Camilla Luddington is frowning seven different ways. She's an experienced actor, so each frown carries its own nuance and meaning: defiance, confusion, vulnerability, fear.
She's filming in a Los Angeles facial capture studio for her role as Lara Croft in the forthcoming Rise of the Tomb Raider. Since the 2013 Tomb Raider reboot, Luddington has provided the basis for the face and voice of one of video gaming's most recognizable characters.
A few days later, some 350 miles north of L.A. in the offices of Tomb Raider developer Crystal Dynamics, Senior Technical Artist Jon Robins leans into his monitor and carefully studies the Luddington footage.
"Making a human being is the most challenging thing when creating video games."
He notes how light bounces off the ridges on Luddington's forehead, how her eyes move in a slightly different fashion for each frown, how the lines around her eyes transfer to the particulars of her smile, the angle of her cheekbones, the jut of her chin.
He imports the images into facial engine models of Lara Croft. The mesh of her face represents thousand of data points.
Robins manipulates blend shapes in order to tweak Lara Croft's expressions, each designed for a specific moment in the game — for a flash of peril, a quizzical exchange of dialog or an internal moment of self-reflection.
He is tasked with making Lara Croft look as human as possible. She must seem like a real person while also being an action hero. She must convey both power and vulnerability. She must be visually and emotionally appealing to the player. She must seem like the same Lara Croft we have known for two decades.
As Croft shows a variety of on-screen emotions, Robins sits back in his office chair and gazes at her face. He frowns. Something isn't right.
It takes a moment for him to articulate the problem. There's a woman on his screen but she isn't Lara Croft. He's looking at an actor. He's looking at Camilla Luddington.
Lara Croft is gone.
Rise of the Tomb Raider is the first Lara Croft game made specifically for the current console generation. It’s a timed exclusive for Xbox One (and Xbox 360), due out on Nov. 10.
Rise of the Tomb Raider picks up after the events of the 2013 reboot, during which young and inexperienced archaeology graduate Lara Croft struggles to survive on a lost island infested with enemies, secrets and mysteries.
In the new game Croft arrives in wintry Siberia, once again up against determined, well-armed enemies in hostile terrain, all searching for valuable artifacts. Now she is more self-confident, more assured and more certain of her place in the world.
Crystal Dynamics and publisher Microsoft make much of the value of their iconic character, stressing her physical realism in promotional materials. Everyone knows Lara Croft. She is the game’s most marketable asset.
"We all see people every day. We can pick up when something is wrong very quickly."
Lara Croft was the first major female video game protagonist. She remains one of the most recognizable game characters in the world: a smart, ambitious, athletic, attractive young Englishwoman.
Movement has always been a key component of her character, all the way back to her swishing braid in Core Design’s 1996 original. In the intervening years, she has evolved to ever-more detailed polygonal representations and fluidity of movement, up to today’s motion-captured avatar.
So making her look great is taking up a lot of Crystal Dynamics’ attention.
"Making a human being is the most challenging thing when creating video games," says Senior Character Artist Kam Yu. "Technological advances help us get there but it needs a lot of skills.
"To make a believable character you need a good concept, the right model, shaders, animation, performance. It’s a complete package."
The trouble with fake human beings is real human beings. We are very good at spotting the slightest fakery, the merest hint of offness.
"We all see people every day," says Yu. "We can pick up when something is wrong very quickly. When you’re putting together a well-known character like Lara, you have to be aware of every aspect that goes into making her."
Cutscenes and action sequences in carefully choreographed Rise of Tomb Raider demos show that Croft’s creators aspire to intense physical details.
Extreme cold weather pricks Croft’s skin with red patches. Her eyes reflect light convincingly. Her hair moves more like a collection of strands than a set of shapes. Unlike many inferior game characters, her teeth don’t shine luminescent.
When she climbs, the muscles on her back seem connected to one another. Her clothes crease and line according to the shape of her body.
This isn’t mere PR puffery. Lara Croft looks like a genuinely impressive video game avatar. It has clearly taken a great deal of work to get her to this point.
"Her clothes crease and line according to the shape of her body."
Studio scans are the starting point for Crystal Dynamics’ artists. Then they use their artistic skills and a facial technology called Morphology to tweak and twist.
