider (tombraiderforums.com): As LCGol is a new departure from the main franchise, was it neccessary to change the Lara model to improve the overall look of the game as it has a fixed camera view and the characters are smaller on the screen?

Kam: One thing about designing characters for games is that you always have to consider the format in which they will appear. In this case, with a top-down camera, we did have to make a few concessions. As mentioned before, we had to get rid of the backpack and gloves. Memory limitations played a role as well. Her textures and material use had to be scaled back. Her poly count was brought down but she still has a considerable amount (~10k), even compared to other AAA titles.

Mikky (tombraiderforums.com): Does that mean he was the one who decided to bring back the classic colors on her outfit? So, my question is, why did he bring them back? (in GoL)

Kam: I'm a big fan of Lara's classic turquoise color. I think it truly defines her looks so I try to bring it back as often as I can! If I can't use it as a main color I'll use it for accent colors on her outfit.

Billy959 (tombraiderforums.com): Do you listen to what the fan says about how Lara model should look like (like in "how lara should look in the next TR games" thread) or you come up with your own ideas>

Kam: I love looking through the forums to get a feel for what the fans are thinking. After all, what better source of inspiration is there than the people who love Lara the most? I also draw upon as many different resources as possible when designing Lara's looks. I try not to restrict myself to one form of media but also draw influence from comic books and even classic art.

t-raider26 (tombraiderforums.com): Is Lara's model influenced by a specific person or people. For example, I've noticed that in the last 3 games, Lara looks a bit like Angelina Jolie. A lot more than she did in TR1-6. Was that intentional?

Kam: Lara is not really influenced by any single person. She is an amalgam of different people but also hugely influenced by her own history. I study all the work that was done before and draw inspiration from them. In my mind, she is always evolving, but never so radically that people won't recognize her any more. She should always possess that element which makes her instantly recognizable to her fans right away.

There are certain standards for Lara that I try to maintain. For example, Lara stands 5'4". In all three games she was the shortest character. (Toby [Gard, Lara's creator] was really fond of this idea and thought it made her seem more vulnerable and her achievements even more inspiring). There is a certain color palette that she fancies. She never wears pink (in the primary game). She never wears blue jeans (I know she did in pre-Crystal days! :P)

RoombelinaUK (Eidos forums): What do you usually observe, or get inspiration from while creating and going through the process of thought and conceptualization of a Lara Croft model? Are there certain "role models" for Lara's figure? Or are all her body parts her own?

Kam: I always try to design a character with aesthetics and function in mind. Foremost, she has to look good and be alluring to the player. However, she also needs to fulfill certain technical requirements as well. How does she appear in the game? Does the camera make her look short? Do the animations work well with her body structure? For example, her legs are disproportionately long to make her movements more elegant. Also, from the slightly top down perspective, which is how we see her most of the time, they won't look so stumpy.

Max 28 (Eidos forums): What do you think is Lara's most defining feature, appearance-wise?

Kam: This is a great question! I've spent countless hours trying to determine the single most important element in Lara's design. The obvious and crass answer would be her feminine assets but I believe it's more than that. There are plenty of other characters out in the market that have pushed those boundaries far more than we have. Yet, Lara is still in a class all by herself! I think her most defining feature is her uncomplicated design. Lara is an explorer. She's single-minded in that endeavor and her appearance always reinforces that fact. That is something that was successfully conveyed by the people at CORE and that is something that I've tried really hard to continue.

Evan C. (tombraiderforums.com): How does it feel to work designing the most popular female video game on the industry?

Kam: I feel very lucky to have had the opportunity to work on Tomb Raider and Lara Croft. I remember playing TR1 as a kid and thinking it was the most amazing thing I'd ever seen. Having wonderful fans who feel so passionately about the character has also been great!

The Latest Lara Croft
The latest Lara Croft model is both new and nostalgic, thanks to artist Kam Yu. (click for full-size image)

This is Part One of a two-part feature. Part Two, covering Totec, the processes Kam goes through while working at Crystal and more, can be found here.


  1. I see a few familiar screennames here. Max 28: He said your question was GREAT (and it is)! :D

  2. Will Kurtus from angel of darkness ever be brought back and In my opinion Lara should....well not be so small....I liked the older ones better cause they're harder and more chalenging like a game should be....I want Lara to stay just the way she is and...I thought she looked the best in legend

  3. Kam.....I would love it if You could bring Kurtis back in some way....even for just a cutscene.....I miss Lara sooo much...I'm a die hard fan and I've only played angel of darkness,legend,and anniversary....I'd do anything to get all the games..and all I have is this computer and a ps2 slim...I'm getting x box 360 soon....But I miss Lara.....I guess Im just talking here.....sorry

  4. @Ashton: Atlas somebody that understands! I didnt Like what they did with the Ps2 Version of Underworld... Legend and anniversary were fantastic but underworld wasnt. U see Before Underworld was released I fueled my obsession of the game by watching trailers of it. I was soo amazed by the new game! i screamed very loud the day I bought the game for the Ps2.( It's the only console I have 360 and Ps3s are very pricey here in the Philippines and it's hard to find a job for teens here)the minute I played it i found it good but getting realized that it's getting uglier by the minute.I found myself very depressed seeing that the next-gen version of the game being very amazing and what I have is Like a trial version or a cover up. Anywaysss jst talking. Your lucky to be buying a 360 soon and gd luck.