Liam Wong is an artist who describes himself as “in-between mediums,” having worked in film, games, and photography. And up until March of this year, that meant working for Ubisoft, helping shape the look of games like Far Cry 4.
But now he’s left the house of Assassin’s Creed and is branching out in various ways — one of them being a book of photography of Tokyo in the evening hours, called TO:KY:OO.
“I never thought about ever going to Japan when I was younger,” Wong says. “I guess ‘cause it felt like such a faraway place.”
It’s apt then, that Wong’s upcoming book presents Tokyo as a blend of nostalgia and distance. Many shots only show subjects in silhouette, with the focus on the city itself. What remains is a series of snapshots of nocturnal Tokyo that is anything but sleepy. Many of the images have a color pop that feels part cyberpunk, and part surreal.
For the past five years, Wong’s interest and experimentation in photography has been growing. It started as a hobby, he says. A way to document his traveling while working at Ubisoft. “I never planned to become a photographer,” he says.
When Wong visited Tokyo for the first time, it was for a press tour promoting Far Cry 4, which released in 2014. He started by capturing shots on his iPhone, before eventually investing in a DSLR (a Canon 5D III) before his second trip there.
The pictures in TO:KY:OO span the course of three years worth of trips to Japan. Wong continued to take pictures on return trips, and started to share them online after friends encouraged him to show his work.
For his photography, he felt he had something to offer when his shift went from capturing shots that are enticing to look at to capturing moments in time. One that comes to his mind is a photo of a taxi driver waiting in the rain for a couple coming out of a love hotel from his second Tokyo trip in December 2015. He says that he just happened to be there at the right moment with the right lens.
“Before, I wouldn’t really be capturing moments,” Wong says. “I study a lot of classic photographers now, where you can really feel there’s a moment there and not just ‘Here’s a picture that looks cool.’”
“A lot of my work just happens to be stuff that does look nice to look at,” he says. “But the moments are the ones that kind of stick out.”
Wong has many influences, from films like Blade Runner and Enter the Void, and anime like Ghost in the Shell and Akira. Video games were also influential. Wong mentions old school titles like Snatcher and how he and his older brother would play games on their Amiga. The brothers were then inspired to make artwork in Deluxe Paint, which is where Wong’s interest in digital art started.
Another inspiration for Wong has been filmmaker Ryuhei Kitamura. Kitamura made one of the first Japanese films Wong ever saw as a teenager, Versus, but also inspired Wong because he has worked in video games as well as film (Kitamura directed cutscenes in Metal Gear Solid: The Twin Snakes). Kitamura discovered Wong through Instagram.
It was Kitamura who introduced Wong to Hideo Kojima — for the second time, it turns out. Kojima is the creator behind the aforementioned Snatcher which inspired Wong at a young age, but is better known for the Metal Gear series.
Wong met Kojima for the first time at an E3 booth promoting Far Cry 4. He says he ended up having to unexpectedly play co-op with Kojima there, fumbling over the controls in what he calls “full panic mode.”
That wouldn’t be his last chance to make an impression on Kojima, though, as Kitamura introduced the two a second time while in Tokyo.
“I think at some point [Kitamura] was like, ‘Oh I’m going to be in Japan. Are you there?’,” Wong says. “And he’s like, ‘Let’s go. Let’s go take pictures’ ... and he said, ‘Can I ask Kojima if he wants to come?’”
Wong photographed both of the artists, and took several shots of Kojima alone, though Wong did not have much experience taking portraits. Kojima later wrote his praise for Wong’s photography, penning a foreword for TO:KY:OO:
“Liam’s ‘photos’ are not just photos. In his ‘photos’, you can feel what cannot be normally seen, layered structures of evolutions and decadence of the cities, the atmosphere of the people who had lived and died there. A single ‘photo’ holds a balanced harmony of beauty and the disordered.”
Since leaving Ubisoft, Wong has been working on multiple projects. In addition to the book, he’s also working on a new game with some friends, though he declines to say much about it at this point. And he plans to continue to work in-between mediums, seeing the benefits of them crossing over with one another.
“I think that [my background in games] comes through in little tricks I do in post that make it feel a bit more surreal,” Wong says. “I play with chromatic aberration, which is very much a triple-A video game thing. I put that a lot in my pictures, just so it gives it this weird look.”
For Wong, taking the leap from a full-time dream job to freelance was an intimidating prospect, he says, but one that he felt he needed to make.
“I think any creative person will always at some point have that courage to kind of want to make something on their own; make something they can put more of themselves into.”
Wong’s book TO:KY:OO is currently crowdfunding on Volume. You can see a series of Wong’s photos relating to the game industry below.