"We take elements of the scans and then we add to them," explains Yu. "When we want a particular shape, we add pose-based deformers. We can sculpt the exact shape we want all over the body: on the knees, shoulders, elbows, the waist.
"In addition to those pose-based deformers, we add wrinkle maps as well. When she bends a joint, we actually see the wrinkles in her shirt change. Or if she bends her arm you’ll see the musculature in her shoulders deform."
Yu’s background is in anatomical art and medical illustrations. Anatomical models and images can be seen around the desks of the art department in Crystal Dynamics’ offices.
"We could never get this level of anatomical correctness in the character before," says Game Director Brian Horton, referring to the consoles and the development technology now available. "The systems just wouldn’t allow for it. Now we have so much more artist control.
"From a technology standpoint, we’ve put a lot of time and energy into the formation of Lara’s character. Not only her face, but her body. We’ve created a whole new animation system that’s based on artist-sculpted shapes, to create a more believable musculature for the face and the body."
The technology used to create humans in games is changing fast. Sometimes, the artists are trying to catch up with the tech and sometimes they find themselves pushing too far.
"[At one point] Lara started to look too much like Camilla," says Chief Technology Officer Gary Snethen. "Things were almost too real. We had to bring her back, to make her a video game character again and give her that iconic look. She started taking on too many human qualities. It kind of took away from her character."
"Our first tests of this yielded great results and brought a lot more to some of the scenes than we thought they would."
When Robins understood that Lara Croft was turning into Camilla Luddington, he and the team-leaders got to work unmaking the current build and restructuring her.
It was, he understood, an issue that had been created by technology and would need to be solved the same way.
"Moving onto a new console and having new blend shape tech, we wanted to rebuild our facial system from the ground up," he explains.
"We looked at as much reference as possible from Camilla and general female facial features in scans and video. We wanted to make Lara as believable as possible and a solid way of doing that is bringing more of our actor to our model so that we could fully convey the emotion Camilla brings.
"Our first tests of this yielded great results and brought a lot more to some of the scenes than we thought they would."
But the art team thought she looked "too real," meaning that she looked like Luddington. This was the point at which they decided to bring back Croft.
Croft is now being made for vastly more powerful consoles than in the past. Her parameters have changed.
"We started doing paint overs on the current poses and animations," Robins explains. "This was a long process as we'd not really seen Lara at this fidelity yet and had to create a canon to work within. After iterating and testing each set of shapes on new base meshes we were able to give Lara her own identity and individual movement while preserving the great performances provided by Camilla."
For artists, there is no more troublesome part of the human anatomy than the eye.
Video games have long suffered from uncanny valley representations of weird-looking people, eyeballs swiveling like marbles in a milky shot glass.
In Rise of the Tomb Raider, Lara Croft is often placed in moments of peril generating scenes during which she needs to look scared, troubled, determined. All good screen actors understand that the trick is in the eyes. Recreating this artistic magic in digital, technological form is extremely tough.
"The eye is a very complex system," says Snethen. "They have refraction and all sorts of internal curvature. You have to get the look of the eye right, the wetness and the micro-details within the eye. The surrounding tissue has to move just so, as the expressions enter the character."
Croft’s eyes in Rise of the Tomb Raider demos aren’t perfect — there are moments when they seem too intense and slightly off — but they are better than those in most other games.
"We create this illusion of the way the light bends and refracts and changes the color of the eye through the shader."
"There’s only one mesh for the eyes," says Yu. "The way it shades, it makes it look like there’s a cornea over her iris. There’s parallaxing. Her eyes look a little bit different depending on where you look at them from."
"When you look at the color of the eye, it bends as you move around it," says Horton. "Even though the mesh is just a simple sphere, we create this illusion of the way the light bends and refracts and changes the color of the eye through the shader.
"The contact point, where the eye meets the bottom of the lid, is the tear line. There’s that extra wetness you get, the layer of tears that keeps the eye moist. Those small details are very important."
"We have specific cinematic eye shaders that we use as well, so we can control the specularity, the direction of the light, the substance of the eyes," says Yu.
A lot of focus has gone into the connectivity of the body and face, the interplay of how one thing connects with another. "We really focused on the connection from the eyes and brows down to the jaw and mouth," says Robins.
"In previous rigs and blend shapes systems we focused too much on isolated movements and not about how each muscle is connected across the face and how some can't move without others."
Lara Croft presents a particular problem for Crystal Dynamics, one that many other highly detailed game protagonists don’t face: she’s young.
Most game leads are men and they are usually past the first flush of youth. They are often grizzled and wartorn. Their faces are naturally lined.
"When we have a grizzled man with a craggy face, deep scars and heavy wrinkles, it’s very easy to express pained emotions. It looks just fine," says Horton.
"A younger woman’s features are softer in general. When you put those harsher emotions on her, it tends to make her look different or strange. What we’re always balancing is making sure the emotional intent from Camilla is coming through, but [making sure that] it doesn’t cross a line where [Croft] looks like she’s aged 15 years or she doesn’t look like herself anymore.
"There’s an acceptable amount of grizzle and grit you can put on a man in his 40s."
"That, I’d say, is the greatest challenge of creating a female protagonist with this range. Their faces are inherently softer. They don’t have the cuts and details you’d see in a man. But we’re still asked to make sure all those emotions come through. It’s creating a more subtle band of wrinkle that still conveys an emotion that’s easier to express on an older male avatar."
Yu says that it’s not about ensuring that Croft merely looks pretty. "Wrinkles and stuff tend to make young people look different and too extreme. On older men you have more latitude for that. On a young woman you don’t have as much latitude for that extreme. It just doesn’t wind up looking good."
"There’s an acceptable amount of grizzle and grit you can put on a man in his 40s," says Horton. "Deep facial lines come across very well on a CG character. You can really push those things and it doesn’t tend to look wrong.
"For a woman in her 20s, everything is much more subtle."
Croft’s story in Rise of the Tomb Raider is about realizing her destiny as an adventurer and an explorer.
"She’s not starting at zero in this game," says Horton. "She’s gained a lot of effectiveness, not only in her ability to traverse through the world and solve puzzles, but also as a combatant. She can hold her own.
"In Rise of the Tomb Raider, we think we’re in a position to show Lara’s strength, not only her smarts, but also her ability to use the world in a smart way and hold her own in a fight."
While the 2013 reboot featured a single crafting resource, Rise of the Tomb Raider tasks Croft with collecting multiple items in order to create and upgrade weapons and ammo. Players can choose to grab guns and use those to defeat enemies, but ammo is limited and guns are noisy. Croft’s collection of bows and arrows can be crafted on the fly.
"When we look at Lara, it’s about her journey and her resourcefulness and her intelligence."
"What I like about the crafting is that it feels like it ties the world together," says Brand Director Rich Briggs. "Lara gathers everything around you and uses it in different ways. It speaks to her resourcefulness and intelligence."
Many resources are gathered by hunting animals. "Players told us that, yeah, there was hunting in the previous game, but it didn’t really have as much gameplay significance."
Fan feedback has also influenced other gameplay changes. There are fewer QuickTime Events than in the last game, something which many players found irritating. In this game. Croft has the option to rely more on traversal and stealth skills than gunplay.
Tombs are much larger than in the last game, with lots of trademark Lara Croft water puzzles as well as search-and-find puzzles.
"She uses her movement to gain the edge on enemies," says Briggs. "Whether it’s traversal, her natural mobility or swimming underwater. She can go up trees as a new tool in combat.
"Using her smarts, crafting ammo types out of the environment to whittle down the enemy one at a time, using the environment against them, that’s a way she succeeds against overwhelming odds. When we look at Lara, it’s about her journey and her resourcefulness and her intelligence."
Part of Jon Robins’ job is to take Camilla Luddington’s performances out of a studio setting and manipulate them so that they fit the moment of being Croft in the game.
He’s a very technical person but he’s also directing a drama.
"It’s not just technical knowledge we need to embrace now. It’s human intent," he says. "Knowing what someone’s about to say based on an expression and how they’re saying it changes the entire implication of the scene.
"We are finding new ways to express that in our game, so we can have a more emotional impact. [Camilla] goes through a broad range of emotions already, but we’re selling her emotions to the player, to connect them to the game more."
"How we deliver Lara is making her feel relatable and human," adds Briggs. "She’s not a tank or an assassin. You always feel the danger. You feel like, is she going to make it? She has skills, but we still want that human element."
"My goal is really to take Camilla’s performance and turn it into something that is believably Lara," says Yu. "That’s a tough thing to do."